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Aviation for Everyone — then and now

The so-called Great War of 1914/18 removed some of the remoteness, if not the mystique, from the aeroplane. So after it was all over, that bloody conflict to end all future wars(!) certain misguided people thought it desirable to try to get “everyone” into the air and the Government became concerned about training as many pilots as possible, against the need for them in the future, the ideal of “no more wars” having been soon forgotten.

I remember seeing as a youngster, in my much-treasured “The Boy’s Book of Aeroplanes”, pictures of a number of machines which, it was hoped, would bring aviation closer to the masses, by which was implied those New Citizens many of whom, having shaken themselves free of the Cyclecar Boom were buying Austin Sevens. There was the 1919 Austin Whippet biplane about which much has been written recently in Motor Sport, there was the Avro Baby which brave little Bert Hinkler flew from Croydon over the Alps to Turin on a 35 h.p. Green engine that we would now class as Edwardian (it had been made in about 1910), and there was a French device with the translated name of “Cloud Fly”, a sort of parasol monoplane with a single-seat nacelle hung below it, if I recall correctly. Inspite of more far-seeing persons, like C.G. Grey, outspoken Editor of The Aeroplane, pointing out that even simple aeroplanes are far more difficult to control than a motorcycle or a small-car and that quite dreadful happenings could occur if novice pilots were permitted to aviate in such underpowered machines over densly-populated areas, the Authorities refused to listen. After gliding had been promoted over the Sussex Downs at Irford in 1922 they organised Light Aeroplane Trials at Lympne in Kent the following year — and by light aeroplanes they meant single-seaters with engines not exceeding 750 c.c. This was about the time when, although the miraculous Austin 7 was emerging as a little racing-car able to lap Brooklands at over 75 m.p.h., there was not yet a class for such tiny cars in the major races, even 1,100 c.c. being regarded as mediocre for racing purposes, with the Grand Prix limit at 2-litres.

As even a layman could see, it needs more power to get an aeroplane off the ground than is needed to propel a car round a track. So these 1923 Lympne Light Aeroplane Trials promised excitement. Nevertheless, in the post-war slump that had badly hit the Aviation Industry, many manufacturers were keen to build machines and enter, hoping for Air Ministry contracts for RAF training aeroplanes, should they be successful in the competitions. The Air Ministry offered a prize of £500 for the Contests but this was immediately over-shadowed when the Daily Mail, a newspaper always ready to further aviation, put up £1,000; after acrimonious discussions these became independent prizes, in what most people called the motor-glider meeting, but not before C.G. Grey had coined the delightful phrase “Gross harmsworthness”, a play on the Harmsworth ownership of the ‘Mail.

Some of the top Companies in the aviation business busied themselves with special aeroplanes to meet the rules. A.V. Roe, de Havilland, the Gloucestershire Aeroplane Co., Vickers, Parnell’s, even Handley-Page, all became involved, and a total of 28 entries came in. Pilots of the calibre of Lankester Parker, Hinkle, Broad, Captain de Havilland, Norman Macmillan, Cockerell, Raynham, Bulman, Barnard and Olley, etc., forsook their “real” machines to squeeze into cramped cockpits and buzz around in these little motorised-gliders. In fact, some ingenious engineering was to be seen in many of the aeroplanes, and drawings of differential ailerons, camber-changing flaps, patented slots, buried undercarriages, substitute monoplane or biplane wings, etc., appeared in the technical flying journals, as details of these odd little machines became known.

The problem was that no suitable engines existed, designed to run at full-throttle for considerable periods. Those used were converted, or even unconverted, motorcycle units. They ranged from the two-stroke Carden in the Gloucestershire Gannet, the 3 1/2 h.p. Bradshaw Powering the Salmon monoplane and 398 c.c. ABC engines used by the EEC Wrens, the Kingswell monoplane and one Handley Page, to the 697 c.c. Blackburnes in the Gulls, Avro 560, the two ANECs, and the second Handley-Page and a variety of 500 c.c., 600 c.c., and 750 c.c. flat-twin Douglas motorcycle engines favoured by D.H. Vickers, Parnall, the RAE and others, and the 750 c.c. Sergants in the French entries. That some makers went for different engines in similar machines was a measure of their uncertainty. and the paucity of supplies. Some used geared propellers, and the “cyclecar” atmosphere was provided by chain-drive between these primitive engines and the props, on the Gulls, both the Parnell Pixies, the Vickers Viget, Avro 558, and RAE Hurricane. Moreover, there was dissension as to whether a monoplane or a biplane was the better solution, but in the end five biplanes were outnumbered by 23 monoplanes.

