A Brief History of Flying on Sheppey

The Short Brothers - Horace, Oswald and Eustace

The Short Brothers

In January 1909, Mr Albert Eustace Short, (who together with Mr Hugh Oswald Short had been appointed engineers to the Aero Club of the United Kingdom in the ballooning days) visited the brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright at their flying ground at Pau in France.   Having received instructions to construct flying machines in this Country he returned, hunted for a flying ground and settled upon Leysdown in the Isle of Sheppey.

The ballooning members of the Aero Club (not yet Royal) endorsed this choice as they knew from experience that Sheppey was a flat country free of trees and other obstacles. Most balloon ascents were made from the neighbourhood of London and most winds were Westerly; the North and South shores of the Thames estuary were therefore well known to this community of amateur aeronauts.

The brothers Wright having also reported favourable as to its suitability, in February, the Club decided to acquire 400 acres of marsh ground between Leysdown and Shellness Point for their aeroplane experiments.  They also took over a small hotel in Leysdown Village called Mussell Manor to accommodate its Members.

During March Mr Eustace Short was joined by his brother Mr Horace Leonard Short, and they at once erected workshops, two sheds for aeroplanes, and bungalows for their workmen. It is believed that this was the first factory for the manufacture of ‘heavier than air’ machines in this Country. In addition several sheds were erected to house members’ private machines, the leading pioneers being Mr Frank Mc.Clean (now Sir Francis Mc.Clean A,.F.C) Mr Ernest Pitman, Mr J.T.C Moore Brabazon (now Lord Brabazon of Tara M.C.) The Hon. Maurice Egerton, Mr Percy Grace, Mr Cecil Grace, and the Hon. Charles Rolls.

In the outset Mr Moore-Brabazon became one of the most enthusiastic of the little band, and on February 27th 1909 with a “Voison Pusher” brought from France called “The Bird of Passage”, he flew 5 kilometres. The following day too he flew short distances, and would have continued with others, but unfortunately whilst taxying the propeller shaft broke and the airscrew buried itself in the ground. He was granted No.1 Aviators Certificate of the Aero Club.

Flying was taken up in earnest in April of that year, and so much progress was made turning in the air, that on October 30th, Mr Moore-Brabazon, in the second bi-plane designed and built on the spot by Mr Horace Short and fitted with a 40-60HP Green engine, accomplished at an average height of 20 feet, the first circular mile over flown by a British aeroplane. The time taken was 2 mins 36 and 1/5 seconds. For this he was awarded a prize of £1000 by the Daily Mail. On November 4th, in the same machine he flew 3½ miles.

During the summer, Mr Mc.Clean and the Hon. C.S Rolls were flying Wright bi-planes built by the Short Brothers under licence to the Wright Brothers, the American pioneers. In August Mr Mc.Clean (in a Short No1) was catapulted into the air, but the machine was fitted with an old motor-car engine and could not sustain flight. On November 2nd, however, the first successful straight flight of this machine was made, followed by another the next day. On November 6th whilst landing the machine was rather badly damaged

Mr Pitman about this time was making short hops. Several Members ordered machines from Short Brothers during the Autumn and Mr Mc.Clean and other built bungalows for living accommodation near the hangars.

Capt. J.W. Dunne arrived at Leysdown during the latter part of 1909, erected a shed, and arranged with the Short Bros. to construct to his drawings an inherently stable tail-less bi-plane, with V-shaped wings. This was the first attempt in England to build a power driven stable aeroplane.

The flying ground was somewhat rough for wheeled undercarriages. The Wright bi-planes were launched from a rail by a catapult and so escaped this trouble. Accidents due to landing on bumpy ground were frequent until one of the Short Bros. workmen hit on the idea of burning the grass in the hollows, which thus showed up from the air.

During the winter 1909-10 it was found that the flying ground was rather too low-lying for all-the-year-round use, and at the close of the year Mr Mc.Clean purchased a large tract of ground on the South side of Stanford Hill, Eastchurch, and gave the free use of it to Members of the Aero Club in return for a fixed rent of one shilling per year from the Club. Shortly afterwards the Short Bros. removed their factory to the new site.

The first machine to land at Eastchurch was a Short (Wright) piloted by the Hon. C.S. Rolls on November  20th 1909. On this same day a similar machine (Short No.1) belonging to Mr Mc.Clean was brought there by road from Leysdown. By the end of the year Messrs. Rolls and Mc.Clean were making full use of Eastchurch, while Capt. Dunne and Professor A.K. Huntingdon were beginning experiments with machines designed to be inherently stable.

