SHIFTed's interview with Nick English. Check out this story in Issue 003, featuring tales of militaria and James Bond.
The connection between aviation and wristwatches is long-established, especially as a useful marketing device for a number of notable brands. Bremont, the British maker of aviation-themed timepieces, however, can stake a larger claim to this association than most, thanks to its two founders’ lifelong fascination with flight.
To talk airplanes with Nick English, who founded Bremont in 2002 with brother Giles English, is to take oneself back to aviation’s golden age, when the skies were plied by exotic machines with their third wheel at the tail end, not under the nose like today’s docile airliners — a time, too, when adventurous young pilots set off into the blue yonder on a whim armed only with a map, a watch and a compass.
How did you become interested in aviation?
Dad could fly before he could drive; he had his [pilot’s] license at 16. He had a Royal Air Force flying scholarship and went to the University Air Squadron during his time at Cambridge. He was the only guy to win their Hack Trophy for aerobatic competition twice in succession. He was always going to be a test pilot; that’s what he was obsessed with. Then he met my mother, and she suggested she wanted to be with someone who did something slightly safer. So flying became a big passion of his and started off in the 1970s. But then at a Christie’s auction he bought this Harvard [an aircraft known in the United States as a T-6 Texan], and jumped into it and flew it back from the auction. That’s when he met Anthony Hutton, and the Harvard Formation Team started. They did hundreds of hours of formation flying and aerobatics and displays all around Europe. This was a high time for air displays, and you pretty much knew every player in it at that point.
Did you get to fly back then as well?
We were lucky enough as kids — you get dragged along to what your dad is doing. We were small enough to stick in the back of the Harvard without being seen over the side of the canopy. So we used to get taken all over France and England. I guess we learned to fly through that, really. [Dad] would say “Look, just hold the stick for half an hour,” and you’d be learning to formation-fly and all these things in the back of a Harvard. I remember when I was 17, my great Auntie Mary died and left [my brother] Giles and me some money — £2,000. I remember thinking to myself, “How on earth am I ever going to manage to do my flying license . . . ?” and this £2,000 arriving. Perfect! I still thank her almost daily for this incredible inheritance.
When did you become a pilot?
I did my training at Swanton Morley, an air-force base at the time, but they also had a flying club. It was a wonderful airfield, because you could take off in any direction. A big grass field.
I started out in the usual training aircraft, Cessna 152s and others. By then we lived on a farm in Norfolk my father had bought which had its own little airstrip. It was very short, just 350 meters or something. But we had this little Piper J3 Cub which became Giles’s and my airplane. As soon as we got our licenses, we were flying this all the time. We felt so in control. I still believe it’s one of the nicest I have ever flown. You learn to fly on a J3 Cub, and you end your career on one. They are just so responsive and could land on a sixpence.
I was 18 and Giles maybe 15 or 16, and we would head off in these airplanes to Europe for a few days —We’d go to Eastern Europe, Spain, Denmark, all these different places. Dad would say, “Just ring in occasionally.”
Our dad had this amazing ability to allow us a huge amount of responsibility. I was 18 and Giles maybe 15 or 16, and we would head off in these airplanes to Europe for a few days. We went around with the Haig-Thomas twins, who we knew through flying, and grew up with them. We’d go to Eastern Europe, Spain, Denmark, all these different places. Dad would say, “Just ring in occasionally.” It was real flying, with just a watch, compass and map, whatever you could find. We’d go down to Kent and follow the ferry across the Channel, hoping it was the right ferry for Calais! Your adventure would start from there. It was really rather special. You’d be flying in formation all the time. We would take tents or just camp under the wings. I still think it is possible to do that now. France is a wonderful country to fly around because it has so many airfields. It gave us so many experiences and memories. All my flying was in tailwheels, apart from the early license training.
How did you move into warbirds and more exotic machines?
I’d started flying the Harvard, and Dad was training me up through formation-flying courses at North Weald. I then got my air-display ticket and started doing quite a lot of the air shows in the Harvard. In your late teens and early twenties, that’s an amazing thing to do, and we were very fortunate. I then went to Manchester University and joined the University Air Squadron. So I was flying the Harvard on weekends and then during the week bunking off lectures to fly the [Scottish Aviation] Bulldog. The RAF training was brilliant, because they rap you on the knuckles if you do your checks the wrong way around. I’d always done my checks by common sense; it is a very different way of doing it in the RAF. You will do it in order. I met some fun people I’m still mates with.
But the big fun things were these big air-show tours with my father. The last one was in 1994. We were in Caen, in Normandy, and did an event there. I took my mate who had been 21 the day before, and we’d been out late celebrating his birthday. We both woke up late, dashed to North Weald and got there as all the others were sat propellers turning, ready to leave, and we just had to jump in and go. Halfway across, he was sick in the back cockpit and all over the airplane. I was the only aircraft with smoke, so we did the missing-man formation, very low blatting around over the hills.
I did another trip with my father to Torp [airport] in Norway, an amazing tour. I will never forget that. Those are things you are never going to forget, the memories that are etched. I cannot thank him enough for the responsibility to do those things.
There’s apparently a sad side to this story, though.
It all changed in 1995. We had not flown together for a while. I was a beautiful March day, and we headed off to practice. We went up in a Harvard together to do some formation aerobatics, and when we came over the top of a loop another aircraft was near us. As we moved to get away, the aircraft flicked into an inverted spin. It is difficult to get out of that in a Harvard. The aircraft did recover, and we just skimmed some trees and had to pull hard to avoid them. The aircraft flicked again, and we hit the ground. My father died. I broke 30-odd bones.
