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H. G. Hawker fought ill health throughout a flying career which was largely spent in test pilot flying


PREPARING HAWKER’S AIRCRAFT for his North Atlantic Ocean flight in 1919

PREPARING HAWKER’S AIRCRAFT for his North Atlantic Ocean flight in 1919. On this flight, which was the first attempted non-stop aeroplane flight across the Atlantic, Hawker was accompanied by Commander Mackenzie Grieve as navigator. Arrangements were made to drop the undercarriage to lighten the aircraft after it had taken off. The flight did not succeed.

THE first attempt to make a direct flight in an aeroplane across the North Atlantic Ocean was made by two British aviators in the summer of 1919. When they were about 750 miles from the Irish coast their machine fell into the sea. For a week there was no news of their fate and, naturally enough, they were presumed to have perished. The idea of such a flight had captured the public imagination. The pilot of the machine was one of the most popular figures in aviation; and the flight itself had been supported by much artificial publicity; for these reasons the disappearance caused an extraordinary amount of tension, excitement and drama.

And the drama ran its true course, for after a week a little Danish steamer arrived off the Scottish coast and a message that the two aviators were safe and sound on board the steamer was flashed from the Butt of Lewis. The incredible had happened, the aviators had been saved. The tension turned to jubilation and that type of hysteria which is peculiar to spectacular flying.

The two aviators were H. G. (Harry) Hawker and his navigator, Commander Mackenzie Grieve. A great deal of Hawker’s fame today rests on this North Atlantic attempt. But that flight does not represent Hawker’s claim to be a maker of air history. It was, in fact, a flight which did little to add to his reputation as an aviator, whatever it may have added to his reputation as a popular public figure.

Hawker was a spectacular personality from the outset of his career. His first public appearance in aviation was spectacular also.

Hawker took his pilot’s certificate (No. 297) on September 17, 1912, after he had passed his tests at Brooklands on a Farman biplane. He was then a pupil at the Sopwith School. That he was still a novice made no difference to Hawker. He immediately turned his attention to one of the most difficult of the numerous competitions then in existence.

This was the British Empire Michelin Trophy No. 1, which was open to the British pilot who could remain in the air for the longest period in a British machine between sunrise and one hour after sunset. Pilots had to remain in the air for at least five hours.

Hawker made his first attempt to win this difficult prize a month after he had taken his pilot’s certificate. His first attempt was a failure and he was forced down after a flight of three hours thirty-one minutes. A few days later he made another attempt, when he stayed in the air for only two hours forty minutes. On his third attempt he flew for three and a half hours.

On October 24, a week before the competition was to close, Hawker tried again. Another famous pilot, Frederick P. Raynham, took off from Brooklands the same day, only a few hours before Hawker began his attempt. Hawker flew a Sopwith Wright biplane fitted with a 45-50 horse-power A.B.C. engine. Raynham flew an Avro cabin biplane fitted with a Green engine. Raynham began his attempt at dawn, and Hawker took off before Raynham was obliged to come down after he had flown for seven hours thirty-one and a half minutes, and had set up a new British duration record. But it was to be one of the shortest records that one man can ever have held, for Harry Hawker flew on until it was dark, and when he ultimately landed he had broken Raynham’s record by nearly an hour, having been in the air for eight hours twenty-three minutes. In addition to having created this new record and having won the Trophy, he won also a prize of £500.

This was indeed a spectacular beginning to his career, and it is small wonder that he soon became an outstanding personality with the public.

Less than nine months after he had learnt to fly, Hawker was appointed test pilot to the Sopwith Company; that appointment began an association which was to be one of the most famous in aviation. One of the earliest of the many Sopwith machines he tested was the three-seater tractor biplane, which had a speed of 70 miles an hour. It was fitted with an 80 horse-power Gnome engine. The pilot sat in the back seat and the two passengers sat side by side in the front cockpit above the centre of gravity.

With this machine Hawker added more laurels to his name. In 1913 he had climbed to a height of 7,500 feet in a quarter of an hour, and he then decided to attack the existing altitude record which Geoffrey de Havilland had made in his B.E.2. On August 12, 1912, with one passenger, de Havilland had reached a height of 10,560 feet in half an hour.

