A Brief History of the Royal Aero Club
by John Blake

In 1901, three wealthy motorists, Frank Hedges Butler, his daughter Vera and the Hon Charles Rolls, had proposed a motor tour, but this was cancelled when Vera’s Renault 4.5 caught fire. The lady arranged a balloon flight with the distinguished professional Stanley Spencer, as a distraction.

Over a glass of champagne during the subsequent voyage, they agreed that an Aero Club should be formed and after landing this was done without delay. Due no doubt to the presence and personality of Vera Butler, it was uniquely – for the time – agreed that it be open "equally to ladies and gentleman, subject to election".

Balloon ascent at Vauxhall, 1908. Passengers include Charles Rolls.

In May 1909, at the Aero Club’s landing ground at Leysdown, JTC Moore-Brabazon, later Lord Brabazon of Tara, made a flight of 500 yards in his Voisin. This is officially recognised as the first flight by a British pilot in Britain.

Initially confined to ballooning, when heavier-than-air flight arrived, the Club embraced it with alacrity. The Club established its first flying ground at Muswell Manor near Leysdown on the Isle of Sheppey in 1909. Early contacts with the Wright brothers in America by Charles Rolls and the redoubtable Short brothers, balloon makers to the Club, led to the latter acquiring a Wright license and laying down the first aircraft production line in the world, at Leysdown, moving the next year to Eastchurch.

The influence of the Club in those early days cannot be over-emphasised. Its members included – and trained – most military pilots up to 1915, when military schools took over. The gift of training facilities and aircraft to the Royal Navy by Francis McLean was the real starting point of the Royal Naval Air Service. From 1910 the Club, which had been granted the Royal prefix that year for its achievements and status, issued Aviators Certificates, internationally recognised under the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. As the United Kingdom representative on that august body, the Club was responsible for control in the UK of all private and sporting flying, as well as records and competitions; a function that, through the Aviation Council embracing some dozen national sporting and educational flying organisations, it fulfils to this day. It borrowed heavily from existing sports such as horse racing for its early regulations; the first air racing rules contained the injunction that "No rider shall interfere with another rider on the course".

At Muswell Manor, Leysdown in 1909. These are some of the earliest pioneer aviators: From left to right standing: The owner of Muswell Manor, Oswald, Horace and Eustace Short, Francis McLean, Griffith Brewer, Frank Hedges Butler, Dr Lockyer, Warwick Wright; seated are JTC Moore-Brabazon, Wilbur and Orville Wright and Charles Rolls.


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