Almost 100 years ago, a young Australian pilot set off on a flight around Britain in an attempt to win a £5,000 prize being offered by the Daily Mail newspaper. The pilot was Harry Hawker and his aircraft was a hydro-biplane designed and built by Thomas Sopwith, for whom Hawker worked. Chris Wood reports for GAR.
Contemporary reports describe the aircraft as the Sopwith Tractor Waterplane (tractor meaning that the engine was at the front, pulling, rather than at the back, pushing), and it was based on an earlier landplane, with the addition of a pair of floats. It was powered by a 100 hp water cooled six cylinder Green E6 engine, and cruised at 60 to 65 mph. It followed on from Sopwith’s earlier Bat Boat design, which was the first British flying boat. GAR recently carried a feature on the Bat Boat.
This was the second Circuit of Britain race to be sponsored by the Daily Mail but, unlike the 1911 race, this one was for floatplanes and all the landings had to be at sea. The rules of the competition required the entrants to stop at various control points around the British Isles, starting and finishing on Southampton Water, and to complete the route within 72 hours. The aircraft had to be British built with a British engine and a passenger had to be carried. Initially there were four competitors, but tragically Samuel Cody was killed a few days before the start whilst flying his Waterplane, whilst the other two entrants, James Radley and Frank McClean, were not able to get their aircraft ready in time.
Hawker and his passenger, mechanic Harry Kauper (another Australian and Sopwith employee), set off from Southampton Water on their first attempt at 1147 on Saturday 16 August 1913. They landed successfully at Ramsgate and continued on to Great Yarmouth where Hawker was taken ill, reportedly with sunstroke, although some reports suggested it may have been carbon monoxide poisoning. Attempts to continue the flight with another pilot were thwarted by the weather.
A further attempt was made just over a week later, on Monday 25 August, with the two Harrys getting airborne from Southampton Water at the much earlier time of 0530. The first day saw stops at Ramsgate, Great Yarmouth and Scarborough, before fading light and a misfiring engine resulted in them landing at Beadnell, 20 miles south of Berwick, where they stopped for the night. They were airborne again the next morning on their way to Aberdeen and then via Cromarty to Oban, where they spent the second night. Another early start followed the next morning as they headed for Dublin. However, just a few miles short of their destination, Hawker decided to land early as he was concerned about the engine. In the process of landing, his foot slipped off the rudder bar, he lost control of the aircraft and it crashed into the water. Hawker emerged unscathed but Kauper had a broken arm and the aircraft was badly damaged. Hawker reportedly blamed his wet rubber-soled shoes for the accident, but given the punishing schedule and the ergonomics (or lack of them!) of early aeroplanes, it is possible that fatigue was also a factor and this was alluded to at the time.
The accident put an end to their round Britain attempt after 1,043 of a planned 1,540 miles, but Hawker was awarded a consolation prize of £1,000 by the Daily Mail, in recognition of his skill and courage.
Harry Hawker went on to become Chief Test Pilot for Sopwith and contributed to the design of some of Sopwith’s aircraft, including the Pup and the Camel.
In May 1919 he attempted to become the first to fly non-stop across the Atlantic with navigator Commander Kenneth Mackenzie Grieve, in another competition sponsored by the Daily Mail. However this attempt, in the Sopwith Atlantic, ran into difficulties when the engine overheated and they were forced to ditch, some 750 miles west of Ireland. Fortunately they had time to find a ship to ditch near, so were successfully rescued. Less than a month later the prize was won by Alcock and Brown in a Vickers Vimy.
Having built thousands of military aircraft during World War One, the Sopwith Aviation Company struggled after the cessation of hostilities and was eventually wound up in 1920. However, Tommy Sopwith, Harry Hawker and two others immediately formed H G Hawker Engineering.
Sadly Harry Hawker’s life was cut short when he was killed flying the Nieuport Goshawk (a modified Nighthawk) at Hendon in July 1921. However his legacy is the company that bore his name which, along with its successors, went on to build many famous aircraft such as the Hind and the Hurricane, as well as the Hunter, Harrier and Hawk, all of which were built in the same Kingston premises as Sopwith’s aircraft.