Hawker made his attempt on a solo flight at Brooklands. After he had climbed for three-quarters of an hour he reached a height of 11,450 feet before the carburettor froze and he had to glide back to the aerodrome. This fine performance gave Hawker the altitude record for a solo flight, but there remained Geoffrey de Havilland’s record for a flight with one passenger, and Major E. L. Gerrard’s 8,400 feet on a B.E.2 fitted with a 140 horse-power Gnome, for a flight with two passengers.

Two Records in One Day

Hawker decided to attack these records as well. Shortly after he had made the new altitude record for a solo flight he put in a remarkable day’s flying when he broke the other two records. He tried first for the record for a flight with one passenger. He climbed to 7,000 feet, where it became bitterly cold. But Hawker kept on until he reached 12,000 feet and that was the limit of his own endurance. So cold was he that his limbs were frozen. He was unable to work the controls of his machine, and from the height of 12,000 feet he glided down to the aerodrome, the creator of a new record.

That would have been enough for one day for many men, but not for H. G. Hawker. Half an hour later, when his limbs had thawed, he went up again with two passengers in his machine to attack Major Gerrard’s record. He climbed steadily until he reached 16,000 feet and became the holder of a third altitude record.

Hawker entering his aircraft to take passengers tor a flight at Hendon

BEFORE A FLIGHT AT HENDON. Hawker entering his aircraft to take passengers tor a flight. After some of his record-breaking achievements Hawker became a leading attraction at aviation meetings. He obtained his pilot’s certificate on September 17, 1912, and immediately turned his attention to competition flying. Less than nine months later he was appointed test pilot to the Sopwith Company.

Much of Hawker’s record-breaking flying was carried out in conjunction with his work as test pilot to the Sopwith Company. It was, of course, a great advertisement for the company if their star pilot created a record while flying one of their new machines.

Hawker’s next achievement was carried out on one of the best and most interesting of the early Sopwith products, the Sopwith flying boat known as the Sopwith bat-boat. The bat-boat had had an interesting history. It was a product of the combined resources of Saunders & Co., the famous Isle of Wight boat builders and now known as Saunders-Roe Limited, T. O. M. Sopwith and F. Sigrist. It was the first British flying boat. Passenger and pilot sat side by side, and the machine was driven by a 90 horse-power Austro-Daimler engine which was mounted high up between the wings. The tail was carried on outriggers, and there was a retractable undercarriage so that the boat could alight on land.

With the bat-boat, Hawker decided to try for the prize of £500 awarded by Mr. Mortimer Singer for the first flight by an all-British amphibious aircraft. To make the Sopwith flying boat all-British, Hawker had it fitted with a 100 horse-power Green engine. The conditions of the competition were peculiar and difficult. There had to be six out-and-back flights between two points five miles apart, one of which was on water and one on land. At either point the pilot had to descend. This involved six take-offs and six landings. A height of at least 750 feet had to be reached during the twelve separate flights. On at least one of the flights the machine had to climb to 1,500 feet. Five hours only were allowed for the tests.

Hawker made his attempt from Hamble to a point marked in the Solent between the Hampshire and Isle of Wight coasts. He fulfilled all the conditions of the competition in the remarkable time of three hours twenty-five minutes.

Hawker was by now a leading attraction at the numerous aviation meetings held throughout the country, and in 1913 he entered for the famous seaplane trial organized by the Daily Mail, which offered a prize of £5,000. If the conditions for the Mortimer Singer prize had been difficult, the conditions for the seaplane trial were even more difficult. Only all-British machines could compete. The distance to be flown was about 1,500 miles, and the course, which was divided into nine stages, was Southampton—Ramsgate, Ramsgate to Yarmouth (Norfolk), Yarmouth —Scarborough, Scarborough—Aberdeen, Aberdeen—Cromarty, Cromarty—Oban, Oban—Dublin, Dublin—Falmouth, Falmouth—Southampton. The longest of these stretches was from Dublin to Falmouth, in Cornwall, 280 miles.

This race was to be one of the most extraordinary experiences of Hawker’s career. On August 16 he took off from Southampton with one passenger. He made good time until he reached

Yarmouth, where his troubles began. As he stepped out of the Sopwith machine he collapsed, having been overcome by the sun and the fumes from the Green engine.

