Harald Penrose was Westland Chief Test Pilot between 1932 and '53. His son, Ian Penrose, recalls his father's role in the first flight over Everest
He’s now chief test pilot at a very, very young age and he had another stroke of luck in that there was a marvellous lady who had already paid for the Schneider trophy races and the Schneider trophy races were not going to be paid for by the British Government. They had much better things to spend their money on so this lady, who was somewhat of a socialite, and who had got all her money through, I think, marrying a succession of frightfully rich husbands, basically said to her personal friends in the government If you don’t pay for this, I’m going to and she did and it was a very, very good thing that she did because the Schneider trophy machine was designed by Mitchell, R J Mitchell, who went on in a fairly short space of time afterwards to do the Spitfire. So good old Lady Houston!
But another thing turned up which was that the Americans were limbering up to fly over Everest and Lady Houston of course again said to her friends in government we simply can’t have the Americans doing it, the Brits must do it. They refused to cough up the money, she paid a cheque for a massive one hundred thousand pounds in 1933, the two machines were built by Westlands and my father tested them over Yeovil and he not only got them to twenty-nine thousand nine hundred and eighty-six feet, he actually pushed one up to thirty-eight thousand feet, and remember they were open aircraft, he was wearing an electric suit to keep warm, and the second one got to thirty seven and a half and the engine conked out. He then had to glide down and it was the longest emergency glide in history. So in two flights, he became the first man to fly higher than the highest point on earth and also to do the longest glide.
Now there were various other things that happened, of course, Westlands were pressing on. I mean aircraft were changing almost by the minute. Pa tested the Pterodactyl, which was a tailless machine, got from Mark 1 to Mark 5. Obviously, there were other machines. There was a thing called a PV 7 which was a fairly spectacular prang for Pa. He effected the first escape from a closed machine in history. He was flying over Martlesham Heath in Suffolk and one of the wings came off and took the tail off and I think he was at fourteen thousand feet. That was his only parachute jump and to show you the extent of damage, the general flack from the aircraft was in a seven-mile radius and the engine and the main fuselage had to be sort of dug out of a huge hole. Dad dined out on that story for years because he said that when he’d finally spilt the wind out of his parachute and he stood up, a very pretty girl leaning over a gate said Are you ok? and poor old Pa’s trousers fell down because he’d ripped all the flies off!
That story changed rapidly depending on the dinner party!