Harry Hawker - Aviator & Racing Driver

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Harry Hawker was both a brilliant pilot and a formidable racing driver. He knew no fear, took everything to the limit and paid the ultimate price. Bill Boddy remembers his inevitably short career

Harry George Hawker was born in Victoria, Australia, in January 1889. His father was a blacksmith, who came to England in 1897 and won the Queen’s Prize at Bisley in the rifle-shooting competition. His son left school at 12, joined a garage for five shillings a week, then joined the Tarrant Motor Co. He became a good driver at 15, left to look after a fleet of cars, then, aged 20 left for England intent upon learning to fly. With money exhausted, Hawker got a job for 7d an hour in 1911 at Commer’s, then moved to Mercedes and Austro-Daimler.

Harry spent his spare time watching the flying at Brooklands. In 1912 he started as a mechanic at Sopwith’s and so impressed Mr Sigrist that he gained Permission from Mr Tom Sopwith for Hawker to take lessons at the Sopwith School.

A good position at Sopwith’s followed and Hawker’s brilliant future was soon predicted when he took his certificate and worried the competition when flying a Sopwith-Fannan, beating his boss, Sopwith. In 1912 he raised the British Duration Record with the Curtiss-Wright biplane to 8hr 23min, landing by petrol flares, just seven minutes before Michelin’s time-limit expired. (He received 25 per cent of the £500 prize.)

He did much racing, and demonstrating at Brooklands with Sopwiths and took the British Height Record to 11,450ft, behind an 80hp Gnome rotary engine. He was now well-known, a sturdy, cheery man with friends at Hendon, Farnborough and at the Olympia Aero Show, as well as Brooklands. More altitude records were broken with one or more passengers, and the Mortimer-Singer £500 prize won, in a difficult event involving sea flights and several landings with a 100hp Sopwith seaplane; Sopwith got the lolly, Harry a souvenir.

Graduating to International competition, Hawker took on the Daily Mail Round-Britain seaplane race for a £5000 prize, Hawker and his mechanic Kauper the only contestants in a Sopwith seaplane with six-cylinder 100hp Green engine. McClean’s Short, Radly’s Gordon England with a too-experimental machine with three Green engines in tandem having withdrawn. The other entrant, Cody had crashed fatally the week before. The pair got to Yarmouth from Southampton when Harry was taken ill from fumes and Pickles was sent for, to continue the flight.

Then drama! In a heavy sea Pickles drifted onto the beach and the Sopwith had to be tailed back, for a fresh start with a longer exhaust pipe. This time Hawker got nearly to Dublin, where new valves and springs awaited the Green engine. But the Sopwith side-slipped into the sea on landing, Kauper breaking an arm. That ended the attempt, but the 1043 miles flown was a seaplane record; the Mail awarded Hawker £1000. In testing the rebuilt machine at Brooklands Harry crashed sustaining a back injury which would plague him ever after.

He flew for Sopwith in the 1913 Aerial Derby and was a close third, at 67mph. He did well in the Brooklands’ handicaps but in the Michelin Contest crashed the Gnome-Sopwith on the banks of the Wey near the Track and again hurt his back. In further attempts a violent headache, fuel feed problems, and fog lost him the £800 prize.

Late in 1913 Hawker was test-flying the Sopwith Tabloid (80hp Gnome) a highly successful design in early form with warping wings. It could do 94mph. Harry soon had the first one out of its packing case and lapping the Track, then to Hendon for aerobatics. It was to publicise this new machine that Hawker returned to his native Australia, with Pixton taking his place as Sopwith’s Chief Test Pilot and winning the 1914 Schneider Trophy with a float version. Harry’s visit involved much demonstration flying, during which he took on Lord Denman, the Governor General, at Sydney race-course, and many brave girls, surviving a nose dive into a ploughed field and another crash. The faithful Kauper was with him and the Tabloid was garaged with the Crossley agent Bob Chamberlain, Harry’s uncle, whose aged 4-litre lorry acted as tender to the aeroplane. (Chamberlain rebuilt the famous racing Napier ‘Samson’ and brought it to England in 1961).