All got through the Transport test, which involved being pushed a mile with wings folded or detached, so that the aeroplane could negotiate a roadway and pass through a 10′-wide gate. Once in the air with these over-stressed machines, and the fun started! The Douglas engines broke rocker-arms, which caused Cockerell to have to pull off a difficult forced-landing near Brabourne in the Viget; he then folded its wings and walked the aeroplane the six miles back to Lympne, The Aeroplane insisting that he was mistaken on the way for a travelling “Punch & Judy” Show! Hemming’s DH 53 broke the crankshaft of its big Douglas engine, one ANEC went out with a cracked Blackbume cylinder, and after getting up to some 100 m.p.h. and lapping the speed-course at 80 m.p.h. or more in one of the Parnall Pixies, Macmillan had to land in a field when his Douglas engine stopped running. Worse, Manerol was killed when the Peyret’s wings collapsed.

On the whole, however, these tiny aeroplanes had made a good impression. They landed mostly at 25-30 m.p.h. and proved able to fly in conditions of quite high, gusty wind. Moreover, the ANEC had achieved 127 m.p.g. at Brooklands before the Lympne Meeting and an unofficial 90 1/2 m.p.g. over five laps thereat. The Economy contest (judged by Prof. A.M. Low, naturally!) was in fact shared by Langton (7 h.p. ABC-Wren) and James (26 h.p. Blackburne-ANEC), who both returned 87.5 m.p.g. The Distance award for collective flying during the week was won easily by Hinkler (Avro 560-Blackburne) who covered 1,000 miles. The speed contest was a victory for the Douglas-engined Parnall Pixie II. Macmillan being timed over two laps at 76.1 m.p.h. and Piercey’s ANEC climbed highest, to 14,400 feet.

Much interest may have been aroused in tiny aeroplanes and much fun had at the Imperial Hotel in Hythe, although in deference to Manerol’s death the official banquet was abandoned. But nothing came of it all. The Air Ministry showed small interest, and then only in the DH 53s. The rest of these brave little machines were deemed too underpowered for practical flying. Curiously, the AM refused to give up, holding another Lympne Meeting in 1924.

This time engines of up-to1,100 c.c. were permitted. But as the aeroplanes had to be two-seaters, not much was accomplished, except that special engines had by now emerged, like the 32 h.p. Bristol Cherub, and the flat-twin ABC Scorpion, three-cylinder Blackburne radial, and the inverted 1,100 c.c. Anzani, all of which claimed 30 b.h.p. However, seven of the 19 entries proved unable to do the Take-off test, one was withdrawn, two were scratched, and performances were inferior to those of the 750 c.c. single-seaters, top speed down to a best of 70.11 m.p.h. by the Beardmore Wee Bee I and the longest distance covered being the 762 1/2 miles by the same Cherub-powered machine, piloted by Piercey. The other 1923 tests were not repeated, but a Pixie III-Blackburne flew slowest, at 37.22 m.p.h., and the shortest take-off was done by the Bristol Brownie I, with the Pull-up test (as if they were cars!) won by the Hawker Cygnet I — from which it will be seen that the Industry was still very well represented. Overall 1924 winner was the Wee Bee, even though it was eventually forced down by a run big-end in the Cherub engine. The untested Blackburne engines used too much oil and the ABC Scorpion broke valve-rocker brackets. (Incidentally, we think of aero-engined Brooklands cars as veritable giants but Gordon England used a borrowed Bristol Cherub aero-engine in his ABC for the 1923 JCC 200-Mile Race, to get it into the 1,100 c.c. class, and with it Basset finished 4th . .)

It may not be generally known that these Lympne Light Aeroplane Contests were continued in 1925 and 1926. Lack of space precludes a description of them and they proved nothing much, except that a more powerful two-seater light-aeroplane was needed by the growing number of Flying Clubs and private aviators, which the advent of the brilliant De Havilland 60 Moth fulfilled in 1925. It first used a Cirrus engine designed by Major Frank Halford, who had raced Alvis and Aston Martin cars before evolving his own Halford Special. He adapted one bank of the war-time Renault V8 aero-engine for his 60 b.h.p. Cirrus I engine. The DH Moth soon establishrd itself as the most famous light-aeroplance of its time, its performance being enhanced by installing successive Cirrus motors up to the 94 b.h.p. Cirrus III of 1928, which gave the Moth a top speed of over 100 m.p.h. Later came the DH Gipsy engine, which developed 120 b.h.p. in its third manifestation, pushing the Moth’s speed to 109 m.p.h., and then the 130 b.h.p. Gipsy-Major engine, with which the Moth Major became a 113 m.p.h. aeroplane.

