1920 - Aviation Developments
The end of pleasure flying in 1920 meant that Manx skies rarely heard the sound of an aero engine for some years. The moat of the Irish Sea was still a formidable obstacle for private fliers and it required some commercial incentive to attract aeroplanes back to the Isle of Man. That incentive was provided by the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy Races which were now established as the most important motorcycling event in the world. Spectators were flocking to the Island to see the latest motorcycles being tested on the T.T. Course, as a multitude of manufacturing firms competed for supremacy. The internal combustion engine was a constant source of experiment and development and it has been claimed, with justification, that lessons learned on the T.T. Course were of benefit to the design of new aero engines.
It was the 1925 T.T. meeting that brought a de Havilland DR 9 to Douglas, piloted by Mr. C. Barnard who found a suitable place to land on Douglas Head. The flight had been chartered by 'The Motor Cycle', the leading journal of its kind, to supply copies of its T.T. Edition to the news-hungry fans. This was repeated the following year by another DR 9, this time flown by Mr. G. L. P. Henderson. This became an annual event and the next two years saw a large field by the T.T. Grandstand being used with copies of 'The Motor Cycle' being on sale with the minimum of delay.
It is also thanks to 'The Motor Cycle' that 1928 can be regarded as a significant milestone in Manx aviation. That year saw copies of the journal, amounting to a ton in weight, being delivered by an airliner of Imperial Airways. The chosen place to land was a large field belonging to Ronaldsway Farm, Derbyhaven, near Castletown in the south of the Island. The Imperial Airways pilot was Captain G. P. Olley who was destined to play a leading part in the development of Manx air services in the next decade. The airliner was a Handley Page H.P.27 Hampstead which had been registered in 1925 as G-EBLE and named 'City of New York' It was a rare bird and only one is found in the civil register. Powered by three 385 h.p. Armstrong Siddeley Jaguar engines it weighed five tons and could travel 400 miles at 95 m.p.h. With a wing span of 75 feet and a length of over 60 feet its commodious cabin could seat 14 passengers in luxurious wicker chairs. The windows could be opened for ventilation while the pilot and mechanic sat in an open cockpit.
There were no passengers on board when Captain Olley arrived with two mechanics on Tuesday, June 5th, at 4 p.m. having left Croydon at 12.30 and stopping at Manchester to refuel. At Ronaldsway, arrangements were made with Manx Petroleums Ltd., the local Shell agent, thus beginning a long association which continues today. Captain Olley then announced that flights in the Hampstead would be available on Thursday and Friday at 1016 a trip, while flights around the Island were £2. 12.6. Many local residents took the opportunity of their first flight before the airliner left after the Senior T.T. on Friday.
There was also pleasure flying from Douglas beach again in 1928 as a result of arrangements made with Surrey Flying Services Ltd. who were provided with a hangar on Douglas Head to act as an aerodrome. The aircraft being used was 'an Avro with a 130 h.p. engine and capable of carrying four passengers'. It arrived from Blackpool at noon on Friday, 15th June, for the season and was piloted by Mr.J.J. Flynn. He was an ex- R.F.C. and R.A.F. pilot who, after the war, became second in command of the Irish Air Force. Weather permitting the Avro was stationed opposite the Palace at low tide ready for 5 shilling flips. The Avro was also used by a famous parachutist 'Miss Jane' to give demonstrations over Douglas Bay.
The following year, 1929, Captain Olley returned with more copies of 'The Motor Cycle' and the Hampstead was joined by a De Havilland 61 Giant Moth which was on duty for the 'Daily Mail.' On the Monday of the junior T.T. it was seen following the progress of the race carrying ace reporter Paul Bewcher. He gave a graphic account of the race in a special T.T. edition of the 'Mail' which were brought to the Island by the DR 61 later in the week. It is interesting to note that Mr. Bewcher had been a pilot in the R.F.C. until he was badly wounded. During the war he later appeared at the Gaiety Theatre, Douglas, to give a lecture with the object of recruiting pilots.
The 1929 T.T. period also produced one of those amazing stories that only could have occurred in the early days of flying. It concerns a German motorcyclist who had lost a leg in a racing accident. Wolfram Hirst had taken to flying and, determined to see a T.T. race, he set off with a mechanic friend in a tiny two-seater which weighed no more than 10 cwt. He left Stuttgart with only the vaguest idea where the Isle of Man was. That Friday he landed at Canterbury where he was told to report to Croydon to have his papers checked. There he was given maps and headed for Blackpool to refuel. He arrived over Douglas early Sunday evening and was astonished at not finding an aerodrome; as he remarked later, 'Every village in Germany has an aerodrome.' He managed to land in a sloping field on Douglas Head and a local resident, not understanding the language, escorted Wolfram and his friend to Douglas Police Station. When the object of their visit became clear they were advised to remove their flying machine to Douglas beach where help would be forthcoming. Somehow they managed to take off again and found themselves surrounded by a disbelieving crowd on the beach. They were completely nonplussed when one of the fliers produced a large spanner and proceeded to remove the wings which were then slotted on to brackets on the sides of the fuselage. Escorted by police the contraption was then wheeled across the promenade and taken to a garage behind the Esplanade and housed like a Baby Austin!
