Pi­lot Pro­file

The ju­ve­nile bad boy from Wales who be­came an up­right cit­i­zen, teach­ing him­self to fly along the way…

Pilot - - CONTENTS - Words Pat Malone

Af­ter a shaky start in life, avi­a­tion proved the mak­ing of vet­eran Welsh mi­cro­light pi­lot Bryn Fus­sell

Bryn Fus­sell has been a fix­ture around the gen­eral avi­a­tion air­fields of South Wales for four decades, go­ing about in his mi­cro­lights, work­ing on en­gi­neer­ing in­spec­tions for the Bri­tish Mi­cro­light Air­craft As­so­ci­a­tion, and mak­ing for con­ge­nial com­pany in the bar of the Cam­brian Fly­ing Club in Swansea. A gen­tle­man of ma­ture years, he lives a quiet life, de­voted to his fam­ily, his faith, and his fly­ing. Few peo­ple, even those close to him, re­alise that in by­gone days Bryn Fus­sell was the most fa­mous pi­lot in the world, the toast of news­pa­pers from New York to New Zealand, a man fêted on six con­ti­nents for his su­perb fly­ing skill and his dar­ing.

The news­pa­pers told it this way: an in­cor­ri­gi­ble crim­i­nal, Bryn­ley Fus­sell, 19-years-old, had bro­ken out of Borstal (for the ninth time), stolen an air­craft and with­out ben­e­fit of lessons flown it to France, tak­ing off at night and land­ing four times along the way. Armed only with knowl­edge

gleaned from books and mag­a­zines, Fus­sell had ‘bor­rowed’ – his word – not just any aero­plane but an Auster, a tricky tail­drag­ger with char­ac­ter­is­tics that might be deemed un­de­sir­able for the first-time flier. And had he not dinged the prop on his fourth land­ing, he might have got clean away.

Un­com­monly for news­pa­pers of that or any other time, most of the story was ab­so­lutely true. Fus­sell’s name was on ev­ery lip; he was a hero to some, a vil­lain to oth­ers. Ques­tions were asked in the House of Com­mons: surely a boy with such spirit should be chan­nelled into the RAF and sent to fight in Korea? But when Fus­sell was thrown back into jail and news­pa­per in­ter­est waned, it was not the end of the story, but the be­gin­ning. The af­ter­math of the flight led Bryn Fus­sell onto the path of re­demp­tion, and a youth who was on a sure­fire track to ever­last­ing damna­tion was trans­formed into an up­right cit­i­zen who has not com­mit­ted a crime since 1950.

It says some­thing about the man that Peter and Stephen Kim­bell, sons of Es­mond Kim­bell, whose air­craft Bryn stole, were not only pre­pared to shake him by the hand, but were proud to do so. Stephen and Peter flew from Sy­well to Swansea in a Robin­son R44 to hear Bryn tell his tale first-hand. “It’s a very mov­ing story, in which fly­ing played a big part in sav­ing him, re­ally,” Stephen says. “He was dealt a bad hand, and as a boy he didn’t play it well, but when you look at what he’s achieved you have to say he’s a man in a mil­lion.”

Bryn Fus­sell was born in 1931. His fa­ther was a coal hewer who got war work− as did his mother− at the mas­sive Brid­gend mu­ni­tions fac­tory, and lit­tle Bryn was of­ten left to his own de­vices. Ill-ad­vis­edly he chose a haystack for an early ex­per­i­ment with smok­ing; charged with ar­son and ter­ri­fied of the con­se­quences he fled on a neigh­bour’s bi­cy­cle. He didn’t get far.

Sent to a re­mand home in Aber­dare, Bryn was put to work “dig­ging for vic­tory” and dug up a ring in a veg­etable patch. A fel­low in­mate to whom he’d re­fused to give the ring falsely ac­cused Bryn of plan­ning to es­cape, and he was marched to the head­mas­ter’s of­fice. “I was told to strip naked, then he pro­duced a long cane and told me to put my hands above my head and jump up and down on the spot,” Bryn says. “Ev­ery time I flagged he gave me a smack across the but­tocks with the cane un­til even­tu­ally I col­lapsed in ex­haus­tion. ‘Now think twice be­fore run­ning away’, he said. But it made me even more de­ter­mined to get away from what was a sadis­tic hell-hole.” Bryn was ten years old.

