Percival P-6 Mew Gull G-AEXF

In all, six Percival P6 Mew Gull aircraft were produced. Of these, only one - G-AEXF - survives, and that has been rebuilt twice - once in 1978 to it's original factory specifications, and more recently, to its Cape Records configuration.

The original Mew Gull was the first civil aircraft to exceed a speed of 200 miles per hour. Later versions introduced steady improvements, and the fastest speed recorded by G-AEXF in its 1938 Kings Cup configuration was in excess of 270 mph. At sea level, it was faster than a Hawker Hurricane.

One of the entrants in the 1936 Schlesinger Race from Portsmouth to Johannesburg was Major Allister Miller, regarded by many as the father of civil aviation in South Africa. Major Miller was unfortunately forced to abandon the race in Belgrade, and his aircraft, a Mew Gull named The Golden City and having the registration ZS-AHM, was returned to England where it was subsequently bought by Bill Humble. Humble was however about to get married, and soon had second thoughts - under the circumstances - regarding the suitability of the aircraft. He therefore accepted an offer to swap it for a Leopard Moth owned by Alex Henshaw, and the Mew Gull was re-registered in Henshaw's name as G-AEXF. Thus, XF had a close association with South Africa even before the flight which made it famous.

The aircraft underwent considerable modification for the King's Cup race of 1938, which Alex Henshaw won at a record speed of 236.25 mph.

Following this success, XF was further modified for the Cape Records flight. These modifications included such things as increased fuel capacity (87 imperial gallons), modified instrumentation, and a retractable navigation light mounted just behind the cockpit canopy. The ARB were unwilling to issue a certificate of airworthiness before a second navigation light was fitted underneath the aircraft. Henshaw pointed out that since he would be the only person flying at night over Central Africa, this would serve no purpose other than to slow the aircraft down by several miles per hour, and the issue was not raised again.

Essex Aero

Alex Henshaw, Jack Cross and restored Mew Gull, 1978 (From The Flight of the Mew Gull)

Much of the customization for both for the 1938 King's Cup and for the Cape Records attempt was carried out by a small aero engineering company Essex Aero Ltd, based at Gravesend, London and run by Jack Cross. Alex Henshaw gives Cross much of the credit for the outstanding performance and reliability displayed by the Mew Gull in such diversely demanding roles as King's Cup racer and Cape Records challenger. Jack Cross was also involved in the 1978 restoration of G-AEXF to her factory configuration.

Panel and Instrumentation

Instrumentation was extensively modified for the Cape Records attempt. There was no turn-and-bank indicator, but instead a very stable gyro compass, which Alex Henshaw regards as critical to the success of the flight. The was also a large Huson P5 magnetic compass mounted on a bracket just in front of the pilot, and a chronometer with three stopwatches for dead reckoning.

Alex Henshaw taxiing the Mew Gull

The Mew Gull was not an ideal aircraft for a long-distance record flight. The cockpit was extremely cramped, being only about two feet wide, and just high enough to clear the pilot's head. Additional fuel tanks were fitted to extend the range to over 1200 miles, and these when full, shifted the centre of gravity so far back that a special certificate of airworthiness had to be issued, which lapsed upon completion of the flight. The view forward was so poor on the ground that Henshaw devised a system of taxiing which involved walking beside the aircraft with the canopy open and his hand on the throttle! This feature almost certainly contributed to the tragic death of Campbell Black, who was killed when his Mew Gull was involved in a collision with a Hawker Hart while taxiing on the ground.

The Mew Gull panel today. Note that the turn and bank indicator was not present in the original Cape Records configuration, nor was the panel-mounted magnetic compass, which replaces the original gyro compass. Note also the Huson P5 magnetic compass mounted on a bracket attached to the right hand side of the cockpit.

Restoration of the Mew Gull

G-AEXF was sold in 1939. After the war, Hugh Scrope brought it back to England from France where it had spent the war years, and with the assistance of Doug Bianci, made valiant efforts to keep the aircraft operational. Unfortunately it was damaged during an accident while landing, and was then acquired by Fred Dunkerly. Subsequent modifications - carried out with the intention of improving forward visibility - were inappropriate and disfiguring. Nevertheless, XF won the 1953 King's Cup - albeit at a speed of 213.5 mph - 23 mph slower than in 1938.

In 1975 XF was acquired by Desmond Penrose, who restored it to its original factory specifications. This process was completed in 1978. Subsequently the aircraft was again seriously damaged in a crash, but was once more restored - this time to its Cape Records configuration. In 1996 it was placed - in full flying condition - in the care of the Shuttleworth Collection, where it remains preserved as part of Britain's aeronautical heritage.