Pilot Profile: Bryn Fussell
PUBLISHED: 10:12 22 June 2017 | UPDATED: 10:12 22 June 2017
The juvenile bad boy from Wales who became an upright citizen, teaching himself to fly along the way…
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 inmates. 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 three-quarters 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.”