By Hazel Blears MP
When my colleague and friend Julian Lewis asked me to review his book about the life and achievements of a young, heroic World War I flying ace who went on to challenge the World Air Speed Record in the 1920s, I didn't think it would necessarily be my cup of tea.
However, having attended the book launch in the company of Admirals, RAF commanders, generals politicians and not-so-ordinary Servicemen and women, I was intrigued to find out what kind of man 'Kink' Kinkead was to have engendered such admiration. I was not disappointed. Julian's book is a sensitive portrait, backed up by meticulous research, which not only tells the human story of Kink's life and his too early tragic death, but sets it within the political and military context of the time.
Julian’s own deep understanding of the interplay of politics and defence matters, together with his unswerving regard for the facts, gives the story veracity and power and takes it from a simple tale of courage and daring to one which illustrates and illuminates the tensions of the time.
Kink’s story takes us from his early life with his pioneer parents in South Africa, where his mother Helen was “a formidable character who kept a gun hidden in her skirts to protect her family”, to his enlistment with the Royal Naval Air Service in 1916 and his adventures over the next action-packed 12 years to his untimely death at the tragically early age of 31 in search of the World Air Speed Record.
We travel the world with Kink from his early flying experience in a Bristol Scout in the Dardanelles (I now know far more about early aeroplanes than I ever thought I would!) through his amazing achievements on the Western Front where he was decorated for gallantry four times and scored at least 30 victories in the air. Then on to his ill-fated expedition to Russia in support of the White Cossacks' fight against the Communists and finally to his more glamorous adventures in the Schneider Trophy race in Venice and his unsuccessful and ultimately fatal attempt on the World Speed Record at Calshot.
Throughout his hectic life Kink came across always as modest and self-reliant, a man of independent thought and action who carried his achievements lightly and earned the admiration of his peers (dare I say not dissimilar to Julian Lewis himself!)
I was particularly struck by Julian’s clear explanation of the of the significance of the development of air power to Britain’s military capability in the early years of this century; from being merely an adjunct to Naval and Army services to emerging as an independent force and becoming hugely important to our future military success. This development was not without its opponents and the political debates both in Parliament and in the Services themselves were often heated.
This has not been an easy book to write. There are few records from Kink himself and his personal life is almost unknown. I did ask Julian if there was any “love interest” and the closest we get is the book by Marion Aten, a fellow pilot with Kink in Russia, which describes Kink as “dark, short and magnetic” and involves him in various liaisons. Despite the lack of facts, I like to think of him as a true romantic ...
In the 1920s Kink pursued the quest for air supremacy for Britain. The Americans and the Italians were key rivals for the Schneider Trophy awarded to the fastest team to fly seaplanes over a highly challenging course.
Of course, racing requires funds and there’s a fascinating tale in the book of the struggle with the Treasury which finally agreed to back Kink’s British bid despite the full cost escalating from £32,000 in 1925 to £125,000 by 1927. William Wright, a prudent Scottish MP of the time, asked for full expenditure figures but was told by the Minster that “to supply further figures could not be done without a quite unjustifiable amount of clerical labour”. Sounds familiar!
After a glorious victory in 1927 when he [helped win] the Schneider Trophy, Kink was determined to break the 300mph speed barrier. His attempt would be in N221, a Supermarine Napier S5 (more new knowledge for me!). The plane was “the embodiment of speed and mechanical beauty”, but on 12th March 1928 tragedy struck and Kink and his plane nosedived from 100 feet into the Solent where the plane broke up. Kink was dead. The disaster was bewilderingly sudden and the cause was never known. The misadventure verdict was probably the most accurate description of what had occurred. It was an adventure that went terribly wrong.
Kink’s life ended in seconds, but with Julian Lewis’ excellent book his memory will live on.