A History of Aeronautics

Author: Evelyn Charles Vivian

XIII. First Fliers in England

Certain experiments made in England by Mr Phillips seem to have come near robbing the Wright Brothers of the honour of the first flight; notes made by Colonel J. D. Fullerton on the Phillips flying machine show that in 1893 the first machine was built with a length of 25 feet, breadth of 22 feet, and height of 11 feet, the total weight, including a 72 lb. load, being 420 lbs. The machine was fitted with some fifty wood slats, in place of the single supporting surface of the monoplane or two superposed surfaces of the biplane, these slats being fixed in a steel frame so that the whole machine rather resembled a Venetian blind. A steam engine giving about 9 horse-power provided the motive power for the six-foot diameter propeller which drove the machine. As it was not possible to put a passenger in control as pilot, the machine was attached to a central post by wire guys and run round a circle 100 feet in diameter, the track consisting of wooden planking 4 feet wide. Pressure of air under the slats caused the machine to rise some two or three feet above the track when sufficient velocity had been attained, and the best trials were made on June 19th 1893, when at a speed of 40 miles an hour, with a total load of 385 lbs., all the wheels were off the ground for a distance of 2,000 feet.

In 1904 a full-sized machine was constructed by Mr Phillips, with a total weight, including that of the pilot, of 600 lbs. The machine was designed to lift when it had attained a velocity of 50 feet per second, the motor fitted giving 22 horse-power. On trial, however, the longitudinal equilibrium was found to be defective, and a further design was got out, the third machine being completed in 1907. In this the wood slats were held in four parallel container frames, the weight of the machine, excluding the pilot, being 500 lbs. A motor similar to that used in the 1904 machine was fitted, and the machine was designed to lift at a velocity of about 30 miles an hour, a seven-foot propeller doing the driving. Mr Phillips tried out this machine in a field about 400 yards across. ’The machine was started close to the hedge, and rose from the ground when about 200 yards had been covered. When the machine touched the ground again, about which there could be no doubt, owing to the terrific jolting, it did not run many yards. When it came to rest I was about ten yards from the boundary. Of course, I stopped the engine before I commenced to descend.’[*]

[*] Aeronautical Journal, July, 1908.

S. F. Cody, an American by birth, aroused the attention not only of the British public, but of the War office and Admiralty as well, as early as 1905 with his man-lifting kites. In that year a height of 1,600 feet was reached by one of these box-kites, carrying a man, and later in the same year one Sapper Moreton, of the Balloon Section of the Royal Engineers (the parent of the Royal Flying Corps) remained for an hour at an altitude of 2,600 feet. Following on the success of these kites, Cody constructed an aeroplane which he designated a ’power kite,’ which was in reality a biplane that made the first flight in Great Britain. Speaking before the Aeronautical Society in 1908, Cody said that ’I have accomplished one thing that I hoped for very much, that is, to be the first man to fly in Great Britain.... I made a machine that left the ground the first time out; not high, possibly five or six inches only. I might have gone higher if I wished. I made some five flights in all, and the last flight came to grief.... On the morning of the accident I went out after adjusting my propellers at 8 feet pitch running at 600 (revolutions per minute). I think that I flew at about twenty-eight miles per hour. I had 50 horsepower motor power in the engine. A bunch of trees, a flat common above these trees, and from this flat there is a slope goes down... to another clump of trees. Now, these clumps of trees are a quarter of a mile apart or thereabouts.... I was accused of doing nothing but jumping with my machine, so I got a bit agitated and went to fly.

