Edward Powles is a fairly unknown pilot that held two rather impressive records during his time as a Spitfire pilot. He wasn’t the usual build for an RAF pilot, at 6 foot 4 inches and weighing 180lb, but joined the RAF as an apprentice during World War 2. He trained as a photo-reconnaissance pilot, and remained in service well after the war. He was trained in and mainly used twin engine aircraft. In January of 1950 he was surprised to be ordered to RAF Finningley to complete a refresher course on the Supermarine Spitfire PR14. Then on to RAF Leuchars in Scotland for familiarisation training on the Spitfire PR19, training in high and low altitude sorties.
In the next august during the Malayan emergency he was posted to RAF Tengah in Singapore. His job consisted of photo-reconnaissance and ground attack missions in the Spitfire FR18, as part of Operation Firedog. This was the campaign against communist insurgents hiding in the Malayan jungle. Later in 1950 he transferred to 81 (PR) Squadron at RAF Seletar, continuing to fly medium level reconnaissance sorties over the Malayan jungle. Then just before Christmas of 1950 the CO told Powles he had been selected to take a flight of two PR19’s from RAF Seletar to RAF Kai Tak in Hong Kong on 1st Jan 1951. Powles and the other pilot, Flight Sergeant Padden, flew PS852 and PS854 fitted with split pairs of F52 cameras with 36in lenses. At this point they were not told what their duties would be, and told to await further instructions.
They spent a few weeks flying sorties, assisting flights of Vampire jets being ferried into Sek Kong for Tourane. Then Powles was asked to take some aerial photographs of a number of Chinese islands in the local area by a photographic interpreter, presumably with authorisation from a higher authority. Powles would fly 63 sorties over Chinese territory during the course of 1951. During their time, the flight had photographed sites along the Chinese coastline up to 400 nautical miles to the south-west of Hong Kong, and up to 160 nautical miles to the north-east, as well as sites up to 100 nautical miles from the coast, sometimes as far as the island of Hainan. During the course of these flights, Powles set two notable records.
During a meteorological test flight on the 5 February 1952, Powles reached 51,550 feet in PS852, the highest altitude ever recorded for a piston-engined aircraft. He then got a cockpit pressure warning, this was partly down to the fact he was near the equator. He put his Spitfire in a shallow dive, and during the descent the aircraft quickly got into compressibility, although he didn’t know it. This locked up the controls and the plane started to dive uncontrollably, attaining 690 mph (Mach 0.96) the highest speed ever recorded for a piston-engined aircraft. He talks about putting both feet on the instrument panel and pulled back the stick with no avail. He also states he saw a mist over the wings. With very few options left, he actually pushed the stick forward, which helped to get him out of the dive. As a pilot he was experienced enough to wait until he got into denser air at lower altitudes. This gradually slowed him down, and he regained control at around 1,2000 ft over the ocean. He also put the prop in the correct pitch, which saw him through.
After their flight had finished, both Spitfires were left at Kai Tak and became part of the Royal Hong Kong Auxiliary Air Force. He had always thought he went supersonic, but at the time he didn’t know about compressibility. In the 1990’s he was able to show his figures to the Air and Space Museum, and they were able to establish that he went the 0.96 Mach, or 715mph.