Fly Navy 100 and the Isle of Sheppey

At Shellbeach, south of Leysdown on the Isle of Sheppey, during 30th April-2nd May 1909, JTC ‘Claude’ Moore-Brabazon made the first powered, controlled and sustained flights by a British pilot in Britain. This was in his Voisin biplane, ‘Bird of Passage’, a French aircraft, Moore-Brabazon having learned to fly with the Voisin frères in Paris in December 1908.

In February 1909, Eustace and Oswald Short had established at Shellbeach the first factory in the world for the series production of aircraft. As the Aero Club’s Aeronautical Engineers, the Shorts had operated hitherto from railway arch premises adjacent to Battersea gas works in London, manufacturing and maintaining members’ balloons. Flying from there, landings often were made on Sheppey for which its flat, open marshes with relatively few trees were well-suited. This and its seclusion prompted the Club to choose Shellbeach as a flying ground for its first ventures with heavier-than-air machines. Mussel, now Muswell, Manor nearby was taken over for members’ use while the Shorts, joined by brother Horace, began producing under licence six Wright biplanes, versions of the Wright brothers’ Flyer of 1903. Wilbur Wright had given demonstration flights in France in 1908, Eustace flying with him in November and the Shorts then being granted the British rights to build the Wrights’ design. Their own developments soon followed. Both Wilbur and Orville Wright visited Shellbeach and Mussel Manor on 4th May 1909.

However, early in 1910, flying and aircraft construction moved to a better-drained site at Eastchurch on Sheppey where, amongst others, the first four Royal Navy (RN) officers learned to fly and Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, also had a flying lesson. The title ‘Royal’ was bestowed upon the Aero Club that year. In 1911, Eastchurch became the first Royal Naval Air Station. In January of the following year, one of those first four RN pilots took a Shorts aircraft from Eastchurch to Sheerness, flying it from a rudimentary platform on the forward turret of a cruiser, HMS Africa, at anchor. This was the first time an aircraft had taken-off from a ship in Britain. In May, 1912, the same pilot and aircraft, Lt Charles Samson with the S.38, flew from a similar platform on another cruiser, HMS Hibernia, while the ship made 15 knots. This was at the Royal Review in Weymouth Bay and was the first time anywhere in the world that an aircraft had taken-off from a ship whilst under way.
A great deal has followed since and not just in terms of world-wide naval aircraft operations. By way of example, the Short brothers moved to Rochester in 1913, the association with the RN leading to their development of seaplanes and, in turn, flying boats for which the company became so famous. Richard Fairey began his aviation industry career at Eastchurch in 1911, initially with the Blair Atholl Syndicate and then Shorts in 1913, before setting up his own company in 1915; the Fairey Swordfish remains the iconic RN aircraft by virtue of its achievements in the Second World War. The Sheppey links survive with Shorts’ last aircraft, the Tucano, serving currently as a pilot trainer for the RN and Royal Air Force. Then, with today’s Fleet Air Arm of the RN largely a rotary-winged force, its helicopters are products of what is now the AgustaWestland Company. The first aircraft built by Westland were twelve Short 184 seaplanes for the Admiralty in 1915.
Fly Navy 100 is the programme of events this year marking the Royal Navy’s aviation centenary, the Service having placed a contract for its first airship in 1909. This was the HMA1, constructed by Vickers at Barrow-in-Furness with Shorts responsible for the outer cover, gas bags, valves and control surfaces. Remembering that other beginning by Moore-Brabazon and the RN’s consequent heavier-than-air origins, the first of Fly Navy 100’s flying events is on Friday, 1st May when there will be a ceremony at the Pioneer Memorial at Eastchurch on the Isle of Sheppey followed by a Fleet Air Arm formation flypast across the island. Initially crossing the coast at Shellbeach, it will be routed via Eastchurch and then past the seafront at Minster and Sheerness. As well as allowing the flypast to be seen by the majority of those on Sheppey, it therefore will symbolise the historical passage of aviation across the island and beyond.
RJH   25.2.2009