Returning home in June 1914, Hawker flew the day after, from Brooklands, the first time since his accident in Australia. He would do engine-off loop-the-loops in a Tabloid. This time he crashed trying to master the spinning-dive, emerging unhurt again, a coppice on St George’s Hill, Weybridge thankfully cushioning the fall of the Sopwith Scout (100hp Gnome). Typically, he persevered and finally completed this dangerous manoeuvre. He spent the war years with the design and testing of the Company’s fighters such as the ‘One-and-a Half Strutter’, Pup and Camel. The last-named was our most successful fighter in WW1 and was largely the work of Hawker, who flew this difficult aeroplane with his usual skill. He also had much to do with pioneer deck-landings, at first from the Cunard liner Campania, later from HMS Furious, etc. He also advised about new engines used by French squadrons, whom Harry visited.

Romance blossomed when Hawker met Muriel Peaty. She was a sporting young lady, able to drive while still a schoolgirl. In Richmond Park one day in 1915 her light car stopped with water in the petrol. Hawker, passing in his Gregoire, got it going and later invited Miss Peaty out in his 27/80hp Austro-Daimler, which he drove fast, once ending up in the ditch beside the Brooklands Aerodrome road. Unknown to her parents, Miss Peaty and her friend went for drives with Harry and his friend. They were married at St Peter’s, Ealing, in 1917. Together they built a car with a 225hp Sunbeam engine in an old 35hp Mercedes chassis (see Aero-Engined Racing Cars, Haynes) having tired of running the Gregoire on coal-gas. It was an exciting car, supplemented by a Model T Ford.

The happy couple lived at ‘Ennadale’, at Hook in Surrey and had two daughters.

In 1919 came the greatest adventure of all — the Trans-Atlantic flight for the £40,000 Daily Mail prize. The outcome is well-known. The Sopwith Atlantic biplane with a 360hp V12 Rolls Royce Eagle engine was prepared and taken to Newfoundland. It had a 330-gallon fuel tank and weighed 6150lbs. The undercarriages would be jettisoned after take-off. Hawker took as his navigator, on whose skill so much depended, Lieutenant Commander Mackenzie Grieve, whom he had met in his RNAS days. What happened became aviation legend. The engine began to boil 110 miles out in mid-Atlantic, and cut in and out. They found a steamer-route and were picked-up by the SS Mary, but as it had no radio, the aviators were thought lost and Mrs Hawker received a long telegram of condolence from H M King George V. The little steamer was eventually able to signal ashore the great news and Hawker and Grieve were taken on board the destroyer HMS Woolston and transferred to the Flagship HMS Revenge.

A Memorial Service was taking place at Hook when the telegram boy arrived… After a thanksgiving service a few days later bedecked with an Australian flag, the Sunbeam-Mercedes was got out by Muriel Hawker’s brother to rush to London, being excused of speeding up Putney Hill. The aviators were being brought down by train, waving crowds assembling at the wayside stations with an immense crowd greeting those down by at Kings Cross. And another telegram from the King! In pre-TV days real visual response was the norm…

Two technical aspects: It was suggested that the cooling water boiled because the radiator shutter control had been reversed, so that these were shut when Hawker thought them open; but overheating would have happened soon after the full-load, full throttle take-off, not halfway across ‘the pond’. Anyway, Hawker said he dosed them before ditching, to prevent sea water turning into steam as it wet the radiator and scalding Greive in the front cockpit The real reason, Hawker said was a choked filter on the water pump; this was clear when the Atlantic was salvaged and examined (to be displayed on Selfridges’ roof in Oxford Street) but he said the long immersion in the sea cleared it. Bob Chamberlain reckoned that it was ice blocking the radiator and water pipes. The cutting-out and recovery of the engine he suggested was carburettor icing-up, about which little was known in 1919. Alcock and Brown experienced it on their successful crossing in the Vickers Vimy.