“I was sent to an ap­proved school near Barry called Bryn-y Don,” he says. “I was one of the small­est and most vul­ner­a­ble boys there, and I was sys­tem­at­i­cally raped by the older boys. When I com­plained to a mas­ter I was ac­cused of mak­ing it up to cause trou­ble.” The youth cus­tody sys­tem was a haven of bul­lies and psy­chopaths, and Bryn was al­most killed when he was strung up by the neck with a towel; the hook broke be­fore he passed out. “I de­cided there was noth­ing for it but to run away− where to, I don’t know, but any­where was bet­ter than this. So in the mid­dle of the night I squeezed out of the dor­mi­tory win­dow three storeys up and climbed down a drain­pipe and got away.”

Thus be­gan a ca­reer of mul­ti­ple es­capes from ap­proved schools and later, Borstals. In wartime it was im­pos­si­ble to get food with­out a ra­tion card, so when beg­ging failed, break-ins were the only op­tion. He had an amor­phous no­tion of stow­ing away on a ship that would take him to a new coun­try where he could start again, and sev­eral times he was dis­cov­ered hid­ing aboard boats. Al­most ev­ery time he was re­turned to the care of the au­thor­i­ties his sen­tence was ex­tended as pun­ish­ment for es­cap­ing. The more it looked like he’d never get out, the greater his urge to get away.

Af­ter es­cap­ing from New­ton-le-wil­lows ap­proved school on Mersey­side and hid­ing for four days with­out food, he broke into a bak­ery and stole a tin of bis­cuits which he found to con­tain £600−a mas­sive sum in those days (the air­craft he even­tu­ally flew to France was said to be worth the same amount). He checked in to a guest­house in Birken­head, but they were sus­pi­cious and called the po­lice, who ar­rested Bryn and took the bis­cuit tin. When it was pro­duced in ev­i­dence it con­tained only £30, and po­lice claimed Bryn had spent the rest. “They also asked the court to take 22 other of­fences into con­sid­er­a­tion, and no­body cared that it was phys­i­cally im­pos­si­ble for me ei­ther to have spent the money or com­mit­ted the of­fences,” Bryn says. “But it cleared up all their un­solved cases.”

Two es­capes later he was trans­ferred to Mor­peth ap­proved school in Northum­ber­land, from which he es­caped in a car in which some­one had left the keys. De­spite never hav­ing driven be­fore he drove to Lon­don through the worst of the fa­bled 1947 win­ter weather. There he was ar­rested, and as a six­teen-year-old was sent to Borstal on the Isle of Wight, where there was a dif­fer­ent or­der of even big­ger, even more psy­cho­pathic in­mate. On his third es­cape from there, he was ar­rested af­ter row­ing across the So­lent to Southamp­ton and sent to Rochester Borstal in Kent, and on his first es­cape from Rochester he made his way back to the Isle of Wight, think­ing it was the last place they’d look for him.

Be­ing in funds− he had 77 pre­vi­ous con­vic­tions at this point− he de­cided to ful­fill a life­long am­bi­tion and blew thirty shillings (£1.50) on a half-hour trial les­son in a Tiger Moth at Bem­bridge. Air­craft had be­come a pas­sion. Aero­planes seemed to of­fer routes to far­away free­dom, and in the ap­proved schools Bryn had soaked up ev­ery avi­a­tion mag­a­zine, ev­ery news­pa­per ar­ti­cle about air­craft− how they worked, and how you flew them. One mag­a­zine, The Aero­plane,

had run a se­ries on air­craft types, with full de­scrip­tions of how you flew them. Bryn was par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in the Auster Au­to­crat, which seemed to be the sim­plest to op­er­ate, and had mem­o­rised ev­ery word.

