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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin

Early Flying In The North Of Scotland
G Watson

Fresson and Gandar-Dower are rightly considered as the pioneers of commercial flying in the north and over the years their contribution has been recorded in numerous books and articles. Rather less well-known are the many flights which took place during the two decades before Fresson appeared on the scene.

As with so many innovations the earliest recorded flight happened by accident when in December 1910 three Germans took off in a balloon from outside Munich, heading they thought for Switzerland. Once aloft the weather changed, cloud built up, the wind veered and by nightfall they were completely lost. In the morning hearing the sound of the sea they descended for a look. Unfortunately their basket bounced off the top of a wave then shot upwards. When they had recovered their wits Herren Distler and Joerdens realised that their companion Herr Metzger had been thrown out of the basket. He was never seen again. As the second night approached the two survivors saw some lights and started another descent. Once again the basket hit the sea before being dragged ashore by the partially deflated balloon. They found themselves on the outskirts of Kirkwall. This pioneering flight had all the ingredients associated with early flight, daring, inexperience, tragedy and a large amount of luck.

Only three years after Bleriot crossed the Channel a similar monoplane named ‘Firefly’ appeared at the Strathpeffer Games on 24th August 1912. This appears to be the first heavier than air machine to fly north of the Great Glen. It was piloted by B C Hucks who it would seem was on a national barn-storming tour for there are photographs of the same combination flying in Norfolk just three weeks earlier. Hucks was a well known pilot having been the first man to loop-the-loop in an aeroplane.

With the First World War looming, the Admiralty authorised £10,000 pounds to establish an air station at Cromarty. The station commander, Lt A M Longmore, supervised the erection of Bessoneaux (canvas on wooden frame) hangars which had come by sea from Sheerness. By July 1913 he had at least three aircraft under his command. A Maurice Farman seaplane (RFC No 117) powered by a 120hp Renault engine; a Sopwith HT seaplane (RFC No 59) with a 100hp Anzani engine; and a Borel monoplane seaplane (RFC No 85) with a Gnome engine of 80hp. At this time Winston Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty. When he visited the station on the 8 October 1913 he was taken up by Lt Longmore in the Maurice Farman, for a flight around the Cromarty Firth which was at this time a major naval anchorage. Churchill was so impressed that he asked for another flight the following day but the plane crashed during a pre-flight test, and Churchill had to wait for his next flight until he arrived at Scapa Flow. The seaplane base at Cromarty was short-lived, probably because the firth was so busy with naval ships and boats. A new site was found near Fort George on the Moray Firth and the Cromarty planes were transferred there towards the end of 1913.

Churchill continued his inspection tour to Scapa Flow onboard the Admiralty Yacht Enchantress, where despite his busy schedule he managed a couple of flights round the anchorage in hydroplanes from HMS Furious.

Earlier, air cover for Scapa Flow had been provided by HMS Hermes which had arrived on the 22 August 1913 with two hydroplanes, a French built Caudron amphibian (RFC No 55), powered by an 80hp Gnome engine, this plane was reported as having blue wings which distinguished it from the white winged British built plane. The British plane was probably a Short Folder seaplane (RFC No 81). As was usual at this time, these planes took off and landed on the water having been hoisted on and off the mother ship by crane. However on 28th July this Caudron took off from a trackway on the deck of HMS Hermes while the ship was steaming at 10 knots into the wind.

With the Declaration of War on 4th August 1914 air cover at Scapa increased, initially in a rather haphazard way with two planes being dumped unceremoniously in a field of oats at Nether Scapa. During August five planes can be positively identified although there may have been others. The first was a landplane, a Short biplane (RFC No3) with a 70hp Gnome engine, but within a few weeks it was transferred to Dunkirk. The remainder were all seaplanes, a Sopwith Bat-boat (RFC No 38) with a 90hp Austro-Daimler engine; two Short seaplanes (RFC No 74 & 77) powered by 100hp Gnome engines and a Henry Farman seaplane (RFC No 97) with an 80 hp engine.

The first aeroplane to land in Caithness, was en-route from Scapa to Eastchurch in Kent, when for some unspecified reason the pilot decided to put down in a field near Thurso East Lodge just before noon on Friday 4th September 1914.

