Saturday 20 June 2015

Was This the First Manned Flight? by Ann Swinfen

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

Since earliest times, it seems, mankind has looked up at the birds and dreamed of flying. The ancient legend of Daedalus and Icarus embodies both the dream and the potential disaster.

Leonardo da Vinci in the early sixteenth century believed flight was possible and designed several prototype aircraft but – as far as we know – never attempted to fly them. There are many cases documented throughout history of flight enthusiasts making themselves wings out of everything from feathers to cloth and wood. As their attempts generally involved jumping off high buildings (or sometimes bridges), these usually ended either in farce or tragedy.
Montgolfier balloon flight 1783
Progress began to be made in the eighteenth century with the development of balloon flight, first carrying animals and then men. These balloons were at the mercy of air currents, so the next step was to invent a means of steering, hence ‘dirigibles’, first developed in the nineteenth century and in regular use during the first World War. 
Dirigibles & other balloons early 20th C

After the tragedy of the Hindenburg in 1937, the inherent dangers of being carried through the skies under a balloon filled with highly inflammable gas were recognised, and dirigibles or ‘airships’ fell out of favour.

Other nineteenth century experiments with flight included the development of gliders and kites which could carry a man.

In the second half of the nineteenth century the new goal was to develop a heavier-than-air flying machine which would carry a pilot, could take off and land safely, and could be steered. The race was on. A host of enthusiasts in different countries – particularly Britain, France, Germany and America – began to experiment with many designs of wing structure, fuselage shape, construction materials, steering mechanisms, and engine types. On the whole, the inventors were secretive and competitive. They wanted to be the first to achieve manned flight in a heavier-than-air machine, and they wanted to be sure no one stole their patents.

It has been generally accepted for many years that the first successful manned flight was in a flying machine designed by the Wright brothers and piloted by Orville Wright on 17th December 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. But was it, in fact, the first?
Wright Brothers
A young man named Preston Watson was born in Dundee in 1880 into a fairly prosperous family and attended the fee-paying private Dundee High School. He did not go to university full-time, but seems to have attended classes in physics at Queen’s College (then part of St Andrews University, later the University of Dundee). From childhood he was obsessed with the idea of flying and spent many hours on the shores of the River Tay, watching the flight of birds, particularly gulls and – unlike other pioneer aircraft designers – took note of the way they banked when turning, something which was to prove decisive in his later designs. He also shot and examined birds, in order to try and understand the mechanism of their wings.

Preston Watson was a keen athlete, very physically fit, and accustomed to the long training essential to ultimate success, a lesson which was to prove useful in his work on aircraft. A colleague described him as very calm, never dismayed by setbacks.

He was helped financially by his father, although Watson senior was not wholly enthusiastic about his son’s schemes, even on the eve of the first World War, when Preston Watson’s skill and experience would prove invaluable. With this financial assistance, and the help of his elder brother, James Yeaman Watson, Preston built a number of prototype aircraft at the turn of the nineteenth-twentieth centuries. Construction took place in Dundee, but he needed a wide flat stretch of land to attempt flight, which he found near Errol in the Garse o’Cowrie, a stretch of fertile alluvial land to the west of Dundee, lying between the Tay to the south and the hills to the north.
One of Preston Watson's early planes
Because the soil is rich this is an area which is intensely farmed, and it was the owners of the Muirhouses and Leys farms who eagerly joined in the project, as well as providing a stretch of ground to carry out the experimental flights. A whole host of enthusiasts lent a hand and witnessed the various attempts.

Preston Watson was responsible for two major innovations. The first was the ‘parasol’ or ‘rocking’ wing, which improved stability and made it possible to bank when turning, the technique he had observed in the flight of gulls. This wing design was considerably more sophisticated than that of the Wright brothers. His second innovation was the invention of the ‘joystick’, a single stick controller for up and down, turn and bank movement, a true breakthrough in aircraft steering. His design was essentially the prototype for the modern system.

In August 1903, Preston Watson made a series of manned, controllable and heavier-than-air flights at Errol which were reported in the local press. These therefore took place some four months before the Wright Brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk.
Preston Watson's third aeroplane
Why, then, is the credit for the first flight given to the Wrights?