Now, for the first time, he got his hands on an aero­plane. “It struck me that it wasn’t as com­pli­cated or as hard as they made it seem,” he says. “Of course he didn’t give me the take­off and land­ing but I could feel what the feller was do­ing and it was just what I ex­pected.”

While at the airfield Bryn had seen an Auster, and rea­soned that if he ‘bor­rowed’ it he might get to Ire­land, there to start his new life. So next day he did ex­actly that. This flight was ar­guably more of a feat than the French trip. The Auster has a rep­u­ta­tion for squir­relly be­hav­iour on take­off and is unforgivin­g of poor han­dling on land­ing, es­pe­cially at low weights, when it tends to float. But Bryn had three things go­ing for him. Firstly, he had stud­ied the art of fly­ing in­ten­sively and un­der­stood the the­ory. Se­condly, he has an un­canny feel for ma­chines of all sorts−he was born with a bit of the Right Stuff in his DNA. Thirdly and per­haps most im­por­tantly, he didn’t give a mon­key’s whether he lived or died – his life was so hellish that, ei­ther way, he wasn’t fussy.

Bryn says: “I set the throt­tle a quar­ter open and hand-swung the prop as de­scribed in the ar­ti­cle. The en­gine caught and I jumped in. I knew I had to warm the en­gine up first so I tax­ied slowly out and pointed it into wind. I went through the pre-flight check I’d read up about in the mag­a­zine− TTMFF, which meant throt­tle, fric­tion wheel tight, trim neu­tral, mix­ture rich, fuel on, flaps take­off po­si­tion. Then I went for it.

“I’d read about the ten­dency to swing− you put left rud­der in as you opened the throt­tle to stop the swing, and they said it would swing even more when the tail came off. But in the event, I just re­sponded with op­po­site rud­der when­ever the nose swung, and I was off the ground in no time.”

Bryn knew Ire­land was to the west but had a hazy idea of how far it was, and he had just crossed the Sev­ern when he re­alised the fuel gauge was not in his favour. He chose a field and made an ap­proach as per The Aero­plane’s in­struc­tions. “Full flap over the fence and I was on the ground be­fore I knew it,” he says. He was picked up by po­lice soon af­ter­wards and, with three more years added to his sen­tence, was re­turned to Rochester.

More es­capes, more ex­ten­sions of sen­tence, un­til Novem­ber 1950 found him stum­bling through the Northamp­ton­shire coun­try­side like a pris­oner of war in en­emy ter­ri­tory, when he came across an RAF base. “There were Mos­qui­tos there, and I man­aged to hide down the back of a Lib­er­a­tor to get some shel­ter. Next thing I knew there was a crew climb­ing on board. ‘Where did you come from?’ they said. They tax­ied to the Tower and I was handed over to the po­lice, but man­aged to bolt out­side the gates and gave them the slip. Af­ter dark I got to an­other aero­drome and it was Sy­well. I opened the doors of a hangar, and there was an Auster J1.”

This was G-AHHP, owned by civil en­gi­neer Es­mond Kim­bell, who used it, among other things, to de­liver the wages to his work­force on re­mote sites, land­ing in fields nearby−or, if there was nowhere to land, he’d drop the money in a bag. Care­free times. “I wheeled it out,” says Bryn, “broke the lock on the fuel pump and filled the fuel tank. I was aware of some­one ap­proach­ing with a torch so I lay down in some long grass. It was a night watch­man on his rounds, and I thought he might have seen me and gone for help. It was two o’clock in the morn­ing, the moon was about three­quar­ters full, and I had noth­ing to lose. I primed the en­gine and swung the prop, strapped my­self in and tax­ied out in the dark.