Luckily there was a doctor playing golf nearby. He saw everything and dashed over within minutes to apply immediate first aid. Then, amazingly, a helicopter with six consultant doctors in it was passing and landed to help. I was packed into the air ambulance, which was diverted from another mission, and rushed to intensive care. I got the last bed in the Royal London hospital. That was the only reason I’m still alive. I was leaking everywhere and had some big gashes. Dad had died of head injuries. It was a tipping point in our lives: Everything we have done after that date he has missed out on, and we’ve missed him.
Now with family and kids, your whole approach changes. But the love for old airplanes carried on.
That’s devastating. It prompted you and Giles to take a new direction in life with the watch company. Were you still flying thereafter?
During the period before Dad died, he’d built one of the first Van’s [Aircraft] RVs in the country. It was a kit he’d built from scratch. He was an aeronautical engineer, having got a doctorate from Cambridge, and built this phenomenal aircraft. We had it test-flown, and we’ve flown it since 1995. It’s just a rocket ship, the most beautiful thing ever — and a tribute to him. It’s something we will never, ever get rid of. We’ve had it for 22 years. It is very special to Giles and me. And it is part of the taildragger journey.
We bought other aircraft. We took a Bücker Jungmann to Spain and some other stuff after my dad died. You’re younger, you’re not married, there’s no family and you’re fairly foolhardy. We’d fly off at zero feet with an engine that’s ready to fail at any time.
Now with family and kids, your whole approach changes. But the love for old airplanes carried on. We went down to the south of France to buy a Max Holste Broussard, a genuine warbird that flew with the military. I acquired it from an Italian guy who gave us one circuit and landing, and we flew it back to England. The radio didn’t work properly and there were various problems, but we got it home — after being delayed in France due to fog for three days just before Christmas. Our wives were going mad. It was the trip from hell, but such a wonderful aircraft. It’s like a Land Rover of the sky, and I absolutely love it. It is part Piper Cub and part Harvard.
You’ve also acquired a love for biplanes.
Giles and I both acquired vintage Gipsy Moth biplanes with the intention of re-creating Sir Francis Chichester’s epic  voyage to Australia. He was the first person to sail around the world and then flew down to Australia with just 30 hours’ flying experience in his logbook. He was a truly amazing navigator who would use a sextant while flying. We thought, “we can do this,” so we got one 1930 and one 1931 Gipsy Moth to do it.
Unfortunately, Giles suffered an engine failure in his at a rather inopportune moment above a stately home. There were cows, trees and fences, and he landed heavily. In a Cub or a Broussard you’d have been fine. But he broke his back in three places, and the worst thing was his wife saw it. She had just got together with Giles when I had my accident, and she lived through that. He’s taking a break from flying for a little while. For now he’s content to rebuild the damaged Moth.
I’m currently flying three airplanes. But now there is the Spitfire!
Two Spitfires (Courtesy of Bremont)
That’s an iconic aircraft. What does it mean to you?
Dad had bought his own Mk19 Spitfire just before he died. We decided we couldn’t justify the expense of keeping it. We used to taxi it around for fun. But in the end we decided to sell it.
It’s 2,000 horsepower. I’ve always had this desire to get this Spitfire thing out of my system. Unfortunately it just seems to get more ingrained! We’ve done quite a lot of work with John Romain, who runs the Aircraft Restoration Company at Duxford, one of the world’s top Spitfire restorers. They look at your flying CV and can see you’ve done quite a lot of Harvard and other taildraggers, so I did some flying in the Harvard as a refresher, and then it was straight into the Spitfire’s front cockpit. I’ve now got that stamp in my logbook after flying and doing some circuits and aerobatics.
What’s it like to fly?
The amazing thing about it is the smell, the sound, the power and the history. All those things together. What it does to your senses. They first take you up in the back seat just so you can sit there and experience and the noise and everything. It is just phenomenal. After one trip you’re completely at ease with everything, but that trip is so useful. You can just imagine those guys who’d done 10 hours in your Tiger Moth and then the Harvard, which is a step up from most things.
It’s that understanding that you’re flying an old girl and you’ve got to look after it.
The Spitfire just leaps off the ground because the power-to-weight [ratio] is so high. You’re so wary about not damaging it. But once you’re in the air, it is absolutely stunning. It’s something I’m really keen to continue. John is restoring a Mark 11 and will finish next year. That’s a bit of an aim.
What I love about all the pilots [at Aircraft Restoration] is they have a real passion for engineering. They restore old cars and tinker with this and that. They just understand the principles. They live and breathe it. It’s that understanding that you’re flying an old girl and you’ve got to look after it. For me John Romain is one of the best because he has that incredible engineering experience, understands the airplane like no one else and is just this amazing pilot.
Are there any other aircraft, or aviation ambitions, on your bucket list?
The Holy Grail aircraft I’d love to own is the Grumman Wildcat, a Second World War naval fighter. I’ve always had this thing about it. Most kids have a Ferrari poster on their walls. I had the Wildcat. I loved the simplicity of it as a child. The aircraft is said to be no more difficult to maintain than a Harvard. I love the radial engines — they’re old but dependable.
The other one I’d love to do is something like the Grumman Mallard or Grumman Goose amphibians. Imagine chucking the family in the back and then doing a bit of a world tour, being able to land anywhere on water. A floatplane would be the way forward. It would cost a fortune, but the idea is there.
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