Why 1909/2009?


Why 1909 / 2009 ?   

Various claims are made regarding the start date of controlled flight in Britain.

The American, Samuel F. Cody, is credited with the first official flight of a ‘heavier than air machine' in the British Isles, achieving a flight of 1,390 feet on October 16th 1908 in British Army Aeroplane No.1. Cody was working for the War Office but the machine was damaged at the end of this flight and the War Office then decided that there was no future in aeroplanes. With no funds for repair, Cody's contract with the Army ended. Cody became a British citizen in 1909 and was awarded Royal Aero Club flying certificate No.9, in 1910.  He died on 7th August 1913 when flying a floatplane of his own design. His machine broke up at 500 feet killing him and his passenger. Unusually for a civilian, he was buried with full military honours in Aldershot Military Cemetery, a mark of the respect in which he was held.

Alliott Verdon-Roe (later Sir Alliott Verdon-Roe) made several flights under tow in June/July 1908 at Brooklands and, in his own words “… nearly left the ground” in his biplane on a powered run He left Brooklands shortly afterwards and continued his experimental flights at Hackney and Walthamstow Marshes, a Blue Plaque on Walthamstow railway arches records that he made his first powered flight in a British built aircraft in July 1909, A recent article in the Daily Mail (15/05/07) credits Roe with being the first to fly in this country, on June 8th 1908.

J. T. C. Moore-Brabazon flew his Voisin ‘Pusher’ aircraft at Leysdown, on the Isle of Sheppey, on 2nd May 1909. This later became officially recognised as the first controlled power flight by a British pilot in Britain. Subsequently, on the 8th March 1910, he was granted Royal Aero Club Flying Certificate No.1.

In 1925 the Royal Aero Club appointed a committee consisting of Lord Gorell, Capt G. de Havilland and Lieutenant Colonel W. Lockwood-Marsh to resolve the question of  ‘who was the first British subject to make the first flight in a heavier-than-air aircraft in the British Isles and the date of such flight’.

A. H. Phillips, A. V. Roe and J. T. C. Moore-Brabazon submitted claims. The committee reported in 1926 they had decided the claims of Mr Phillips and Mr Roe could not be admitted, but that the claim by Moore-Brabazon as substantiated and should be placed on record, ‘May 2nd 1909 should be accepted as the date on which a British subject first made a flight in the British Isles.’

Although both The Royal Aero Club and The Royal Aeronautical Society have details of those early flights, opinions still conflict on ‘who was really first’. Even the Wright Brothers were not officially recognised by their home country until the mid 20th century.

British Aviation started on Sheppey in early 1909 and continued for over 40 years. The events planned for ‘Sky Sheppey – 2009’ are concerned with celebrating the work and feats of the pioneers of Aviation and Manufacturers who, here on the Island, did so much for British aviation. 

Early in 1909 some 400 acres of land was purchased at Muswell Manor, Leysdown by Mr. Griffith Brewer and C. S. Rolls. (Sir) Frank McClean paid for the land to be converted into a suitable airfield – the first in the UK and where the Short Bros established the world’s first true aircraft factory It was here that members of the Aero Club of Great Britain became established and conducted experiments.

4th May 1909. Muswell Manor, Leysdown. Standing left to right T.D.F.Andrews, Oswald,Horace and Eustace Short, Frank McClean, Griffith Brewer, Frank Hedges Butler, Dr.W.J.S.Lockyer and Warwick Wright. Seated left to right are J.T.C.Moore-Brabazon, Wilbur and Orville Wright and the Hon.C.S.Rolls.

A more suitable flying site was purchased at Eastchurch and the Shorts Factory and the Aero Club moved there in late 1909 The Wright Bothers visited Leysdown and Eastchurch. They had chosen the Short Brothers for building their plane under license because of the isolated location of their factory!


McCleans Aerial View of Eastchurch Flying Field. Photo taken c1910 but occupancy c1912

A. Short Brothers Factory (3 Buildings)  B. Navy Bungalow  C. Travers shed & ground  D. Frank McClean. (1 shed)  E. Bleriot monoplane  F. Short Monoplane  G. Short triple tractor biplane  H. Frank McClean. (4 sheds)

I. Prof. Huntingdon  J. Hon. Egerton. (2 sheds)  K. Frank McClean’s Cottage  L. Short Brothers factory & ground  M. Navy shed

J.T.C. Moore-Brabazon flew in a Voisin ‘Pusher’ on May 2nd 1909 at Leysdown. He also won the Daily Mail £1000 prize for being the first British pilot to fly a British plane, a Short’s No.2, for a circular mile, 30th October 1909. He was awarded Royal Aero Club Pilots certificate No.1 in March 1910.

In 1909 Lt. J.W. Dunne arrived on Sheppey where the Short Brothers built, to his design, a tailless bi-plane with V-shaped wings. The success of his design was such that in 1913 it successfully flew from Eastchurch to Paris. Much of the technology he devised is still in use today.

During 1910 (Sir) Frank McClean offered to loan aeroplanes to the Royal Navy to train Officers to fly and on March 2nd 1911 four Naval officers arrived for training. Following the successful completion of the course Eastchurch became the founding station of the Royal Naval Air Service. Shortly after the outbreak of World War 1, three squadrons were sent to France where, for a time, the Eastchurch squadron was called the Sheppey Squadron.

Whilst he was First Lord of the Admiralty, (Sir) Winston S. Churchill was taught to fly at Eastchurch.

Although Winston Churchill learned to fly he did not attain a Flying Licence

The modern Flying Boat owes much to the pioneering work of the Short Bros. They experimented and designed ‘ship-planes’ ‘float-planes’ and Seaplanes; these were taken by road to Queenborough for launching. The first launch from a vessel was from HMS Africa off Sheerness. The first vessel sunk by an aircraft launched torpedo was a Turkish cargo vessel; the aircraft involved was a Short 184.

Apart from the memorial window in All Saints Church and statues in Monmouth and Dover to the Hon. C. S. Rolls, the large stone Memorial to Pioneer Airmen in Eastchurch is the only one in the country dedicated to these men.

In December 1939 the airfield became the Polish Training Centre and by March 1940 over 1300 Polish airmen were billeted in the camp or accommodated in requisitioned houses

The Luftwaffe attacked Eastchurch Aerodrome frequently during the Second World War. The first attack took place on Eagle Day, the start of the Battle of Britain, 80 German aircraft attempted the attack, and 50 got through causing considerable damage. Many aircraft were destroyed on the ground and 12 were killed with 24 seriously injured. Due to its vulnerability Eastchurch became a training Station for gunnery and wireless.

In 1950 the airfield was closed and relinquished to the Home Office for the establishment of an open prison. A little known fact, of which very few Islanders are aware, is that within the Prison complex there are roads named to commemorate the early Eastchurch flying days, the naming of these roads probably took place during the time it was an RAF base. They are: Brabazon Road, Roll’s Avenue, Airfield View, McClean Walk, Wright’s Way, Short’s Prospect and Longmore Drive.

The Isle of Sheppey was one of the first places where  ‘heavier than air’ flying developed. It was certainly the cradle of British Aviation and Aircraft Manufacture, which we are proud to celebrate, in 2009, as the Centenary of the Islands involvement with British Aviation and the early Pioneers