“To say the least I was a lit­tle ap­pre­hen­sive. There were no lights to see the in­stru­ments by. I opened the throt­tle gin­gerly and the air­craft started to move and to swing a lit­tle, so I coun­tered the swing with a bit of rud­der. Then I opened the throt­tle com­pletely, moved the stick for­ward slowly, brought it back as the tail came up and kept the air­craft level un­til all con­trols felt quite firm. I eased the stick back and I sensed the air­craft leav­ing the ground. I couldn’t see the hori­zon, so when I felt the con­trols go­ing quite slack I re­alised that the speed was too low. I eased the stick for­ward and felt the con­trols be­com­ing firm again. So I pro­ceeded for a while like a roller-coaster un­til my con­fi­dence be­gan to grow.

“I flew to­wards the moon, which was in the south, for about ten min­utes then I de­cided that it might be pru­dent to make a land­ing be­fore I could not see any­thing. I saw what looked like a large field, cir­cled around and went to ap­proach it, but I lost sight of it. I flew a lit­tle fur­ther un­til I saw an­other field. This time I kept my eye on it and came in to land. I was sud­denly aware of hedgerows in my pe­riph­eral vi­sion. With the throt­tle closed I eased the stick back. The touch­down was quite gen­tle ex­cept for a con­tin­u­ous bang­ing from the rear wheel which I could not un­der­stand. I stopped the en­gine and rolled to a halt.

“I tried to get some sleep and wait for the dawn. When I woke it was get­ting light. I started the en­gine again and slowly tax­ied back to the end of the field. I found out what had caused the bang­ing on the tail­wheel the pre­vi­ous night−the field was ridged, and land­ing across them caused the wheel to strike each one.”

Bryn had landed at Chase Park Farm near Yard­ley Hast­ings, eight miles from Sy­well. It was recorded that when he took off at first light, his track passed within two yards of a stone drink­ing trough. “I was able to see the in­stru­ments now,” says Bryn. “I flew south

for a while but I had no idea where I was, so when I spot­ted a road with a lorry parked on it I landed in a field next to it and asked the driver where was the near­est town. ‘Lon­don,’ he said, and pointed down the road. ‘This is Watling Street.’ I took off once more and headed south at 3,000 feet. Sud­denly I saw an airfield be­low me with Yorks, Lan­cas­tri­ans and a Con­nie− Heathrow, in its in­fancy. I flew on un­til I came to Beachy Head. I knew there was radar over the Chan­nel so I flew down to about thirty feet over the water and re­duced my speed to sixty knots. There was a fairly strong head­wind, so my ground speed was a good deal less.

“Af­ter I crossed the French coast I landed in a field and asked some farm work­ers for di­rec­tions but they spoke no English. I showed them a map I’d taken out of the back of a diary and they pointed to­wards Dieppe. I took off again and flew for half an hour when I felt the need to re­lieve my­self, so I se­lected a large field and landed with no prob­lem. I turned to get back to the plane and was sur­prised to see a farmer, his wife and two daugh­ters watch­ing me. They tried to talk to me but I could not un­der­stand. The wife pointed to her mouth and said, ‘Vous mangez?’ They took me to the farm­house and gave me hot veg­etable soup and bread. I of­fered them the only money I had, which was half a crown, but they re­fused it. I thanked them as best I could and went back to the plane, restarted the en­gine and took off again head­ing south. “I soon re­alised I was nearly out of petrol, and landed near a vil­lage called Vendôme, not far from Or­léans. The ground was rough and I dinged the prop. I man­aged to get a lift in a van to Or­léans−i made up a tale that I was go­ing to find my ship, which I had missed at Cher­bourg and I was hop­ing to re­join at Mar­seilles. But the driver must have heard the news on the ra­dio−he put me up for the night, and in the morn­ing the po­lice came and ar­rested me.”

Po­lice recorded that his be­long­ings amounted to two shillings and ninepence ha’penny (13p) and a dog-eared cut­ting of a Pa­tience Strong poem which read: ‘When si­lence is best, be silent, and speak no dar­ing word; When com­fort and cheer are needed, let kindly things be heard; When help is re­quired, be ready to work with will­ing hands; Pre­pared to do with plea­sure what­ever love de­mands.’