I went out this morning with an easterly wind, and left the ground at the bottom of the hill and struck the ground at the top, a distance of 74 yards. That proved beyond a doubt that the machine would fly—it flew uphill. That was the most talented flight the machine did, in my opinion. Now, I turned round at the top and started the machine and left the ground—remember, a ten mile wind was blowing at the time. Then, 60 yards from where the men let go, the machine went off in this direction (demonstrating)—I make a line now where I hoped to land—to cut these trees off at that side and land right off in here. I got here somewhat excited, and started down and saw these trees right in front of me. I did not want to smash my head rudder to pieces, so I raised it again and went up. I got one wing direct over that clump of trees, the right wing over the trees, the left wing free; the wind, blowing with me, had to lift over these trees. So I consequently got a false lift on the right side and no lift on the left side. Being only about 8 feet from the tree tops, that turned my machine up like that (demonstrating). This end struck the ground shortly after I had passed the trees. I pulled the steering handle over as far as I could. Then I faced another bunch of trees right in front of me. Trying to avoid this second bunch of trees I turned the rudder, and turned it rather sharp. That side of the machine struck, and it crumpled up like so much tissue paper, and the machine spun round and struck the ground that way on, and the framework was considerably wrecked. Now, I want to advise all aviators not to try to fly with the wind and to cross over any big clump of earth or any obstacle of any description unless they go square over the top of it, because the lift is enormous crossing over anything like that, and in coming the other way against the wind it would be the same thing when you arrive at the windward side of the obstacle. That is a point I did not think of, and had I thought of it I would have been more cautious.’

This Cody machine was a biplane with about 40 foot span, the wings being about 7 feet in depth with about 8 feet between upper and lower wing surfaces. ’Attached to the extremities of the lower planes are two small horizontal planes or rudders, while a third small vertical plane is fixed over the centre of the upper plane.’ The tail-piece and principal rudder were fitted behind the main body of the machine, and a horizontal rudder plane was rigged out in front, on two supporting arms extending from the centre of the machine. The small end-planes and the vertical plane were used in conjunction with the main rudder when turning to right or left, the inner plane being depressed on the turn, and the outer one correspondingly raised, while the vertical plane, working in conjunction, assisted in preserving stability. Two two-bladed propellers were driven by an eight-cylinder 50 horse-power Antoinette motor. With this machine Cody made his first flights over Laffan’s plain, being then definitely attached to the Balloon Section of the Royal Engineers as military aviation specialist.

There were many months of experiment and trial, after the accident which Cody detailed in the statement given above, and then, on May 14th, 1909, Cody took the air and made a flight of 1,200 yards with entire success. Meanwhile A. V. Roe was experimenting at Lea Marshes with a triplane of rather curious design the pilot having his seat between two sets of three superposed planes, of which the front planes could be tilted and twisted while the machine was in motion. He comes but a little way after Cody in the chronology of early British experimenters, but Cody, a born inventor, must be regarded as the pioneer of the present century so far as Britain is concerned. He was neither engineer nor trained mathematician, but he was a good rule-of-thumb mechanic and a man of pluck and perseverance; he never strove to fly on an imperfect machine, but made alteration after alteration in order to find out what was improvement and what was not, in consequence of which it was said of him that he was ’always satisfied with his alterations.’

By July of 1909 he had fitted an 80 horse-power motor to his biplane, and with this he made a flight of over four miles over Laffan’s Plain on July 21st. By August he was carrying passengers, the first being Colonel Capper of the R.E. Balloon Section, who flew with Cody for over two miles, and on September 8th, 1909, he made a world’s record cross-country flight of over forty miles in sixty-six minutes, taking a course from Laffan’s Plain over Farnborough, Rushmoor, and Fleet, and back to Laffan’s Plain. He was one of the competitors in the 1909 Doncaster Aviation Meeting, and in 1910 he competed at Wolverhampton, Bournemouth, and Lanark. It was on June 7th, 1910, that he qualified for his brevet, No. 9, on the Cody biplane.

He built a machine which embodied all the improvements for which he had gained experience, in 1911, a biplane with a length of 35 feet and span of 43 feet, known as the ’Cody cathedral’ on account of its rather cumbrous appearance. With this, in 1911, he won the two Michelin trophies presented in England, completed the Daily Mail circuit of Britain, won the Michelin cross-country prize in 1912 and altogether, by the end of 1912, had covered more than 7,000 miles with the machine. It was fitted with a 120 horse-power Austro-Daimler engine, and was characterised by an exceptionally wide range of speed—the great wingspread gave a slow landing speed.

