The Flying Pioneer of the Midlands

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Stanford Hall, near Rugby, could have been one of the most important historical sites for Aviation if it was not for a tragic twist of fate.

The story begins in the 1890s when mechanical engineer Walter Gordon Wilson teamed up with Percy Sinclair Pilcher, who was a naval architect, to build an internal combustion engine light enough to power an aircraft.

Percy Pilcher was a keen glider fanatic who had already experimented with several aircraft and on 30th September 1899 he invited observers from London and the provinces to Stanford Hall. He was going to show them his new tri-wing aircraft powered by their new lightweight aero engine.

But on the day the weather was poor which made taking the new aircraft up a bit risky. So not wanting to disappoint the crowd and hopefully giving time for the weather to get better, Percy flew his ‘Hawk glider’ but at the height of about 30 feet a bamboo part of the aircraft broke causing the tail to collapse and he plunged to the ground.

Percy Pilcher was badly hurt and he died from his injuries two days later. The project was abandoned but the question is ‘would Percy have flown the Tri-winged aircraft some days before to make sure it worked before showing it off in front of the London official observers?’. The demonstration was intended as a serious attempt to show the assembled potential investors just what his flying machines could do.

Logic suggests that he would almost certainly have tested the powered tri-plane to ensure that it performed as he wanted before displaying it publicly, especially to an invited audience of notables. Sadly no photographs were taken of this event and with the lack of independent observers it was not recorded as the first man-powered flight. It would be a full three years before Orville Wright flew the world’s first successful airplane, the ‘Wright Flyer’ on 17th December, 1903.

Lawrie Watts, an artist from Coventry whose work appeared in various technical journals, was very interested in Percy Pilcher ever since he was an apprentice at Armstrong-Whitworth, where the apprentices were detailed to make a replica of Percy’s ‘Hawk’ glider. When it was finished around 1953 it was presented to Lady Bray and hung in the stables at Stanford Hall near where Pilcher had had his workshop.  It’s still there!

Lawrie became the Curator of the Museum and was involved with restoring the glider fifty years afterwards in 2003. In 2004 the BBC TV programme ‘Horizon’ did a film about the Percy Pilcher story. They took the replica ‘Hawk’ Glider out of the museum and into the grounds of Stanford Hall and filmed it attached to a cable (invisibly) suspended from a crane. An actor dressed for the part, impressed everyone by quickly learning how to guide the ‘Hawk’ by moving his body weight, just as Percy Pilcher would have done.

A full size model of the Tri-winged airplane was made and filmed flying along a runway at Cranfield during filming of the BBC documentary in 2004, see photograph. Due to it not having a full airworthiness certificate it was not allowed to take off or go any higher than a few centimetres off the ground, but it did fly. The reason the BBC got involved was due to a very well written and researched book called ‘Another Icarus’ by Aeronautical specialist Phillip Jarrett. This chronicled Percy’s life and the documentary was based on this. They wanted to see if Percy could have been the first man to use powered flight: if so it would make Stanford Hall famous in Aviation history.

One of our committee members, Les Fawcett, is a volunteer  at the Community Growers Scheme at Stanford Hall and is proposing a society visit there next summer. If we include a tour of the Grade 1 listed hall there’s a hefty £8 fee per person to cover the guide. Alternatively we could visit the grounds for a smaller fee and see everything but the interior of the hall, guided by the head grower. Which would members prefer?

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