On March 1st Mr Moore-Brabazon flew 18and ¾ miles, and during the same month Mr Cecil Grace and Mr Rolls flew from Shellness to Eastchurch, over Queenborough, returning to Eastchurch without landing. They then circled over Shellness finally landing at Eastchurch. On Good Friday Mr Rolls also made a lengthy flight under bad conditions.

By the end of April the move to Eastchurch was practically complete, and Short Bros. had much improved their accommodation and facilities for the manufacture and repair of machines.

The summer of 1910 was noted for the increased interest taken in flying all over the country. At Eastchurch by September there were eighteen sheds occupied by Members including Messrs. Mc.Clean, C.Grace, Howard Wright, Alec Ogilvie, Batchelor, Coleman, Jezzi, the Hon. Maurice Egerton, Professor A.K. Huntingdon, Moore-Brabazon and L.W. Travers. Mr Mc.Clean and Mr C.Grace were most prominent during October and November, and it was generally thought that one or the other would win the de Forest prize. The Hon. C.S. Rolls had unfortunately been killed while flying at Bournemouth in July. He had previously flown from Dover to Calais and back in a Wright bi-plane in June.

About this time Mr T.O.M. Sopwith who had come to the front during the Summer arrived at Eastchurch and on December 18th 1910, in a Howard Wright Bi-Plane (E.N.V. engine) he flew in 3 ½ hours to Thirlemont in Belgium, a distance of 177½ miles, thus winning the Baron de Forest’s prize of £4000 for the longest flight from England to the Continent of Europe.

During 1910 the Admiralty watched with increasing interest these experiments, and when in February 1911 Mr Mc.Clean offered the loan of aeroplanes for the purposes of instructing Naval Officers in Aviation, it accepted. 

The Admiralty then asked for volunteers from Officers of the Fleet to undergo a course of flying instruction at Eastchurch. This resulted in over 200 names being submitted. Four Officers were selected to undergo the first course, which began on March 2nd 1911. Their names and ranks held at the time were:

Lieutenants C.R.Samson, R.Gregory and A.M. Longmore and Capt. E.L. Gerrard RMLI.

Another Member of the Aero Club, Mr G.B. Cockburn, gave up a year of his time entirely free of cost to the Admiralty, to instruct these Officers in the art of flying. The Flying Instructor was to have been Mr Cecil Grace, but unfortunately in December 1910, he lost his life whilst returning from France in making another attempt to win the de Forest prize. Mr Cockburn thereafter himself undertook the actual flying training of the first four Officers. The initial course was satisfactorily carried out with only two minor crashes. In addition these Officers underwent a course of technical training at Short Brothers Works at Eastchurch, and also visited the principal French aeroplane factories and the French Military Aeroplane Trials held at Rheims, with a view to studying foreign developments.

The original agreement between Mr Mc.Clean and the Admiralty was that two machines should be lent in which the Naval pilots should be taught. One of these two machines however, was being flown by Mr Cecil Grace when he disappeared over the Channel, so another was built in its place, and an old one known as “The Dud” was added. The first three machines therefore were:

Short No. 26 Farman Type : with 50HP Gnome engine

Short No 28 Farman Type : first fitted with a 60HP Green, and later with a 50HP Gnome engine

Short No 34 Farman Type : with a 50HP Gnome engine.

In addition to the above the following four machines belonging to Mr Mc.Clean were flown by Naval pilots during 1911:

Bleriot Monoplane: with a 50HP Gnome, known as the “Birdling” which was wrecked.

Short No 39: Fitted with two 50HP Gnomes, known as the “Triple Twin”. It was the first twin-engine machine ever flown. It was a bi-plane with Pilot and passenger in a nacelle on the lower plane. In front was a 50HP Gnome engine driving by chains two tractor airscrews. Behind was a separate unit consisting of another Gnome and airscrew rotating inside the four-boom tail, which carried a triple rudder with elevator and stabilising plane above. In front was a second elevator coupled to the rear one. It first flew in September 1911.

Short No 27: Fitted with two 50HP Gnome engines, called the “Tandem Twin” which was wrecked. She was also known as “The Vacuum Cleaner”.

Short No 36: Fitted with a 70HP engine (Gnome), a very successful machine of its day.

