Those magnificent men in their flying machines...
- Credit: Archant
IN an era when flight was in its infancy and pilots were – as the song goes - “daring young men in their flying machines”, a long and testing race with a huge cash prize for the winner proved irresistible.
A century ago the Daily Mail offered £5000 (the equivalent of £325,000 today) for the first circumnavigational flight around Britain, and four pilots accepted the challenge. Among them was Harry Hawker, with his fellow-Australian mechanic Harry Kauper, putting their faith in a specially-built Sopwith Circuit float-plane.
The Seaplane Circuit of Britain was scheduled to start from Southampton Water in mid-August 1913 but it transpired that Hawker and Kauper’s plane was the only contestant. One scheduled pilot had been killed in a flying accident a week before the race, and two others withdrew because of engine problems.
So, it seemed as though they were in for a big pay-day if they succeeded in flying anti-clockwise around the coast of Britain.
The 1450-mile race was divided into nine stages, and Hawker and Kauper completed the 96-mile second (Ramsgate to Great Yarmouth), bringing their total mileage up 240, and came ashore on Gorleston beach, relieved to do so because of a combination of sickness caused by fumes from a broken exhaust, and sunstroke.
Aware that the punishing next seven stages were beyond them, and they were forced to abandon their bid. But nine days later they were back on Southampton Water to launch their second attempt to win the newspaper’s prize. Again they were doomed to failure.
For after flying up the east coast and round Scotland, Hawker decided to alight in the sea near Dublin to make engine adjustments almost at the end of their seventh leg, totalling 1000 miles flying altogether. But his foot slipped off the rudder bar during landing and the Sopwith side-slipped into the sea.
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The aircraft was destroyed, Kauper broke his arm, but Hawker escaped with a ducking.
Although the grand prize eluded Hawker, the Daily Mail awarded him £1000 as a consolation for “a remarkable flight.”
My principal photograph today captures the 1913 scene when this seaplane came ashore at Gorleston at the end of its abortive first bid for that £5000 prize. Considering its stop-over must have been well-publicised hereabouts, I am surprised the beach and vantage points were not thronged that August Saturday.
The picture does show curious spectators, although not nearly as many as I would have expected. I assume the lower promenade and clifftop were lined with sightseers.
But all seems remarkably serene and calm, with a paddler or two behind the tail of the Sopwith Circuit. Authorities? Well, a uniformed man with a white-topped peaked cap – possibly the beach inspector - is strolling towards the seaplane.
Perhaps crowds were waiting at Yarmouth but the Sopwith came ashore in Gorleston...
According to an internet website, to mark the centenary an attempt is being made this summer to complete the same circuit in the only Catalina amphibian still flying in the UK. The plane will follow as closely as possible the original route over a five-day flight.
The 2013 challenge is being mounted by pilot Jeff Boyling who is seeking sponsors to cover operating costs.
If the Catalina ends a stage in the borough, media publicity will doubtless ensure that its arrival and departure will create more of a stir than the two Harrys did a century earlier. But times have changed, and cynics will probably expect sightseers to be kept marshalled far from the visiting aircraft, not free to wander around at close quarters as in 1913.
Those cynics will envisage that the Catalina’s presence on our foreshore will provoke the mobilisation of bureaucrats and so-called jobsworths fortified with rules and regulations to ensure that “No Aircraft Parking” signs have not been flouted, supported by police with “do not cross” taped barricades to seal off a swathe of coastline and keep sightseers and the curious public at distance and thus unable to meddle.
Will the welcoming committee also include Border Agency immigration personnel, coastguards, anti-pollution squad, environmental protectors, ambulances and fire appliances, Revenue and Customs, health officials, beach inspector, perhaps military? And let us not forget the risk assessment experts and “no win – no fee” claim litigation lawyers...
Would there be a dispute over who was senior and in overall charge?
Mind you, if Yarmouth is on the itinerary, perhaps the Catalina will cruise unobtrusively into the outer harbour so nobody can glimpse it, although I cannot imagine it berthing there because publicity is an key part of the project.
Yarmouth has another entry in the history of aviation, for also in 1913 the Royal Navy Air Station on the South Denes – with its official HQ a mile away in the long-serving Mercury office at 25 Regent Street - was established on a five-acre site and played an important role in defending us from Zeppelin airship raids in the 1914-18 war.
In 1913 a Royal Navy seaplane carrier, HMS Hermes, participated in manoeuvres for the first time and, while she steamed, a Caudron aircraft took off from a platform on her deck. This was a pioneering feat, and the Caudron landed at Yarmouth. According to one account: “It is the first time an aircraft launches from the deck of a ship and lands ashore.”
That picture of the Sopwith Circuit on Gorleston beach reminds us of the original Cliff Hotel, an imposing structure dominating the skyline. It was built on the site of a former defensive gun battery; when the battery was removed, Land’s End House was constructed but around the turn of the last century it was considerably enlarged to become the Cliff Hotel.
A major event held there was a civic banquet to celebrate the 1905 opening of the new electric tramway from Southtown to Gorleston.
But disaster struck the Cliff Hotel when it was gutted by fire on Boxing Day 1915. It is said that the present Cliff Hotel, still happily trading today, was created in the original building’s former coach house (on the right of the main picture).