By Richard Channon
I must confess that I had never heard of Kinkead, but now, having read this book, I have to ask why, because he clearly stood out amongst his contemporaries – ‘the RAF’s finest junior officer’ according to one of them in 1938. He was born in Johannesburg in 1897 of Ulster parents and joined the Royal Naval Air Service on 11 September 1915. Between then and his death on 12 March 1928 he amassed a DSO, two DSCs, two DFCs and a Mention in Despatches, plus four Tsarist Russian awards, and is credited with no fewer than 36 victories in air-to-air combat, which places him well up the list of WWI air aces. To this day he remains holder of the World Speed Record for biplane seaplanes in a Gloster IVB: the photograph of this aircraft is astonishing – each of the floats looks bigger than the fuselage!
His war service started in Gallipoli in December 1915, and continued in the Salonika area until late 1916 – providential, in that he was able to gain vital experience in circumstances far less dangerous than those in France. However, he joined 1 Squadron RNAS on the Western Front in September 1917: by the time he left in August 1918 he had become Acting CO in the squadron’s new incarnation as 201 Squadron RAF, and had won the four crosses for gallantry. In the summer of 1919 he joined the RAF ‘mission’ to support the White forces in southern Russia, and in October won the DSO for putting to flight an entire Red cavalry division, but was fortunate to survive the rout of the Whites and get out in March 1920.
From March 1922 to October 1924 he flew in the counter-insurgency operations in Iraq, and in 1926 was responsible for setting up landing grounds at Nimule in the Sudan and Jinja in Uganda for the Cairo–Cape–Cairo flight. Although this was a triumph, professional and political opinion was beginning to focus on a perceived need to develop high speed flight through participation in the Schneider Trophy races. Kink was not only an expert pilot but slightly built, essential for fitting into the tiny cockpits of the trophy contenders; in June 1927 he joined the High Speed Flight which won the Trophy at Venice that September. In January 1928 it was officially announced that Great Britain would attempt the World Speed Record in March, the target being 302mph, using the Supermarine S5 N221 with Kinkead as pilot. He was killed when his aircraft dived into the sea off Calshot Castle as it was about to enter the timed 3km course over Southampton Water, probably due to structural failure.
Such is a very bald outline of his life and death. Dr Lewis is MP for New Forest East, and was inspired by Kinkead’s memorial in Fawley churchyard to investigate how a Flight Lieutenant could have become so highly decorated. The result is an outstandingly well-researched and many-faceted biography in which the author has skilfully interwoven the events of his hero’s life with contemporary political, social and technical developments, and for example his narrative of the obscure events in southern Russia is as fascinating as his exposition of the terrifying difficulties of handling temperamental seaplanes. Pen & Sword have complemented his text with plenty of evocative photographs (many from Kink’s own albums from the FAA Museum) and decent maps. A remarkable story of a remarkable man, in the tradition of a rattling good yarn, and most warmly recommended.