One hundred years later another Australian is attempting to commemorate Harry Hawker’s achievement by repeating the flight in the UK’s oldest airworthy amphibian. The Australian is Brisbane-born physiotherapist Jeff Boyling, who has been living in the UK for 30 years and flying for the last 15 years.
He is also one of the shareholder pilots of Plane Sailing Air Displays Ltd’s Catalina G-PBYA, which is based at the Imperial War Museum at Duxford. It is this aircraft that he plans to use for the commemorative flight, which he is calling Project Hawker 2013.
Unlike Harry Hawker’s flight, the Catalina will not be landing at each control point, as they are all in salt water and desalinating the aircraft is a very expensive business (salt water is very corrosive). Instead, Jeff plans to carry out a display at each of the original control points before continuing on to the next one.
Jeff plans to leave Duxford on Wednesday 21 August and head for Southampton, then on to Ramsgate, Great Yarmouth and Scarborough before heading inland to RAF Leeming for the night. Day two should see the Catalina head up to Aberdeen, then to Cromarty and then down to Oban where it will stay for the second and third night. Then, on the Saturday, it should be flying past Dublin before heading to Falmouth and a night at Newquay (the former RAF St Mawgan, and now home to the Classic Air Force). The final day will see it fly back to Southampton and then on to Duxford, completing the trip over the August Bank Holiday weekend.
Plane Sailing’s Catalina started life in Canada, being built by Canadian Vickers as a Canso A amphibian, similar to the US Navy’s PBY-5A (earlier versions were flying boats, the PBY-5A being the first variant to be fitted with landing gear). It was given the serial 11005 and handed over to the Royal Canadian Air Force on 27 October 1943, which means that this graceful lady celebrates her 70th birthday this year. 11005 served in various different roles until struck off charge in 1961. Registered CF-NJF, it was converted for fire fighting and was operated by several companies until the late 1990s, when it was converted into a passenger carrying configuration for tourist flights in Zimbabwe. This venture did not get off the ground but it did result in the fire fighting equipment being removed, the addition of seating and the installation of one piece Perspex blisters and an airstair.
These modifications meant that when Plane Sailing were looking for a replacement aircraft for their original one, C-FNJF (as it was now registered) ticked all the right boxes. Once negotiations were complete for its purchase and after a lengthy period of preparatory work, it left Nanaimo on Vancouver Island on 1 March 2004 at the start of the long ferry flight to the UK, eventually arriving at Duxford on 30 March.
It could be seen performing at airshows throughout 2004, still in its bright yellow scheme. It was re-registered as G-PBYA late in the year and in May 2005 was repainted in to its current scheme.
It is now painted to represent a USAAF OA-10A Catalina (OA-10A was the USAAF equivalent of the PBY-5A), 44-33915, one of a number of Catalinas that were operated by the 5th Emergency Rescue Squadron from Halesworth in Suffolk during World War Two.
The original aircraft was lost in March 1945 attempting to rescue a fighter pilot from the North Sea off the north coast of Holland. Having landed on the sea the right engine started losing oil and eventually seized. The crew taxied the aircraft away from the coast overnight but the next day they were strafed by a pair of Luftwaffe Me 262s operating out of Wittmund. The attack shot away most of the tail and punctured the aircraft, resulting in it sinking. The crew took to their dinghies and after a few hours were able to get into a lifeboat that had been dropped for them. They were eventually picked up by Rescue Motor Launch (RML) and arrived back in Great Yarmouth after one night in their Catalina, four nights in the lifeboat and another aboard the RML!
As G-PBYA is the oldest amphibian flying in the UK it is an appropriate aircraft to use to commemorate Harry Hawker’s achievements of 100 years ago. The biggest challenge in 2013 is getting funding to undertake the flight; the Catalina is not a cheap aircraft to operate! Anyone interested in sponsoring the flight can get in touch with Jeff Boyling at email@example.com and more details about Project Hawker can be found here: http://projecthawker2013.com
The original contest had a finishing time of 6pm on 30 August 1913, but no-one else completed the race in that time and the prize was not awarded. It will be interesting to see if Jeff and his team can complete the challenge by 6pm on 30 August 2013, and GAR will be keeping watch on their progress to bring you further reports.