A few of his records may be given: in 1910, flying at Laffan’s Plain in his biplane, fitted with a 50-60 horsepower Green engine, on December 31st, he broke the records for distance and time by flying 185 miles, 787 yards, in 4 hours 37 minutes. On October 31st, 1911, he beat this record by flying for 5 hours 15 minutes, in which period he covered 261 miles 810 yards with a 60 horse-power Green engine fitted to his biplane. In 1912, competing in the British War office tests of military aeroplanes, he won the L5,000 offered by the War Office. This was in competition with no less than twenty-five other machines, among which were the since-famous Deperdussin, Bristol, Flanders, and Avro types, as well as the Maurice Farman and Bleriot makes of machine. Cody’s remarkable speed range was demonstrated in these trials, the speeds of his machine varying between 72.4 and 48.5 miles per hour. The machine was the only one delivered for the trials by air, and during the three hours’ test imposed on all competitors a maximum height of 5,000 feet was reached, the first thousand feet being achieved in three and a half minutes.

During the summer of 1913 Cody put his energies into the production of a large hydro-biplane, with which he intended to win the L5,000 prize offered by the Daily Mail to the first aviator to fly round Britain on a waterplane. This machine was fitted with landing gear for its tests, and, while flying it over Laffan’s Plain on August 7th, 1913, with Mr W. H. B. Evans as passenger, Cody met with the accident that cost both him and his passenger their lives. Aviation lost a great figure by his death, for his plodding, experimenting, and dogged courage not only won him the fame that came to a few of the pilots of those days, but also advanced the cause of flying very considerably and contributed not a little to the sum of knowledge in regard to design and construction.

Another figure of the early days was A. V. Roe, who came from marine engineering to the motor industry and aviation in 1905. In 1906 he went out to Colorado, getting out drawings for the Davidson helicopter, and in 1907 having returned to England, he obtained highest award out of 200 entries in a model aeroplane flying competition. From the design of this model he built a full-sized machine, and made a first flight on it, fitted with a 24 horse-power Antoinette engine, in June of 1908 Later, he fitted a 9 horsepower motor-cycle engine to a triplane of his own design, and with this made a number of short flights; he got his flying brevet on a triplane with a motor of 35 horse-power, which, together with a second triplane, was entered for the Blackpool aviation meeting of 1910 but was burnt in transport to the meeting. He was responsible for the building of the first seaplane to rise from English waters, and may be counted the pioneer of the tractor type of biplane. In 1913 he built a two-seater tractor biplane with 80 horse-power engine, a machine which for some considerable time ranked as a leader of design. Together with E. V. Roe and H. V. Roe, ’A. V.’ controlled the Avro works, which produced some of the most famous training machines of the war period in a modification of the original 80 horse-power tractor. The first of the series of Avro tractors to be adopted by the military authorities was the 1912 biplane, a two-seater fitted with 50 horsepower engine. It was the first tractor biplane with a closed fuselage to be used for military work, and became standard for the type. The Avro seaplane, of I 100 horse-power (a fourteen-cylinder Gnome engine was used) was taken up by the British Admiralty in 1913. It had a length of 34 feet and a wing-span of 50 feet, and was of the twin-float type.

Geoffrey de Havilland, though of later rank, counts high among designers of British machines. He qualified for his brevet as late as February, 1911, on a biplane of his own construction, and became responsible for the design of the BE2, the first successful British Government biplane. On this he made a British height record of 10,500 feet over Salisbury Plain, in August of 1912, when he took up Major Sykes as passenger. In the war period he was one of the principal designers of fighting and reconnaissance machines.

F. Handley Page, who started in business as an aeroplane builder in 1908, having works at Barking, was one of the principal exponents of the inherently stable machine, to which he devoted practically all his experimental work up to the outbreak of war. The experiments were made with various machines, both of monoplane and biplane type, and of these one of the best was a two-seater monoplane built in 1911, while a second was a larger machine, a biplane, built in 1913 and fitted with a 110 horse-power Anzani engine. The war period brought out the giant biplane with which the name of Handley Page is most associated, the twin-engined night-bomber being a familiar feature of the later days of the war; the four-engined bomber had hardly had a chance of proving itself under service conditions when the war came to an end.

