Death of an Airman by Christopher St John Sprigg

published 1934

I absolutely loved a previous book by Sprigg, The Perfect Alibi, and wrote more about him and his life in the post. I liked this one too, it was very entertaining, and gave me the excuse to use these early-days-of-aviation photos from one of my favourite resources. (Come on, aren’t they fabulous?)

Death of an Airman takes place almost entirely at an air flying club, and the details of life there (which seem authentic, and would be known to Sprigg) are absolutely fascinating.

Winters was a lean man, with hair greying round the temples, and an air of gentle melancholy easily explicable by the fact that he had been a club instructor for ten years

Learning to fly was much more like learning to drive would be now – as one character says “In my young days we used to go solo in two hours. Now everyone seems to want about twelve hours. In another ten years they’ll take a fortnight.” How long does it take now? –  teaching people to fly is very big business, and (I happen to know) very profitable indeed these days.

The book starts with a new pupil arriving at the club, an Australian. Sally, the manager of the club, says:

“I hope you don’t get fighting drunk? Our last Australian smashed every glass in the place the day he went solo.”

The stranger cleared his throat deprecatingly. “I think it unlikely that I should do the same. I am the Bishop of Cootamundra.”

- he wants to fly himself around his very large diocese.

She comments that he is not dressed as she would expect: no ‘Roman collar and episcopal gaiters.’ He says he is off-duty and anyway they are less formal in Australia. None of this is really relevant, but it gives me an excuse to mention that I have (of course!) devoted attention to bishops’ wear, gaiters, and the connection with horses, in a past post.

The Bishop is witness to a plane crash and death, and an investigation follows. As everyone who has read this book points out, the very promising Bishop character disappears for most of the middle section, and only comes back at the end, which is a real shame. I felt the book sagged in the middle, with endless discussions of what might have happened and where everyone was and who was telling the truth.

Everybody in the book dresses just as you would expect flying enthusiasts of the 1930s to do.

She was wearing white overalls and a white flying helmet,

He was slim but wiry, dressed in white overalls and carrying a white helmet of rather a foppish cut. He lived up to the Inspector’s expectations of an airman, which were somewhat romantic.

[Hard to imagine what identifies a foppishly-cut helmet]

There is also one character wearing wildly camp clothes: the 1930s aesthete presumably:

Tommy Vane was now wearing large flannel trousers which trailed on the ground and an offensive canary-yellow pullover with a bright green scarf.

[Later] he wears cherry-coloured, open-necked shirt, and dark-green flannel trousers with an orange belt.

It’s actually very hard to find pictures of this kind of 30s outfit for men: this is a picture of the notorious Bright Young Thing Brian Howard and friend.

There were some very funny moments:

The policemen are hot on the trail of a particular plane:

“A low-wing monoplane - Do you know enough about these noisy contraptions to recognize that?”

“I think so. I know that’s not one, anyway,” Bray answered, pointing to a bulky machine in the corner.

“Of course it isn’t. That’s the aerodrome mowing-machine,” replied Creighton seriously.

Looking into the background of the suspects:

“She is the daughter of a rural dean. That’s pretty bad, but not the sort of thing you can use in evidence against her.”

During an airshow:

Unfortunately Lady Laura’s dulcet tones were amplified over the aerodrome to the waiting thousands at the moment when she told Sir Herbert to “get back to the Crumbles menace, but Sally has a drink waiting for you to help you to bear it”.


The flying is also great fun, and as it happens I am an absolute expert on this, because I read a lot of Biggles books when I was young, many of them set in the 1930s. So I nodded sagely when they discussed taxi-ing, for example, because Biggles’ mate Ginger once got a job as a pilot from someone (a grizzled old-timer) who said ‘I can see you can fly before you even take off, because taxiing on the ground is just as hard as flying.’ (Actually I am not sure this can be true?)

Ginger was just at the end of his audition-style flight – ‘you’ve done well, take her home’ - when he was suddenly attacked by an opposition plane. His mentor offered to take over, as there were twin controls, but Ginger said ‘the gun button is only on my joystick, I have to be the one to operate it and fly at the same time’. He successfully brought down the enemy and the old guy says ‘who taught you to fly like that?’ and he excitedly answers ‘Biggles!’ even though this is meant to be secret. So – he gets the job.

I have not read this book in 50 years I guess, and although the quotes above will not be word for word, I did not have to look up or check any of this.

I read a huge number of Captain WE Johns’ Biggles books, but I’m pretty sure this was Biggles in Spain, which also made me an expert on the Spanish Civil War as you can find out in this post, one I particularly enjoyed writing. I think it may be one of my favourite posts, certainly top 10 of posts defining the tosh of yesteryear. Ah, Dennis Wheatley – a name to conjure with.

And, another post I enjoyed writing (‘I can hardly type for laughing’) is James and the Giant Octopus, possibly my favourite post title also, in which I uncover the hitherto unsuspected link between Biggles and James Bond.

Teaser: there may be more on James Bond soon. But – much more immediate – there will be another post on Death of an Airman even sooner, because of a Whole Other Aspect to this book and its plot which needs to be looked at…

Apart from Brian Howard, all pictures from the San Diego Air and Space Museum archives, a great haunt of mine since the early days of the blog – full of pictures of the early days of flying, and of women’s lives then. (You can get a flavour of the pictures from this collection of blogposts.)