So very successful was the DH 60 Moth that similar biplanes soon appeared, such as the Avro Avian, Blackburn Bluebird, Robinson Redwing, Simmonds Spartan, Southern Martlett and Westland Widgeon etc., of what in the car world any known as the vintage years. However, to most people the light ‘plane of that period was the De Havilland Moth. This is not surprising, because in an age of sheer aviation adventure, the like of which we shall never see again, with long-distance flights being undertaken by such World-famous pilots for instance (my list isn’t complete) as Neville Stack, Lt. Bentley, Capt. Lancaster, Bert Hinkler, Lady Heath, Lady Bailey, Lt. Murdock, the Sibours, Capt. Rattray, Sdn. Ldr. Slatter, Francis Chichester, Aspy Merman, Amy Johnson, the Hon. Mrs. Victor Bruce, Kingsford Smith, Garden, C.W.A. Scott, Jim Mollinson, and Jean Batten, between 1926 and 1934, they all used the DH 60 except Lancaster, Murdock, Kingsford Smith, Hinkler and Lady Heath, who used Avro Avians, and Mrs. Bruce and Slatter, who flew Blackburn Bluebirds.

The standard of flying at the subsidised British Clubs at this time was very high, and remarkably inexpensive. I remember a budding young pilot who had recently gone solo at Brooklands (on a DH Moth, of course) who told me gleefully, as we travelled from there to London by train, how much he was looking forward to the next day, when he was borrowing his father’s Citroen and driving back to Brooklands with his girl-friend, in order to take her up. When I next met him I asked how it had worked out. “Well,” he replied, “in fact, my Instructor took my girl-friend for her flip”. It was that kind of common-sense that made Club flying safer than motor-racing. I also recall how cross Duncan Davis, Head of the Brooklands School of Flying, was, after a titled Lady had fallen out of her Simmonds Spartan and killed herself, because this had happened directly in front of the Club House and the wreckage couldn’t be removed until it had been inspected by an AM representative, which Duncan Davis felt was a very bad advertisement for private flying. . .

British Flying Clubs were subsidised from 1925 and this resulted in comparatively cheap tuition, and a great increase in the numbers of aeroplanes intended for private owners. One remembers the ultra-safe BA Swallow low-wing monoplane, usually Salmson-powered, the Desoutter, the Blackburn B2, and leaving out sporting machines such as the marvellous little Camper Swift, the Percival Mew Gull, the Hendy Heck and the TK2, etc., those machines intended as a return to the “Aviation For Everyone” theme. These latter embraced such hopeful aeroplanes as the Douglas-powered BAC Drone, Aeronca-JAP, Carden-Baynes, Broughton-Blayney-Brawney, the Chilton, the original Currie-Wot-JAP, the Dart Pup, Kitten and two-stroke Flittermouse, the Hillson Praga, the Piper Cub, the Kronfield Drone and variants thereof, the Luton Minor, the Taylorcraft, the Tipsy S and others, up the present-day VW-engined Tubulent. Mostly, however, this was a regression to under-powered machines, even though engine reliability had improved. Moreover, many of these aeroplanes were one-seaters and, as C.G. Grey liked to point out, as soon as a man has earned sufficient money to buy a motorcycle he fits a flapper-bracket and those able to afford private aeroplanes (pillion-seat) to it so as to take a female with likewise unlikely, apart from racing, to want to fly far unless accompanied by a girl-friend. (Grey certainly disliked two-cylinder “pop-bottle” aeroplanes that he knew wouldn’t remain up if one “pot” cut out, and he was against “Mr. Average Citizen” aviating over defenceless populations.)

All this was as nothing to M. Henri Mignet, who brought his Pou du Ciel to this countly in 1934. The idea was that you built yours in the home garage or even in the kitchen, using glue and packing cases, and his book-of-instructions. The thing was supposed to cost about £55-£90 with engine, if made in this way. Mignet flew his Pou across the Channel (but an unrestored 1912 Caudron had done this at much the same time). Unless given a sound and fairly useful engine, such as a twin-ignition Ford Ten, the many Pous built before the war by amateur fliers were underpowered. They also stalled easily and dived uncontrollably to the ground. This killed several Pou-pilots including the Air League’s own test-pilot. Insurance interests protested, and Permits to Fly Pous were soon withdrawn.

Since WW2 private flying has endured increasing restrictions, like compulsory radio equipment, etc., but has survived. Now it looks as if a new era of “Aviation for Everyone” may be starting, with the advent of powered hang-gliders, of which some ten different types, from the 12 h.p. Lazair to the 35 h.p. Condor, are apparently available in this country. They may or may not be safe but they have the known disadvantage of being unusable in any sort of wind, whereas at Lympne 58 years ago high winds did not prevent take-offs. So will the powered hang-glider advance the cause of inexpensive private flying or will it all fade away, as did the 1923 motor-gliders and M. Kisnet’s ill-fated Pou du Ciel? — W.B.

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