News of Bryn’s flight flashed around the world. The French weren’t sure whether they were deal­ing with a crim­i­nal or a hero. He’d com­mit­ted no of­fence in France−he’d sim­ply been fly­ing through and had run out of fuel… why not let him go? But he was held pend­ing ex­tra­di­tion, and while in jail he re­ceived vis­its from a host of in­ter­ested peo­ple, in­clud­ing a full-blown Mar­quis and the Aus­tralian Am­bas­sador. Es­mond Kim­bell, who’d had to travel to France with a new pro­pel­ler to fix his plane be­fore fly­ing it home, was im­pressed enough to of­fer Bryn some fly­ing when he got out−an of­fer Bryn de­clined on the grounds that “pinch­ing some­body’s aero­plane then com­ing back for more doesn’t seem quite right to me”. In the House of Com­mons the fa­mous MP Sir Ian Fraser, blind since the Bat­tle of the Somme, spoke up for Bryn­ley Fus­sell, say­ing: “As this boy will have had four months in prison, would it not be a good idea to let him go free when he comes back, and pos­si­bly en­list him in the Air Force?”

Bryn re­ceived hun­dreds of let­ters from all over the world, and among them was one that changed his life. It was from avi­a­tion writer Ge­of­frey Dor­man, and it con­tained a copy of his book, Bri­tish Test Pilots. Dor­man wrote: ‘If you will only learn to be truly hon­est and ut­terly trust­wor­thy, you have it in you to be like one of the men in this book. If you would like me to help you, let me know and I will see what I can do.’ “It was the first time in my life any­one had ever of­fered to help me,” Bryn says.

Back in Bri­tain he was sen­tenced to a fur­ther 21 months, but in Bed­ford jail he be­came a co-op­er­a­tive pris­oner. He signed up for lessons in math­e­mat­ics and ge­om­e­try, and he cor­re­sponded with Dor­man. He was re­leased af­ter four­teen months of un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally good be­hav­iour. True to his word, Dor­man took him to meet the leg­endary en­gi­neer Sir Stan­ley Hooker at the Bris­tol Aero­plane Com­pany. Dr Hooker gave Bryn a job in the en­gine test depart­ment, where he learned the ropes dur­ing tests on the Pro­teus 3 en­gine for the Bri­tan­nia. Af­ter a year he was trans­ferred to de­vel­op­ment in­stal­la­tion and be­gan fly­ing on flight tests as a pas­sen­ger. As part of the Bris­tol team,

he at­tended Farn­bor­ough 1952 and wit­nessed the DH110 crash that killed John Derry and thirty oth­ers. “I vowed that day I’d have noth­ing more to do with avi­a­tion,” Bryn says. “But here I am, still at it.”

A bro­ken heart− his first girl­friend’s fa­ther had said ‘No girl of mine is go­ing out with a crim­i­nal’− and the fact that he was find­ing it hard to break out of the in­sti­tu­tion­alised mind­set that had been im­posed upon him for more than half his life, led him to leave Bris­tol’s and take a job as a trainee skip­per on the Port Tal­bot pi­lot cut­ter.

This is an avi­a­tion mag­a­zine so we can’t dwell too much on de­tails of Bryn’s sub­se­quent ca­reer, beyond say­ing that he took a job as a ju­nior tech­ni­cian in the me­tal­lurgy depart­ment of Swansea Univer­sity, where his ex­tra­or­di­nary ‘ma­chine whis­perer’ tal­ents were recog­nised− he stripped and re­built an elec­tron mi­cro­scope that no­body else could in­duce to work prop­erly− and he was later taken on by Im­pe­rial Col­lege, Lon­don, where he was in charge of two lab­o­ra­to­ries work­ing on solid state physics and elec­tron dif­frac­tion of crys­tal struc­tures. He worked for Stan­dard Tele­phones and Ca­bles pro­duc­ing high-power tele­vi­sion trans­mit­ter valves be­fore mov­ing back to Wales as a mass spec­trom­e­ter op­er­a­tor at Swansea Univer­sity.