That was the end of Hawker’s first attempt to capture this valuable prize, but just over a week later, and only five days before the competition closed, he took off again. All went well until they reached Seaham, in Durham, where an overheated engine forced the Sopwith down. Valuable time was lost while the water connexion was repaired, but the repair did not last long, and after an hour’s flying they were forced down again some twenty miles from Berwick-on-Tweed.

Next morning Hawker took off and, after having called at Montrose and Aberdeen, he made for the northern turning-point at Cromarty. Trouble began as he flew above the Caledonian Canal towards Oban. This stage, only ninety-four miles, was the shortest of all the stages ; but Hawker found the conditions so bad, because of violent buffeting, that he took over two hours to reach Oban. He stayed overnight at Oban, but when he took off the next morning he knew at once that something was wrong. He alighted on the water, beached the Sopwith and found that one of the floats was damaged and let in water. An hour was lost while the water was emptied from the float. He took off again, but half an hour later the water connexion again went wrong and he spent an hour and a quarter repairing it. Then he made for Larne, in Ireland, where he refuelled, before flying on to Dublin. More trouble developed during this stage of the flight; as he brought the Sopwith down on to the water the wing-tip struck the surface and the machine was smashed. Apparently, Hawker’s shoe was covered with grease, and his foot slipped off the rudder bar.

Hawker was uninjured, but his passenger, who had done valuable work on the repairs and who had continually fought illness during the trip, was hurt.

Hawker had flown over a thousand miles in about twenty hours’ flying time. He did not, of course, win the Daily Mail prize, but he had performed so great a feat of flying that he was given a special prize of £1,000. The Royal Aero Club gave him its Silver Medal, and the club’s bronze medal was awarded to Hawker’s passenger, H. Kauper.

That same year Hawker flew in the second aerial Derby. He used a Sopwith tractor biplane fitted with an 80 horse-power Green engine. Hawker finished third in this race, but he had surprised the experts by the speed he had attained (67 miles an hour) and by the good fight he and F. P. Raynham, who was flying for the first time the famous Avro 504; see the chapter “The Designer of the Avro”) had made against the faster Bleriots and Maranes, which had finished behind him.

Harry Hawker on the occasion of the London to Manchester race

TAKEN IN 1914, this photograph shows H. G. Hawker on the occasion of the London to Manchester race. Although Hawker entered for this race to regain his position as a racing pilot after a spell of ill health, he was forced to give up, again by ill health. But he refused to be daunted and the same month nearly lost his life when a Sopwith Tabloid aircraft he was flying went into an inverted spin over Brooklands Aerodrome.

One of the most remarkable features of Hawker’s brilliant career was that for most of it he was the victim of ill health; because of this he was robbed of several records that would normally have stood to his name. It was not only illness itself, but his physique was not always able to withstand the arduous conditions inseparable from flying in these early machines. He was obliged to give up two attempts to win the British Empire Michelin Cup for 1913 because of illness and because his physique could not endure the weather conditions.

Even a trip to Australia in 1913 made little difference to his health, but it was only extreme illness that ever made him give up. Despite this handicap his real value to aviation in those days and during the war of 1914-18 was his test pilot work for the Sopwith Company. He was associated with some of that concern’s best-known machines, including the famous Sopwith Tabloid,

one of the most revolutionary types of machine ever produced.

So successful was this aeroplane that it brought the biplane into favour, when most schools of opinion were unanimous that the future of aviation lay with the monoplane. The Sopwith Tabloid could attain a speed of over 80 miles an hour even when well loaded. It was the forerunner of the high-speed biplane in England.

Hawker took the Tabloid to Australia with him in 1913. Shortly after his return, he made another attempt to regain his position as a racing pilot, but once again ill health forced him to give up in the London to Manchester race of 1914. But he refused to be daunted, and at the end of that month he nearly lost his life while flying a Sopwith Tabloid which had been designed for the Schneider Trophy races. He was flying over Brookiands when he tried to loop the loop with the engine throttled back to discover how slowly he could go over. On the summit of the loop, and about 1,000 feet up, the engine stalled, and the machine went into an inverted spin.

It looked as if Hawker’s career would end as spectacularly as it had begun, for no one watching thought he had any chance of escape; but when he was only a few feet from the ground, he got out of the spin; the Tabloid was still diving when it hit a tree and stayed on the branches before dropping to the ground. Hawker was uninjured. But for the tree he would have been killed.