Wolfram and his companion were well looked after, being provided with rooms at the Peveril Hotel being used by the A.C.U. as Headquarters. They were entertained by officials and on Monday watched the Junior race from a seat in the Grandstand. The following morning preparations were made for the return journey as Wolfram was anxious to be in Berlin to take part in an air race. Later he wired to say he had reached Essen after a non-stop flight of 1200km. The first flying visitors from the continent had certainly caused a sensation.
A more serious visit to the Isle of Man was made later in that summer of 1929 when Sir Alan Cobham arrived on August 2nd for the August Bank Holiday weekend. Great preparations had been made for the visit in June but, because of machine damage at Grangemouth, near Newcastle, it had to be postponed. Sir Alan was the most famous aviator of the time having completed flights to India, to Australia and a circuit of Africa. He then decided to give up further exploits and devote his energies to making the country more air-minded and selected 100 municipalities in the British Isles to encourage the development of aerodromes. Thus began his famous Circuit of Britain, sponsored by Sir Charles Wakefield of the Castrol oil firm. Douglas was one of the chosen towns out of the 500 that had shown interest.
Flying from Blackpool the big DH 61 Giant Moth, named 'Youth of Britain' arrived at Ronaldsway. The machine, G-AAEV, was powered by a single Bristol Jupiter engine of 500 h.p. and it could carry 14 passengers over short distances. Sir Alan was met by civic dignitaries and he wasted no time in taking the Mayor and his parry into the air. At a reception Sir Alan urged that immediate steps be taken to provide Douglas with an aerodrome and also a base for seaplanes, offering to advise on the best sites. The following morning he was back at Ronaldsway to fulfil the second object of his visit which was to give flights to young people of the Island. The children, 131 altogether, were chosen through Uncle Jack's Club in the Isle of Man Examiner After their flight each was presented with a certificate as a souvenir of Sir Charles Wakefield's gift flight in the 'Youth of Britain'. Unfortunately, about half the excited children were to be disappointed because the DH 61 hit a rut while taxying causing damage to the undercarriage. Tackle from Qualtrough's timber yard, Castletown, was brought to hoist up the machine. New parts were needed so Sir Alan, after appearing at the Palace Ballroom on Saturday night, departed later by Packet steamer on his way to the de Havilland's works. By noon on Monday the repairs were effected and, after farewells, Sir Alan left for the return to Blackpool.
As 'Youth of Britain' took to the air it was carrying two gentlemen who are the first known Manx passengers to across the Irish Sea. They were Mr. R. C. Stephens, a journalist and future member of the House of Keys, and Tom Sheard, the first Manxman to win a T.T. They were issued with cotton wool to deaden the sound of the engine. A third passenger was also aboard - a Manx kitten kept in a basket piled with luggage. The fifty minute journey was via Maughold Head and Walney Island to shorten the sea crossing and they arrived at Stanley Park in time to join in the celebrations to mark the opening of the new aerodrome.
April, 1933, saw two more great names in the world of aviation visit the Isle of Man when Amy Johnson and her husband Jim Mollison, derided to escape London for a few days. Each flew separately from Stag Lane on Thursday, 14th April. Amy took off at 2 p.m. in a DR 60G Moth named “Jason 4” after the Moth she had used to become the first woman to fly to Australia, in 1930. She missed Ronaldsway and flew northwards landing in a field of the Vollan Farm, near Ramsey. The news of the arrival of this famous lady quickly spread and a large crowd gathered round “Jason 4” guarded by Constable Quayle of Ramsey Constabulary. Amy was entertained by local M.H.K. Mr. D. J. Teare and his wife. Having a telephone, Mr. Teare was in contact with Ronaldsway and at 7.25 p.m. received a message to say her husband had arrived. Jim Mollison had set off later in a faster machine and had stopped to refuel at Blackpool. The faster machine was the DR 80a Puss Moth, the “Desert Cloud” in which Amy had beaten her husband's London-Cape Town record, covering the distance in 10½ hours less than her husband.
The couple stayed at the Derbyhaven Hotel and were fêted wherever they went including lunch at Government House with His Excellency Sir Claude Hill and Lady Hill. The following evening they were guests at the Peveril Motorcycle Club's Dinner at Glen Helen and their President, Mr. Charles Gill J.P., M.H.K. gave a toast to the Mollisons and complimented Jim on his recent crossing of the North and South Atlantic. To commemorate the occasion a Douglas Fir Tree was planted in the grounds and the inscription to mark Amy's visit can still be seen:
There were to be many more famous names in pre-war aviation to visit the Island, especially as competitors in the important Isle of Man Air Races. But it is time to look at developments of a more permanent nature leading to the establishment of air services to and from the Island.
Manx Aviation in War and Peace published by kind permission of: The Manx Experience