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Heroes & Ghosts


Heroes & Ghosts is the story of my grandfather Harold Blackburn, a pioneer aviator before World War I and war hero. After the war, scandal struck the family and plunged it into shame for three generations. Along the way, his story was lost, his memorabilia buried in a drawer for decades.

Heroes & Ghosts is “a poignant, aviation-based, family history story relayed with clarity and humour.”

— Jenny Towey, Chair, Weston-super-Mare & District FHS

This 45- to 60-minute presentation (online or in person) brings the story of his amazing career to light through the recognition of unconscious shame affecting multiple generations. Our ancestors buried shameful events in the family story, shrouding them in a dense emotional fog.

Shame affects the way memories are carried in a family, both in terms of what is remembered—or allowed to be remembered—and in terms of what mementos survive.

Shame projects forward, hiding the past from future generations like an oil slick. In her memoir The Architect of Desire, Suzannah Lessard describes this as “the slick that was concealing from us the truths of our lives together and alone.”

The scientific term for this is epigenetic inheritance.

Revealing these truths requires a softer approach than conventional, data-driven genealogy. This presentation is suitable for any groups interested in genealogy, family history, aviation, military studies, family trauma, or holistic wellbeing.

The fee is £50. To book this presentation for your group, please contact me.

Early years

From Doncaster in Yorkshire, Harold Blackburn was one of the pioneers of British aviation. In 1909 he built the Blackburn-Walker Biplane with engineer Albert Walker at an airfield at Dagenham, south of London. This long-lost aircraft was featured in the June 2011 edition of Aeroplane magazine. It is not known if it ever flew.

Blackburn-Walker Biplane, 1909
The Blackburn-Walker Biplane, 1909 (Hallett family)

After earning Royal Aero Club licence no. 79, Harold became the test pilot for his namesake Robert Blackburn, the Yorkshire aircraft designer. Harold Blackburn was the test pilot for the Blackburn Type D—still surviving at the Shuttleworth Collection, Britain’s oldest airworthy aircraft.

Flying the Blackburn Type I, Harold and his passenger Dr M. G. Christie won the 1913 Wars of the Roses air race between the Yorkshire-built monoplane and the Lancashire-built Avro 504 biplane.


Harold Blackburn enlisted on the outbreak of war. Two weeks later, on 19 August 1914, he was certified as a combat pilot. He flew in France in late 1914 before being promoted to command ‘C’ Flight of No. 14 Squadron as it ‘worked up’ in 1915. Late that year the squadron deployed to the Sinai Desert to protect the Suez Canal from Turkish invasion.

Bir Hassana
Bir Hassana Turkish infantry camp, Sinai Desert, 1916 (Hallett family)

Using a bombsight of Harold’s own design, in March 1916 one of his pilots successfully bombed the water tank at the Turkish infantry camp at Bir Hassana—one of the few watering holes in the Sinai Desert.

During his wartime career Harold was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel (later Wing Commander). He was mentioned in despatches four times and received both the Military Cross and Air Force Cross for his services.

Harold Blackburn demobbed but re-joined the Royal Air Force after the war. His final appointment was in 1924-28 as Base Commander for Aircraft & Armament Experimental Establishment at Martlesham Heath, Norfolk.

…and ghosts

After the war, Harold married Violet Lister. They had a daughter, Susan—my mother. But the marriage didn’t last. Violet had an affair that led to an acrimonious family breakdown. Harold went to court and won custody of my mother, an unusual event for the 1930s.

Shame, disgrace, and abandonment had a crippling effect on my mother. After he died, his story passed into the shadows. When I was growing up, there was no trace of Harold Blackburn. He was a ghost haunting the family through the trauma of the divorce.

We even moved to New Zealand—as far as possible from the ‘scene of the crime’—where Harold’s historic memorabilia lay buried for decades.

After returning to Britain in 2006, I was drawn into Harold’s story—and the hidden trauma that had concealed it. As I resolved nearly a century of generational trauma, Harold’s story was brought into the light in the most striking way—appearing on one of Britain’s most-watched TV programmes, Antiques Roadshow.

Antiques Roadshow
The author at Antiques Roadshow, Banbury Castle, 2014 (Hallett family)


Michael comes from an aviation family. Apart from his grandfather, his step-grandfather Oswald Short was one of the three Short brothers who started the world’s first aircraft factory with an order from the Wright brothers. And Michael’s father, Peter Hallett, joined the Bristol Engine Co. as an apprentice in 1938. During World War II he was a test flight engineer, developing aircraft such as the radar-equipped Bristol Beaufighter.

Michael became a software engineer at the largest cannery in the southern hemisphere. In a 30-year IT career he worked for corporate and governmental clients in New Zealand, America, Hong Kong and Europe, working mainly with process manufacturing and inventory systems.

Applying his process analysis skills to mental health, Michael now specialises in generational trauma and other shame-based issues. His course Living With Ghosts is possibly the first online course in the world on the topic of inherited trauma.

Michael has presented lectures on his grandfather’s flying career to aviation societies in the British Midlands, including Martlesham Heath, Rugby, Milton Keynes, Sywell, and East Hertfordshire. He has published articles on Harold Blackburn in several specialist aviation magazines and newsletters:

  • ‘A Pioneer at Martlesham’, Runway 22 (Martlesham Heath Aviation Society), June 2011
  • ‘First to Fly the Blackburn, Parts 1 & 2’, Prop-Swing (Shuttleworth Veteran Aeroplane Society), Winter 2011/Spring 2012
  • ‘Britain’s First Airline Pilot’, The Log (British Air Line Pilots Association), September 2014

Michael also supplied the content for Philip Jarrett’s ‘Lost & Found’ article on the Blackburn-Walker Biplane in Aeroplane magazine, June 2011.