Many foolish criticisms were made against Hawker because he did not serve in the war of 1914-18 as a pilot. Hawker’s health was against any type of active service, and in any event so brilliant an all-round test pilot was of far more value doing the work that he was properly fitted to do —testing the warplanes that Sopwiths were building, By those who are competent to judge, Hawker’s work during the war was not only brilliant but also of outstanding importance.

When the war was over, Hawker soon returned to spectacular flying, and this brings us to his disastrous attempt to fly the North Atlantic. This flight, failure though it was, takes its place in history because it was the first attempt to cross the North Atlantic in an aeroplane.

A SOPWITH BIPLANE with Hawker standing alongsideAviators were eager to be the first over the North Atlantic, and almost immediately after the Armistice, preparations were made to build or convert machines for the crossing. The idea was formed into a definite competition by the £10,000 prize offered by Lord Northcliffe for the first aviators to accomplish this feat.

A SOPWITH BIPLANE with Hawker standing alongside. Hawker was first to fly many of the famous aircraft produced by the Sopwith Company. His ill health prevented him from doing active service during the war of 1914-18, but he did brilliant and outstandingly important work testing Sopwith warplanes. He was killed in a crash on July 12, 1921

This was just the type of spectacular competition to attract Harry Hawker, and despite his ill health he went to St. John’s, Newfoundland, where other competitors were gathered. He intended to fly in a Sopwith biplane fitted with a 375 horse-power 12-cylinder Rolls Royce engine. With him as navigator was Commander Mackenzie Grieve, R.N.

The Atlantic, as the machine was named, had been built in an amazingly short time; in view of later events many people said that it had been built in too short a time. It was of conventional design except that it had extra large fuel tanks and an undercarriage which could be detached in the air by a trigger release arrangement. Hawker’s machine was very heavily loaded, and in a rather desperate attempt to find a way of lightening the load he decided to part with his undercarriage once he had taken off.

He realized, of course, that when he landed he would have to risk a smash, but he depended on his skill as a pilot to bring the Atlantic down so that the impact would cause little damage to machine or crew. This idea of letting go the undercarriage was fiercely attacked by the experts. Another unusual feature of the Atlantic was a small boat which formed the top decking of the fuselage.

When Hawker and Mackenzie Grieve arrived at St. John’s, snow and ice covered a flying field which even in normal conditions had a bad surface and which was too small.

Then came one of those seemingly interminable periods of waiting which are nightmares to men whose nerves are keyed up almost to breaking point. Day after day the bad weather persisted at St. John’s. Rain, fog and high winds prevented any attempt to leave. It was not until Sunday, May 18, that the conditions were good enough for the aviators to leave.

There were anxious moments while the heavily-loaded machine had difficulty in taking-off; and when it did take off it lurched heavily in the air before it was clear of the ground. But once height was gained Hawker turned for the North Atlantic and slipped his undercarriage.

Navigation Error

Nothing went right for Hawker and Grieve from the beginning. They were scarcely out of sight of land before they ran into the fog off the notorious Newfoundland Grand Banks; but Hawker was familiar with bad weather conditions and he took the Atlantic through the fog. For an hour they flew on seeing nothing but the white fog. Only once did Grieve have a chance to make observations and check the drift of the machine.

The fog passed and at 10.15 p.m. Grieve estimated that they had flown about 400 miles. The clearing of the fog, however, was only a brief respite, for soon after clouds banked up before them. The sea and sky were hidden, and a rainstorm of tremendous power lashed the machine. As Hawker used all his skill to avoid the clouds, the weather turned colder until it was freezing.

But the cold was inevitable if Hawker was to avoid the clouds, and he climbed to 10,000 feet. After he had been flying for nearly six hours the machine itself gave trouble. The thermometer which registered the temperature of the engine’s cooling system was rising. There were shutters on the radiator which controlled the temperature of the engine, but when Hawker tried to adjust them they did not work.

Hawker knew that if the engine temperature was not controlled nothing could prevent the machine from coming down in the sea.

So that the temperature could be reduced Hawker dived the machine with the engine throttled for three thousand feet, and when he flattened out he saw that the needle on the thermometer had retracted.

Once again their respite from trouble was only temporary, for early on the Monday morning the trouble with the cooling system returned, and Mackenzie Grieve found that there was a large error in their navigation.