Second picture: two women pilots setting an endurance record.

Third picture: three test pilots, so far as I can tell.

Fourth one – unknown person. I have used this one before because it is completely irresistible in my important view.


  1. Well, an airfield is a fascinating place to have a murder mystery, Moira. Anything can happen, and those early days of aviation were so fascinating. I think that setting and context are so well-suited for all sorts of mayhem... It's funny you'd mention Biggles. We didn't have the Biggles stories where I grew up, and I wish we had. They must have been great fun.

    1. Perhaps Biggles was a British thing Margot? One thing I love about my family's having lived in both US and UK is that our children got to read the classics from both cultures.
      And yes - an airfield is ideal - it's just surprising it isn't used more. Oh - could there be a Margot special? I challenge you to find air-related mysteries for a post!

  2. Excellent pictures of the women pilots. I hope Petrova from Ballet Shoes looked like that (I think it's mentioned in The Painted Garden that she was in the ATA during the war?). Also interesting how popular flying was back then, and as you say, almost comparable with having a car, e.g the "win an aeroplane" campaign in Murder Must Advertise, and Flora Poste being collected by plane at the end of Cold Comfort Farm.
    A very good setting for a whodunnit as well.

    1. Indeed. I have just put up a new, extra post for this book, and one of the illos is the picture (from the same archive as these ones) that for me will always be the blog's version of Petrova. A great heroine of mine when I was young. (Well, and now also)

      Yes, the attitudes to flying are fascinating, and surely authentic

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  4. There's also a French film from the 1930s - I can't remember the title, I'm afraid - about a woman record-breaking pilot who disappears on her flight. She is a garage owner [?]'s wife and while the neighbours disapprove, her family (and the film-makers) approve her choice. Flying was a key to social mobility. Amy Mollinson came from the working class and the RAF had NCO pilots.

    1. I removed a comment to expand it. I was told I couldn't remove it and then it was removed anyway! As far as I can recall it went:

      Airmen (and women) were iconic in the 1930s. Look at Auden's poetry, or Day Lewis's The Flight or the French pilot in Les Regles du Jour. A portrait you might like to use in future is here:
      Sprigg had a direct connexion with Biggles: he was a friend of Biggles's creator, W.E. Johns, and contributed to flying magazines that Johns edited. Johns was an anti--appeaser from the first, and I wonder whether that was a result of Sprigg's influence, like Johns's sympathy with the International Brigade in Biggles in Spain. Johns wrote an admiring obituary of Sprigg after his death.

    2. ...and a little later, but the attitude of many 1930s aircraft designers, i suspect:

    3. Oh what a fantastic picture, the Orlebar: I need to find a book hero to go with that!
      Absolutely fascinating about Johns and Sprigg, I would never have guessed.
      And I love the idea that flying was a route for social mobility. Plus the origins of the iconic quote. There's a whole other blogpost in your comments! Thank you for sharing with us.

  5. Wonderful, isn't it, how educational reading can be.

    In my callow youth, I was a fan of old flying movies (yes they were old even then). CBC used to run old movies at midnight. They included Here Comes the Navy (with US Navy airships ca 1934, starring James Cagney); Captains of the Clouds (a bunch of bush pilots join the RCAF at the start of WWII, starring James Cagney); Only Angels Have Wings, ca 1939, starring--for a change--Cary Grant). And of course I loved Reach for the Sky. All those brash, cocky young airmen...

    The trick was to spot the doomed pilot from start.

    1. Great collection, several unfamiliar to me. I do love a flying movie of the olden days.
      There's a short scene in Days of Heaven I think, showing the excitement of early days of flight.
      I'm a great believer in learning history from cheap books...

    2. "I'm a great believer in learning history from cheap books..."

      Almost sounds like it should go on a mug.

    3. Tee hee. Yes it should. I know a lot of people would disapprove, but my lifelong love of history was absolutely nourished by early reading....

    4. "I'm a great believer in learning history from cheap books..."
      ...even more fun, and even less accurate, is learning history from films. See George Macdonald Fraser's The Hollywood History of the World.

    5. I LOVE that book, I just re-read it and wondered how it would stand up in the age of the internet, but I was completely entranced by it, exactly as I was when it first came out. Somebody mentioned it to me recently, was it you? I was wondering if I should do a post on it. I immediately snapped up a couple of second-hand copies to give away. Anyone with the faintest interest in films OR history needs to read it. Also it is very funny, and he comes over as the most lovely chap... Plus the pictures are amazing, to have found such perfect stills where he compares fictional versions of Great Men with real life...
      And yes, a terrific way to learn history...

  6. It's a book I recommend to people whenever I can, so I may have mentioned it here.
    While we're talking about Fraser. I was recently engaged in an online ... discussion... about racism and "political correctness" which involved explaining that Flashman is an unreliable narrator - an unreliable character in fact - and that his opinions weren't necessarily Fraser's opinions and that the reader was not obliged or expected to agree with him or any other first=person story-teller, real or imaginary. I ended up giving a crash course in irony to - and this is the really alarming bit - a university student.

    1. Oh goodness that sounds worrying. I hate turning into an old person thinking young people don't get various things, but sometimes...


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