The following week the incident was noted in a short paragraph in the Caithness Courier written partly in dialect, “Hev ‘e seen ‘e fleeing ship” “It’s at ‘e Porter Lodge - hund’ers are seein’ it”. Two photographs of the visitor show that there was indeed a good crowd around the plane, and it can be identified as a Sopwith D1 (RFC No 104). Interestingly, when this incident was reported by the John O’Groat Journal the “e’ fleeing ship” became an “airship” which circled the town apparently without landing.

In 1915-16 the Royal Navy established airship stations at Luce Bay, Wigtownshire; East Fortune, East Lothian; Longside (or Lenabo) near Peterhead; and Caladale in Orkney. They serviced dirigibles both rigid and non-rigid, whose great range and endurance made them superior to aeroplanes for anti submarine patrols. These stations also prepared observer carrying kite balloons which were towed by merchant and naval vessels. From the inland site at Caladale, the balloons were towed by lorry to a shore station at Houton bay.

Some details of the flight of one British dirigible have been published. It took off from East Fortune and travelled up the east coast to Orkney where it was diverted to escort a convoy through the Pentland Firth. It replenished its supply of drinking water by lowering a line to one of the accompanying destroyers. Later this manoeuvre was repeated over a trawler this time taking a hot meal on board. Its total flying time was 61 hours during which it covered 1400 miles.

In Scapa Flow, in August 1917, Commander Edwin Dunning made the first successful British attempt to take off and land from the deck of a moving aircraft carrier. Unfortunately he was killed the following day trying to repeat the manoeuvre. His Sopwith Pup overshot the flight deck and was run down by the aircraft carrier HMS Furious, which was steaming at full speed into the wind.

A seaplane base originally established on the Loch of Stenness was transferred to Houton where eventually there were some twenty five flying boats and a number of seaplanes. These planes must have made many flights over Caithness for they hunted enemy submarines in the North Sea and along the north coast as far as Loch Eriboll. At the end of the war they provided a jubilant escort to the German Fleet as it steamed into Scapa Flow.

With the cessation of military operations there was a lull in flying activity in the north. Never the less the war had boosted civilian interest in flying and by the 1920s various attempts were being made to fly round the world. In July 1924 three American seaplanes engaged on such a mission, landed at Houton to prepare for their next stage to Iceland.

Two of the planes, piloted by Lt Lowell Smith and Lt Nelson, eventually reached Reykjavik, the third piloted by Lt Wade was forced down onto the sea about 115 miles west of Orkney and had to be rescued by the American cruiser Richmond. Within days the Americans were followed by an Italian crew in a Dornier WAL flying boat which reached Iceland safely but later crashed there.

The first aerial journey from Lands End to John O’Groats was completed in October 1926 by the Master of Semple flying a De Haviland Moth. He took 8 hours 14 minutes which included a brief stop at Shotwich near Chester. Shortly after taking off on the return journey engine trouble developed and the plane was badly damaged in the forced landing. It was transported to Wick and completed the return journey to Croydon by train. Shortly before his successful flight to John O’Groats the Master of Semple had made a reconnaissance flight to the area and on a later flight on 16th August 1928 he landed a seaplane at Scrabster.

On 28th July 1930 two Germans, Wolfram Hirth and Oscar Weller landed at Kirkwall in a single engined monoplane with a 40 foot wing-span. They left on the 1st August and arrived in Iceland 12 hours later. They must have damaged the plane there, for it is reported that they completed their journey to America by ship.

In the summer of 1930 Mr Edward Cohen accompanied by his brother Alan from Chester made a holiday visit to Dornoch in their private two seater biplane (G-AAGR). [probably a DH60 Moth.]