So great were the crowds when the heroes were later due at the Royal Aero Club, that Hawker had to abandon the 40/50 Rolls-Royce tourer for a police horse. Next day he went to Buckingham Palace for the King to award him, a civilian, the Air Force Cross. After which the Daily Mail lunched them at the Savoy and handed over the £5000 cheque. Then it was preparation for the Schneider Trophy race at Bournemouth with the Sopwith Schneider (450hp Cosmos Jupiter). Twice it nearly sank, Harry having narrow escapes. He’d used his racing boat as transport between Hythe and Southampton and the big Sunbeam to tow the seaplane back to Ham for repairs. The event was declared ‘no race’ because of fog and Hawker went stag-hunting. After overturning his boat Antelope II, throwing his wife and sister, in fur coats, into the sea he turned to a new pursuit – motor racing.

The post-war slump and reduction in RAF strength hit the aircraft industry hard and the Sopwith Company had turned to making Hawker motorcycles. Louis Coatalen, whom Harry had probably met in his RNAS days when Sunbeam engines were widely used, let him drive his postwar racing cars. At the 1920 Whitsun meeting Hawker won both the short and long Lightning Handicaps in the 1919 4.9-litre single-seater Sunbeam, the latter at 101.25mph. Coatalen then gave Hawker the honour of driving the 350hp V12 18.3-litre Sunbeam, the then-fastest car at Brooklands. In practice on the morning of the Summer meeting a front tyre burst and the big car crashed through the corrugated-iron fence bordering the Railway straight. Hawker was unhurt.

At the Hendon Air Display he gave demonstration flights and flew the Sopwith Rainbow in the 1920 King’s Cup Race, the renamed Schneider Trophy machines now on wheels, and with an ABC Dragonfly engine. It lost second place on a technicality. A busy period followed, flying the Antelope now with Viper engine in the Air Ministry trials, racing the hydroplane Maple Leaf (four 400hp Sunbeam engines) at Cowes, and the big Sunbeam.

Sleet in December made an attempt on Benz’s Land Speed Record impossible but the mighty V12 Sunbeam still took Hawker to 125mph.

After a (useless) try to race a DFP, for which he had the Australian agency, Hawker worked, long and very hard, with Weller in developing the four-cylinder ohc AC racing engine. He was rewarded, after many `blow-ups’ with very fully streamlined Hawker-made body on a long-wheelbase chassis, upon being the first driver to exceed ‘the ton’ with a 1.5-litre car, at 105.14mph over the half mile. In 1921 Kaye Don’s AC did 100.4mph over the kilo but it was a year before this was done for a mile as Frazer Nash used to observe “A kilometre is one thing but a mile is a very long way indeed”. The Hawker AC also took a second and twice beat the racing car in spring matches. The patient Muriel used to tow the AC behind her once-smart Minerva saloon to her husband’s home workshop and his Rolls-Royce turned into a truck.

There was a narrow escape with the AC when the bonnet flew up and broke Hawker’s Triplex goggles, sending him off the Brooklands’ concrete. Sadly, I suppose a life filled with so much adventure had to end early. It did so, on July 12, 1921. The Nieuport Goshawk was entered for the King’s Cup. Harry rode from Hook to Hendon on a 2-stoke Hawker, in itself no mean journey through busy Kingston and across London, to test it. It caught fire and crashed near the aerodrome; he was flung out, and killed instantly. It was alleged that he had collapsed from a long-endured spinal illness. But it was surely more likely that, after doing all the correct things to keep the flames away from the cockpit, with his shoes badly burned, he stood up when landing, ready to jump out, and lost control.

A brave, adventurous career had ended the Sunbeam-Mercedes took flowers to the funeral and King George sent another telegram…

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