Another notable figure of the early period was ’Tommy’ Sopwith, who took his flying brevet at Brooklands in November of 1910, and within four days made the British duration record of 108 miles in 3 hours 12 minutes. On December 18th, 1910, he won the Baron de Forrest prize of L4,000 for the longest flight from England to the Continent, flying from Eastchurch to Tirlemont, Belgium, in three hours, a distance of 161 miles. After two years of touring in America, he returned to England and established a flying school. In 1912 he won the first aerial Derby, and in 1913 a machine of his design, a tractor biplane, raised the British height record to 13,000 feet (June 16th, at Brooklands). First as aviator, and then as designer, Sopwith has done much useful work in aviation.

These are but a few, out of a host who contributed to the development of flying in this country, for, although France may be said to have set the pace as regards development, Britain was not far behind. French experimenters received far more Government aid than did the early British aviators and designers—in the early days the two were practically synonymous, and there are many stories of the very early days at Brooklands, where, when funds ran low, the ardent spirits patched their trousers with aeroplane fabric and went on with their work with Bohemian cheeriness. Cody, altering and experimenting on Laffan’s Plain, is the greatest figure of them all, but others rank, too, as giants of the early days, before the war brought full recognition of the aeroplane’s potentialities.

one of the first men actually to fly in England, Mr J. C. T. Moore-Brabazon, was a famous figure in the days of exhibition flying, and won his reputation mainly through being first to fly a circular mile on a machine designed and built in Great Britain and piloted by a British subject. Moore-Brabazon’s earliest flights were made in France on a Voisin biplane in 1908, and he brought this machine over to England, to the Aero Club grounds at Shellness, but soon decided that he would pilot a British machine instead. An order was placed for a Short machine, and this, fitted with a 50-60 horse-power Green engine, was used for the circular mile, which won a prize of L1,000 offered by the Daily Mail, the feat being accomplished on October 30th, 1909. Five days later, Moore-Brabazon achieved the longest flight up to that time accomplished on a British-built machine, covering three and a half miles. In connection with early flying in England, it is claimed that A. V. Roe, flying ’Avro B,’,’ on June 8th, 1908, was actually the first man to leave the ground, this being at Brooklands, but in point of fact Cody antedated him.

No record of early British fliers could be made without the name of C. S. Rolls, a son of Lord Llangattock, on June 2nd, 1910, he flew across the English Channel to France, until he was duly observed over French territory, when he returned to England without alighting. The trip was made on a Wright biplane, and was the third Channel crossing by air, Bleriot having made the first, and Jacques de Lesseps the second. Rolls was first to make the return journey in one trip. He was eventually killed through the breaking of the tail-plane of his machine in descending at a flying meeting at Bournemouth. The machine was a Wright biplane, but the design of the tail-plane—which, by the way, was an addition to the machine, and was not even sanctioned by the Wrights—appears to have been carelessly executed, and the plane itself was faulty in construction. The breakage caused the machine to overturn, killing Rolls, who was piloting it.


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Chicago: Evelyn Charles Vivian, "XIII. First Fliers in England," A History of Aeronautics, ed. Smiles, Samuel, 1812-1904 in A History of Aeronautics Original Sources, accessed August 8, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4YVY5XFKZSQH9IB.

MLA: Vivian, Evelyn Charles. "XIII. First Fliers in England." A History of Aeronautics, edited by Smiles, Samuel, 1812-1904, in A History of Aeronautics, Original Sources. 8 Aug. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4YVY5XFKZSQH9IB.

Harvard: Vivian, EC, 'XIII. First Fliers in England' in A History of Aeronautics, ed. . cited in , A History of Aeronautics. Original Sources, retrieved 8 August 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4YVY5XFKZSQH9IB.