H. G. (HARRY) HAWKER gave the name to the modern series of Hawker fighting aircraft

H. G. (HARRY) HAWKER gave the name to the modern series of Hawker fighting aircraft. H. G. Hawker first became associated with the famous Sopwith concern in 1913. As the outcome of the voluntary liquidation of this firm in 1923 the H G. Hawker Engineering Company, Limited, was formed, and was succeeded in 1933 by Hawker Aircraft, Limited.

The weather continued to be bad, and then the engine trouble became worse. It was obvious that soon the engine would fail completely. It was obvious, too, that the flight would be a failure. Sooner or later they would have to descend on the sea and use their small boat, but heavy seas were running and it was extremely doubtful if so small a boat would survive.

Making full use of his great skill as a pilot, Hawker nursed the machine up to 12,000 feet, where he travelled above the cloudbanks and in the moonlight; but even that did not last long. More clouds blocked the path of the Atlantic, and it was impossible to tax the failing engine by climbing several thousands of feet above this new layer of clouds.

Hawker brought the machine down again, looking anxiously for a break in the clouds. At 1,000 feet the air was clear. Hawker used the throttle, but the engine failed to respond. Immediately below them were the heavy seas of the North Atlantic.

Mackenzie Grieve worked desperately at the fuel pump to get the engine to start. Then, when a bad alighting on the sea seemed inevitable, the Rolls-Royce engine spluttered, started, stopped and then roared full on. The machine rose, and immediately Hawker and Grieve looked out for a ship that could take them on board. For two and a half hours they flew round, with Hawker coaxing and nursing an engine which threatened to give out again at any minute. And as if the engine itself was not enough trouble, the weather was also bad. Their vision was frequently obscured by clouds and driving rain, but they peered anxiously through the bad visibility, anxious not to miss any passing ship.

Two Amazing Coincidences

Then, below them, they saw a small ship. Mackenzie Grieve fired Very lights and, when the crew of the small vessel had replied, Hawker began his difficult task of bringing the machine down on to the heavy seas. With characteristic skill he alighted perfectly. After considerable difficulty and danger they launched their small boat and rowed out to meet another boat which had been launched from the steamer; this steamer was a Danish cargo boat, the Mary, on her way to Europe.

It took one and a half hours to get Hawker and Mackenzie Grieve across the heavy seas and into the Mary; and they were scarcely on board when a heavy storm broke. So severe was it that the Mary was obliged to heave-to.

Now comes the extraordinary sequel to this extraordinary adventure. The Mary had no radio and she saw no ship near enough to give a message that she was carrying Hawker and his navigator. These two amazing coincidences were so improbable that Hawker and Mackenzie Grieve were given up for lost by their anxious friends and an apparently anxious public.

And then, a week later, the Mary passed the Butt of Lewis, off the Scottish coast, and a message was flashed to the rest of Great Britain that Hawker and Mackenzie Grieve were safe.

When the Sopwith Aviation company went into voluntary liquidation Hawker was associated with the Hawker Engineering Company. Harry Hawker himself, however, was killed in an accident near Hendon aerodrome in 1921. He was then a very sick man, with perhaps only a few months to live. Much nonsense has been written about flying men “dying as they would have wished to die, at their job”, but it is certain that if Harry Hawker knew that his end were near he certainly would have preferred the quicker way that came from a crash.

The Hawker Engineering Company was succeeded in 1933 by Hawker Aircraft Limited, and it is a fine tribute to Harry Hawker that his name is perpetuated in the aircraft manufactured by the existing company.

WRECKAGE OF THE AEROPLANE in which Hawker had competed for a £5,000 seaplane competition in 1913

WRECKAGE OF THE AEROPLANE in which Hawker had competed for a £5,000 seaplane competition in 1913. Only all-British machines could take part. The course of about 1,500 miles was from Southampton to Southampton via Aberdeen, Oban and Dublin. Hawker crashed near Dublin. He was unhurt but his passenger was injured. Though Hawker did not win the £5,000 prize, he was given a special prize of £1,000.

You can read more on “The Designer of the Avro”, “Geoffrey de Havilland” and

“Saunders Roe Aircraft” on this website.

Harry Hawker: A Spectacular Record Breaker