Dur­ing his 22 years in charge, Swansea was made a Cen­tre of Ex­cel­lence for mass spec­trom­e­try and be­came known as one of the world’s most ad­vanced cen­tres for the tech­nique. Un­able to run the cen­tre as a tech­ni­cian, Bryn was given the aca­dem­i­cally-re­lated post of Ex­per­i­men­tal Of­fi­cer to sat­isfy the re­quire­ments of the Sci­ence and En­gi­neer­ing Re­search Coun­cil, for which he was re­quired to pass an English Lan­guage O level− the only qual­i­fi­ca­tion he ever got. His abil­ity to con­jure data out of re­cal­ci­trant equip­ment earned lu­cra­tive re­search grants for Swansea, and he re­tired from academe a re­spected and up­right cit­i­zen.

Not in­ci­den­tally, he found the Bahá’í faith, mar­ried, set­tled down and had a fam­ily. He be­came a keen sailor, a qual­i­fied Off­shore Yacht­mas­ter with a com­mer­cial rat­ing− and of course, avi­a­tion came back into his life. He joined the Bri­tish Mi­cro­light Air­craft As­so­ci­a­tion and in 1981 he went to Haver­ford­west for a les­son on a flexwing Ea­gle 215B. He be­came an In­spec­tor and Check Pi­lot and was sec­onded to the Ir­ish Avi­a­tion Author­ity to in­spect Ir­ish-reg­is­tered mi­cro­lights; he ini­ti­ated the for­ma­tion of an In­spec­torate for the Na­tional Mi­cro­light As­so­ci­a­tion of Ire­land. He has owned an Amer­i­can Aero­lights Ea­gle and a Vec­tor 627, and he qual­i­fied as a pi­lot of­fi­cially when leg­is­la­tion was in­tro­duced in the 1980s that re­quired peo­ple to do so, pass­ing his GFT in 1988, al­most forty years af­ter his first solo.

At the mo­ment he’s med­i­cally grounded, but he looks back on his 86 years with a de­gree of ac­cep­tance and even sat­is­fac­tion. “I don’t re­ally have any re­grets. My life cov­ered a wide spec­trum from the sub­lime to the ridicu­lous, ex­treme de­spair to great hap­pi­ness and con­tent­ment, hate and love, a truly ex­treme learn­ing cy­cle. Look­ing back, I wouldn’t change it− its ex­tremes have en­riched my life, and made me thank­ful for what I have, and what I am.”

Left: How the Daily Mir­ror re­ported the es­capade in the days be­fore Bryn was iden­ti­fied as the cul­pritRight: As ex­tra­di­tion pre­ceed­ings be­gin, Bryn is named in the Daily Graphic. French cov­er­age in­cludes a po­lice pho­to­graph of the dar­ing, nine­teen-year-old

Bryn at Cam­brian Fly­ing Club with a se­lec­tion of news­pa­per cut­tings of his ex­ploit: this scrap-book was found by Stephen Kim­bell af­ter his fa­ther died eight years ago at the age of 100

Peter Kim­bell (left) shakes hands with Bryn Fus­sell at Swansea Air­port, with Stephen Kim­bell at right. Peter was eight years old and at board­ing school when Bryn stole his fa­ther’s aero­plane; he didn’t know about the drama un­til he came home for the Christ­mas hol­i­days in 1950, but it be­came a fam­ily le­gend. Stephen was not yet born

The Auster at Sy­well at around the time of the theft

This cut­ting shows Es­mond Kim­bell col­lect­ing his aero­plane: he is hold­ing the dam­aged prop, hav­ing changed it for a new one. Imag­ine turn­ing up in France, slip­ping on a new prop and fly­ing away today!

This Kim­bell fam­ily al­bum photo shows Es­mond Kim­bell with friends af­ter the re­turn of his air­craft to Eng­land that’s him in the cen­tre

Bryn fly­ing his Vec­tor 627, in the mid-1980s Bryn with his wife Jan

Bryn tak­ing off in an Ea­gle flexwing in the early 1980s

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