At the time, competition between the early inventors was fierce, not to say cut-throat. In subsequent years the Wrights were involved in many legal battles over patents and design claims against their rivals. There is a further twist to the story. The original Wright aircraft is now held by the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. In order to gain possession of the aircraft, the Smithsonian was obliged to sign a contract with Orville Wright’s estate in which they agreed never to recognise that anyone else was the first to fly.
Orville and Wilbur Wright in 1905
To this day, they are unlikely to recognise flights by an unknown young Scotsman over remote farmland which took place four months earlier.

The rivalry between designers had more than a personal aspect. The military potential of aircraft was quickly recognised by forward-looking strategists, although the military establishment (especially in Britain) was slow to catch up. After the first flights, the next ten years saw rapid developments in aircraft, and these were the years leading up to the first World War. France was particularly keen to be in the forefront of aircraft design, acutely aware of the growing industrial and military might of her neighbour, Germany.

Britain formed the Royal Flying Corps in 1913, which was to play a significant part in the war, mainly in reconnaissance and bombing, although their planes were often victims of German planes designed more for fighting. Preston Watson, like so many patriotic young men, was eager to volunteer his services to the nation. With his skills, he should have been welcomed with open arms. Instead, he had a dismissive interview with a Major Merrinden. Merrinden told Watson that, at 34, he was too old to be a pilot. This was a lie. The top age was 40. The real stumbling block was the fact that he had not attended a public school. He was turned down as a pilot and told to try for a job at an aircraft factory.
Preston Watson
Watson was not so easily discouraged. He trained for his pilot’s license at his own expense and through other contacts was commissioned as a Flight Sub Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Air Service in April 1915. Above all, his experience in aircraft design was of paramount importance. Leo Anatole Jouques, owner of Jouques Aviation Works, contracted to the British government, recognised Watson’s value. Jouques contracted with Watson to build fifty-six planes to Watson’s designs, plus parts for another 150, Watson to receive a royalty for each.

On the morning of 30 June 1915, Preston Watson set out to fly from Eastchurch to Eastbourne, a distance of some sixty miles. The aircraft was not one of his own designs, but a Caudron GIII. The plane was believed to be in good condition, but it had been involved in an accident a fortnight earlier. About an hour later there was cloud and rain above the Cross-in-Hand Inn in Sussex and the field opposite. Several locals heard engine noise followed by a loud explosion. The engine noise ceased and parts of an aircraft fell from the sky. Preston Watson died instantly. He left a widow and two young sons. The elder was himself to die on active service in World War II.

That might have been the end of the story.

However, in the 1950s, Preston’s elder brother, James Yeaman Watson, decided that as a tribute to his brother he would try to establish that Preston Watson had in fact made the first manned flight in a heavier-than-air aircraft. He sought out statements from those who had been present or who had assisted at those early flights and he assembled any surviving documents from the period, although many had unfortunately been lost. His case was roughly dismissed by the leading ‘expert’ at the time, Charles Gibbs-Smith.

In 2014, Alastair W Blair and Alistair Smith published The Pioneer Flying Achievements of Preston Watson. Commenting to the Dundee Courier when the book was launched, Alastair Blair had this to say about Gibbs-Smith’s reaction to James Watson’s efforts to establish his brother’s claim: 'Mr Gibbs-Smith was very scathing in his appraisal of Watson's claim. He seemed to think that someone without a great deal of education and who came from the back of beyond could never have accomplished anything in the field.'

This was clearly not the opinion of Leo Anatole Jouques, who was so keen to build planes to Preston Watson’s designs for the government during World War I. It is difficult now to establish the claim, in the face of the Smithsonian’s contractual agreement (surely a very strange approach to history), despite the eye-witness accounts collected by James Watson.

A full-scale model of Preston Watson’s Plane One, built by the Dundee Model Aircraft Club, will be presented to the Dundee Museum of Transport on 30th June at a celebration in honour of its designer. 

The story of his life and the early history of aviation is told in full in Blair and Smith’s book. Perhaps on the centenary of Preston Watson’s death, we should pause to remember the achievements of this young pioneer of flight.

Ann Swinfen


Sue Bursztynski said...

How ironic that he should die in a plane designed by someone else! Pity about the lack of recognition, but in history it tends to be the noisiest folk who get the recognition. He wasn't alone in this respect. In the case of the discovery of DNA, for example, we keep hearing about Watson and Crick, when they were only the ones who published first. And at one stage, they were working in the idea of a triple helix!

Caroline Lawrence said...

What a brilliant (and brilliantly written post), Ann. As an American I have to say "Sorry!". But how nice that something is being made of the anniversary of his death a hundred years ago this month.

