Beaufort Test PilotsExtract from "FIRST AT THE WHEEL" by Don Darbyshire
Harold Shelton test flew hundreds of the 1065 Beaufort bombers and Beaufighters made in Australia during WW2. They were produced during a mammoth growth period of Australia's aviation manufacturing industry in which he was very much at the pointy end.
Harold soon found that factory fresh planes could be seriously flawed-an especially dramatic example being a Beaufort with off-the-clock engines when descending from 24,000 feet during high altitude testing. "The elevators assumed an inverted lift section as the plane gathered speed," he recalls. "The controls were locked solid and I could imagine a very large hole in the ground opening straight up in front of me-right through to the other side of the Earth. Three technicians in the cabin section would have joined me in being killed. They had no idea what was happening.
"After reaching an estimated 620 mph I managed to pull the Beaufort out of its dive at 7000 ft. On the way down its airspeed indicator nearly went around twice. All the wing fairings, tail plane fairings, oil cooler cowlings and some engine cowlings were torn off making the aircraft look like a plucked duck. It later had to be virtually rebuilt."
Tall athletic build Harold, for long known to all and sundry as "Slim", clocked up 1244 hours and over 2000 test flights between August 1942 and July 1947 as a civilian test pilot at the Commonwealth Government's Department of Aircraft Production (DAP), Fishermen's Bend, Melbourne. One of the two main DAP Beaufort Division assembly plants was located there, the second being at Mascot, Sydney. When Beaufort and Beaufighter construction ended Harold went on to test fly those that received post-production work, including Beaufort conversions to Beaufreighters-and the first 12 Australian-built Lincoln bombers. He typically flew alone due to dangers involved.
To their considerable credit none of the Beauforts, Beaufighters, Beaufreighters and Lincolns flown by DAP test pilots were lost and none of the pilots was killed.
Test flying, understandably enough, is not for everybody. Test pilots have to be way above average as fliers and they also require very sound supportive technological knowledge to survive. Even though Harold amply satisfied these criteria he was confronted with, as he puts it, "a lot of narrow squeaks." Apart from congratulatory inter-office memos, however, he has never been officially recognised for his exemplary WW2 test flying performance.
Beaufort Test Pilots
Assigned to the Beaufort programme- from left to right;
Test flights often revealed problems that had to be corrected, such as propellers out of balance, hydraulic failures and faulty instruments. On one occasion, ‘Slim’ Shelton reckons that he nearly broke the sound barrier in a Beaufort during a steep dive from 24 000 feet:
"The engines just ran away, the propellers went into fine pitch. You couldn’t believe the noise. It must have been doing about 600 mph (960 km/h). The airspeed clock went around a second time. I managed to pull it out using all my strength at about 7000 feet. When I got down, the engine cowls, the oil cooler fairings, the wing fairings and tailplane fairings had all torn off. It looked like a plucked duck!"