During the inter-war years the Royal Navy made regular summer visits to Cromarty and Scapa. Seaplanes attached to the fleet made many training flights around the northern coastline seeking sheltered locations which could be used for emergency landings. Several sightings of these large flying boats over Wick and Thurso are mentioned in the local newspapers. The Caithness Courier ( Fri 12 Sept 1930) has a particularly full account:-

“ On Thursday afternoon last [4th Sept] the Southhampton flying boat S1059 landed in Thurso Bay and anchored off Thurso Harbour. The boat is engaged in a coastal survey of the harbours, and was commanded by Squadron Leader Orlebar (of Schneider Cup fame). The other officers being Flying Officers King and Shelly. The officers came ashore in a small collapsible boat and interviewed the harbour master (Mr Malcolm Brock). A large crowd watched the arrival and departure of the flying boat which left after two hours stay for Shetland.

It was a fine sight to watch the boat skidding along the water at great speed, with the accompanying roar of powerful engines and then rise gracefully into the air. In addition to the officers there were four of a crew”.

This flying boat had been photographed in Wick bay two days earlier and there is also a very fine photograph of it on the beach at Nether Scapa about this time.

After the 1st World War the Germans continued the development of airships and in 1929 the Graf Zeppelin flew round the world, covering 21,500 miles in 21 days, which included one non-stop leg of 7000 miles from Friedrickshaven to Tokyo. Such performance raised the idea of a regular luxury air service across the Atlantic and the two recorded flights of this giant airship along the Scottish coast and over the Orkneys were probably reconnaissance trips for this project. On the 11th July 1930 it was sighted well out to sea off Wick. It made a diversion passing close to Proudfoot and over the bay before heading out to sea again. There is no record of it being sighted locally when it repeated the journey the following year.

Under the headline, Aeronautic and Aerobatic Display, the John O’Groat Journal for Friday August 29, 1930, continues :- “At Wick Gala held at the Riverside on Wednesday (27 Aug) thousands of people saw a thrilling aerial acrobatic display by Captain B J Hanstock, RAF, in the Anglo American Oil Co aeroplane Miss Ethyl. The plane was expected to arrive at Stirkoke at 11-30 on Wednesday but was delayed owing to a broken tail skid. In the afternoon Captain Hanstock arrived at Stirkoke and landed safely in a field near the plantation, prepared by Mr W J Connolly, local district manager for Anglo American Co. About four o’clock the spectators saw the plane appear in the sky coming from the direction of the river. Its belated arrival was hailed with great jubilation and when the aeroplane started to loop the loop and dive and turn the people forgot the sporting events on seeing this new spectacle. It was the first time the majority of them had seen a plane “stunting”. After circling above the arena a number of times Captain Hanstock flew back again to Stirkoke”.

When commercial flying was introduced the following year local people took to it like ducks to water. Some like Mr Daniel Swanson of Thurso had been thinking about it for many years. The report of his death, the Caithness Courier (Nov 11, 1927) states :- “He claimed to be one of the first inventors of the aeroplane. During the Boer War he suggested that the aeroplane be used for dropping bombs on the enemy, but it was thought to be too barbarous. ....... he also had an idea of an automatic buffer for aeroplanes, so that when anything went wrong with the engines, instead of being crashed on striking the ground there would only be a slight rebound.”

Mr Swanson must have written of his ideas to the paper the previous year for in the Courier (May 21 1926) a correspondent with the initials J.H. refuted his claims and went on :- “Over 30 years ago I can prove that I offered to construct what I called then a flying machine that would be steered like a ship and would carry men and a fair load according to the size of the machine. The Lords of the Admiralty replied to my letters several times with very nice letters; but at that time they considered that it was impossible for a machine to fly and carry men and a fair load, and I am afraid that My Lords of the Admiralty put me down as a crank.” With hindsight we can smile at this naive approach to aircraft design but they were at least thinking of the hi-tech problems of their day.

In the North there were of course ex-servicemen with practical wartime experience in the RFC and RAF and it is not surprising to find a civilian flying club at Inverness in 1928 some two years before Fresson’s arrival.

Britain’s First Warplanes, J M Bruce, 1987.
Aviation, C H Gibbs-Smith, 1985.
This Great Harbour Scapa Flow, W S Hewison, 1985.
Early Flying in Orkney, Rev Dr T Crouther Gordon, DFC, 1985.
A Steep Turn To The Stars, J Hughes, 1991.
Victorian & Edwardian Highlands From Old Photographs, F Thompson, 1976.
This Noble Harbour, M Ash, 1991.

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