Carol Drinkwater said...

Terrific post, Ann

Sue Purkiss said...

What a sad - but also annoying - story! That clause seems absurd and just wrong. Makes you think all sorts of cross things about how kudos doesn't necessarily goes to people who do things, but to those who know how to manipulate the public record - and today, the media.

Christina Koning said...

A fascinating post, Ann - thank you! I'm currently writing about a slightly later period of aviation history (the 1930s) and was enthralled by your overview of man's (and woman's) relationship with flight over the centuries. I found Preston Watson's story very moving and all too plausible - especially the way his achievement was sidelined (and science is full of people taking credit for others' inventions - just look at the invention of electricity, the telephone etc etc). He seems to have been an extraordinary man - a real visionary. Perhaps the new book will help to give him the public recognition he deserves.

Ann Swinfen said...

Thank you all so much! It's a universal human dream, I think, to fly like a bird. I've never been in a glider, but I should think that comes pretty near. Preston Watson was such a gifted man, and refused to be daunted. One can't help thinking what he might have achieved, if he had lived.

Jean Bull said...

A really interesting story. I think it should be made into a film to capture the public imagination and their support. Look how much we all know about that obscure theorical physicist, Stephen Hawking, now!

Ann Swinfen said...

Yes, Jean, it would make a brilliant film, though reconstructing the flights might be a bit scary!

Susan Price said...

"The real stumbling block was the fact that he had not attended a public school. He was turned down as a pilot and told to try for a job at an aircraft factory."

Lions led by donkeys. It's an attitude that still persists and it makes you despair.

Brilliant post! = I'm away to ask my aircraft loving brother and Scots partner if they've heard of Preston Watson. (What a gift that family had for names!)

Susan Price said...

Were you not tempted to call this post 'The Flying Scotsman?'

Ann Swinfen said...

Ha, Susan - I expect it's been done! Mind you, I think Watson was particularly unfortunate in the man who interviewed him for admittance to the Royal Flying Corps. He lied about the upper age limit, and he was a social snob. Watson came from a well-to-do merchant family in Dundee and attended a fee-paying school, so he was hardly a lowly peasant! I know of someone who flew in the RFC during World War I, and he had not been to public school. BTW, Watson signed himself "Pres" in letters to his wife, so I suppose that's what his friends called him.

Leslie Wilson said...

A mixed blessing, though, when one considers bombing, and the contribution flying makes to global carbon emissions.. However, I do agree with what everyone has said about class bias..

Gurantosan said...

Why doesn't Preston Watson get credit for flying in 1903? Because he didn't. There is no real evidence that he flew anything in 1903. The myth that he did has been comprehensively debunked. The originator of the story, Preston's brother James first stated it in the Manchester Guardian newspaper in December 1953, but after being questioned by noted aviation historian Charles Gibbs-Smith changed his story and refuted the earlier claim. Published in the December 1955 issue of Aeronautics magazine, James changed his story, stating that “Preston’s first aeroplane was without an engine” and that, “...trial flights were made at Errol in the summer of 1903.” In a letter to Gibbs-Smith, James also wrote, "I make no claim that the 'machine' that Preston used in 1903 at Errol was a powered machine."

Supporting evidence can be seen in the fact that Watson produced a patent No.23,553 of 1907, titled Watson's flying machines for rotary winged aircraft, which with all the will in the world were not going to fly. Why, if he had flown in 1903, would he prepare such naive work?

In the 2 November 1909 issue of The Aero magazine is a statement that reads "Watson, a well-known motorist of Dundee, has built a machine to his own designs. Mr Watson does not wish details of his aeroplane to be made public till he has tested it in practice, which he hopes to do within the next few days." His first machine never flew under its own power and he did not achieve successful powered flight until his second machine, shown in the blog above with the caption One of Preston Watson's early planes. It is likely that this aircraft first flew in 1912 as there are images of it in flight at Errol with that date published in the 15 May 1914 issue of Flight magazine. The aircraft could not have been built any earlier than 1910 as its 30 hp Humber engine did not exist before that year.

For further information on Watson's achievements, which everyone seems to overlook whilst getting carried away with fictional reports that he flerw before the Wrights, see this website: Mr Watson's Flying Machines.

As for the two Alistair's book, I have not read it, but the fact that it rehashes James Watson's dubious claim of powered flight in 1903 shows that it holds little water historically. Its authors need to do more research into the subject matter.

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