|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.
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
– 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. America
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
. But was it, in
fact, the first? Kitty Hawk,
A young man named Preston Watson was born in Dundee in 1880 into a fairly prosperous family and attended the fee-paying private
. He did not go to university
full-time, but seems to have attended classes in physics at Queen’s College
(then part of Dundee High School St Andrews University, later the ).
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. University of Dundee
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,
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.
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
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
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. Washington, D.C.
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
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. Britain 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
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
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 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. Sussex
That might have been the end of the story.
However, in the 1950s,
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,
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.