Among the early Naval machines of 1911, was a monoplane on Bleriot lines, a tractor with two engines in tandem under a bonnet 16 feet long known as the “Field Kitchen”, and a twin engined monoplane called the “Double Dirty”, after which the Admiralty went in for several tractors similar to Short No 36. During the year Short Brothers also produced a machine which was partly amphibian, in that it could get off and alight on land, and alight on water, but could not take off from water. The machine was an ordinary standard bi-plane with pusher airscrew, front elevator and tail-plane on outriggers. The flotation gear of three rubber fabric bags (as used for balloon construction) in which were embodied a wooded keel-piece. One float was attached to each main skid, and one float supported the tail in the water. The bags were merely inflated by air and weighed about 8lbs each. This test proved the strength of such bags, and led to the adaptation of air bags as flotation gear for ship aeroplanes used during the 1914-18 war.

Mr Claude Graham-White having won the Gordon Bennett Aviation Cup at New York the previous year, the third annual contest for the cup took place at Eastchurch in July 1911, under the control of the Royal Aero Club. There were originally twelve entries, three from Great Britain, France, USA and Austria, but all the Austrians and two of the Americans withdrew. The competitors on the day of the race were:

Great   Britain: Mr Alec Ogilvie in a ‘Baby’ Wright

Mr Graham Gilmour in a Bristol

Mr Gustav Hamel in a Bleriot

France: Mons. LeBlanc in a Bleriot

Mons. Chevalier and Mons. DeNieuport on Nieuports

USA: Mr C.T. Weyman in a Nieuport

Unfortunately, just before the contest, Mr Hamel whilst giving an exhibition flight, crashed, and his entry was therefore deleted. The result was:

1st. C.T. Weyman (25 laps or 94 miles) – 71 minutes 35 and 1/5 seconds

2nd LeBlanc 73 minutes 40 seconds (76.86 miles per hour)

3rd Nieuport 74 minutes 37 and 2/5 seconds (75.6 miles per hour)

Mr Ogilvie, who was the only other pilot to finish, took 109 minutes 19 and 2/5 seconds to complete 25 laps, his speed being 51.88 miles per hour.

In October 1911, Lieut. Samson R.N. who remained at Eastchurch and was its first Commanding Officer, persuaded the Admiralty to buy two training machines and sent to Eastchurch twelve Naval Ratings as the basis of a Naval Flying School. This was agreed to by the Admiralty, with the result that on December 25th 1911, agreement was reached between them; the Royal Aero Club, the brothers Short and Mr F.C. Mc.Clean for the Admiralty to rent the Aerodrome for £150 per year with a proviso that they (the Admiralty) could if they so desired, purchase the ground at a rate of £16 per acre as from December 25th 1918. Actually the Aerodrome was taken over under the Defence of the Realm Act early in the war and was purchased by the Air Ministry in December 1918. It is interesting to note that the agreement stipulated that the maximum number of machines in use at any one time was not to exceed ten, without the sanction of the Royal Aero Club. Training in flying was thus an integral part of the Navy’s work in 1911.

Towards the end of 1911, Short Bros. built at Eastchurch several experimental floats for use on aeroplanes.

A “Pusher” biplane thus fitted was created at Shellness, and from there Lieut. A.M. Longmore R.N., flew on several occasions to Sheerness Harbour and alighted on the water, afterwards flying back to Shellness. On more than one occasion he moored his machine within a few yards of H.M.S. Actaeon, went on board and returned afterwards with his machine.

From then on Eastchurch was the centre for Naval Flying. It is believed that the first bomb dropping experiments in Great Britain were carried out from here. The first machine gun fired from an aeroplane whilst in flight was done from Eastchurch.

Seaplanes were developed and experiments in flying from ships of the Royal Navy were successful. Wireless experiments from the air were first used by the Hon. Maurice Egerton and carried on successfully by personnel at Eastchurch.

Subsequently, during the war 1914-18, Eastchurch became a general active service and training station for the Royal Naval Air Service. In 1916 the Gunnery School came into being.

In April 1918, the Gunnery School was split up, the ground section remaining at Eastchurch. A school known as the “Aerial Fighting and Gunnery School” was formed at Leysdown and remained in operation until the end of 1918.

On the formation of the Royal Air Force on April 1st 1918, No. 58 Wing was formed at Eastchurch. 

Short Bros. sold their Eastchurch Works to the Government during 1917 (to enable the official Aerodrome to be extended) and moved to Rochester.

During the 1939-45 War, Eastchurch functioned as the main Armament Training Centre for the Royal Air Force.

From a Manuscript dated May 1949 – Author unknown

Leo Jezzi


Capt. JW Dunne