Scientific American, June 1905, 480

Here is what I've been able to reconstruct about the Alvares flying machine. Firstly, nothing about Alvares himself, except that he was a Brazilian, who was said to have successfully carried out experiments with smaller gliders in his home country for some 18 years.((Manchester Evening News, 17 September 1904, 3; Daily Mirror (London), 17 September 1904, 11.)) Frustratingly, no other names are given -- he is always Senor (or Señor) Alvares.

Above is the one (1) photograph of the aeroplane I've been able to find (thanks, Scientific American!)((Scientific American, 17 June 1905, 480.)) It was built by C. G. Spencer and Sons, a well-known manufacturer of balloons and even small airships, between about May and September 1904, in their 'Balloon Hall' at Highbury Grove, where it was exhibited on 16 September, 'a pretty bird-like structure, weighing about 150 pounds [...] capable of holding only one man'.((Standard (London), 17 September 1904, 2.)) Indeed it was said to have been inspired by the flight of gulls and their ability to soar in the air for long periods. Alvares was present for the initial demonstration along with 'several members of aeronautical societies'.((Manchester Evening News, 17 September 1904, 3.)) The intention always seems to have been to fly it initially without any pilot (though ballasted at 150 pounds), but to release it from a balloon so as 'to test its actual power of flight', with 'a perfect balance' being the goal.((Standard (London), 17 September 1904, 2.)) However, the first reports say this was to be done at the Crystal Palace in the following week; it's not clear why it took place at Hendon a month later instead.

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A few weeks back, @TroveAirBot found a short article from the Port Lincoln, Tumby and West Coast Recorder entitled 'Dropped From the Clouds':

A balloon which ascended from the Welsh Harp, Hendon, on October 14 [1904], carried with it into the clouds a large flying machine.
As no one was in the car of the balloon or in the flying machine, the experiment was conducted with a minimum of danger.
No such untoward incident occurred, however, and the experiment, which is the first of a series being carried ont by Messrs Spencer Bros, in order to test the powers of Senor Alvares's aeroplane, was conducted with marked success.
The balloon, inflated with 25,000 cubic feet of coal gas, carried the aeroplane to a height of 3,000 feet. At that altitude the machine was automatically liberated. Three thousand feet below a little group of experts watched its movements.
Carrying the weight representing that of an average man, the airship made its way earthwards. At first it plunged rather excitedly towards the watching scientists, bat then, recovering itself, it proceeded steadily in a horizontal direction for a considerable distance. The propellers revolved rapidly, and the machine kept its balance in a manner which augured well for the success of the experiments which are to be made later with a man on board instead of a dead weight.
After travelling at a high speed over the country for a mile or so, the airship came to earth in an open meadow, where it was at once recovered quite uninjured.((Port Lincoln, Tumby and West Coast Recorder, 17 March 1905, 7.))

This caught my eye. It's not unusual (especially on this blog) to find aviation activity at Hendon, the most famous aerodrome in Britain before 1914 and home of the RAF's aerial theatre for most of the 1920s and 1930s. But it is unusual to find any this early: this was in 1904, which is five years before there was actually an aerodrome at Hendon, and for that matter less than a year after the Wrights' first powered flight.

There was, in fact, aviation at Hendon before the aerodrome: in particular, in 1908 H. P. Martin and G. H. Handasyde (as in Martinsyde) built an unsuccessful monoplane 'in the unused ballroom of the Old Welsh Harp public house at Hendon', while Everett, Edgecumbe & Co., a Hendon instrument firm, built another, even less successful, one on the site of the future aerodrome. (Local lad C. R. Fairey -- as in Fairey -- got his start in aviation on that one.)((David Oliver, Hendon Aerodrome: A History (Shrewsbury: Airlife, 1994), 7.)) But according to David Oliver, author of the best history of the Hendon aerodrome, Martin-Handasyde and Everett, Edgecumbe represent the beginning of heavier-than-air flight there. He doesn't mention this 1904 unpiloted flight by Señor Alvares's flying machine; nor does Charles Gibbs-Smith, the authority on early aviation.((Ibid; Charles H. Gibbs-Smith, Aviation: An Historical Survey from Its Origins to the End of World War II (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1985).))

Of course, neither Oliver nor Gibbs-Smith had access to digitised newspaper archives, so they can hardly be blamed for missing one particular obscure flight. But nobody else seems to know about it either, or at least some desultory googling throw up nothing about it. This made me curious to see if I could find anything more about this mysterious aeroplane or its mysterious inventor. I managed to find one, but not the other -- as I will discuss in the next post.


The Bystander, 31 May 1911, p. 13

To mark May Day, the Fleet Air Arm Museum, @FleetAirArmMus, tweeted about the Royal Navy's first rigid airship, which was built by Vickers at Barrow-in-Furness in 1911 in an attempt to match Germany's Zeppelins:

I was surprised by the comment about the airship's name. Probably because of its brief, non-flying existence, it's known by a variety of designations, including R1, HMA (His Majesty's Airship) 1, and HMA Hermione (since HMS Hermione acted as its tender). But it's perhaps best known by an unofficial name, Mayfly, given because, @FleetAirArmMus said, 'it was laid down on water & then took to the air', just like a mayfly. That's the part that surprised me, because I had always understood it to be much more ironic: it may fly, but it might not. And of course Mayfly didn't: it broke its back in September 1911 as it was being taken out of its hangar for its first flight.

But I don't actually know why I think that. Every secondary source I've checked just says it was 'popularly' or 'unofficially' called Mayfly, without providing a source or even an explanation. I'd also assumed that it was a name given by a sceptical press during the two years it took to build the airship, but Wikipedia, citing Philip Jarrett, says it was bestowed by the 'lower deck', i.e. the sailors. So I decided to look for some primary sources.

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Resuming from where I left off with Modern Wonder -- here are some rather fantastic French and British 'battle planes' from the cover of the 23 April 1938 issue. I've never seen these designs before and I'm sure they never got off the drawing board -- if, that is, there was even any drawing board at all and it's not just massive artistic license. [Update: of course I was wrong! Jakob quickly identified both aircraft in the comments. The French one is an Arsenal-Delanne 10, which did in fact fly (though not until 1941); the British one is an Airspeed AS.31, which did not. On Twitter, Francois Soyer and AusterityAirliners also got one apiece.]

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Popular Mechanics, October 1922

John Ptak asks of this cover from the October 1922 issue Popular Mechanics: 'why?' It's a good question. The accompanying article doesn't really help:

Consider yourself aboard a giant airplane whose whirring propellers rapidly drive from view faint objects on the earth far below. As towns and hamlets recede in the distance you realize that you are fast approaching the one that is your destination, for the captain is giving orders to make ready for the discharge of passengers at one of the intermediate points along the route of the great air liner. The crew unfold from the capacious hold a small air boat, and lower it dangling from the huge hull by its special tackle. You and several fellow passengers climb down into the seats behind the pilot and buckle yourselves in as the big ship slows its engines to enable the little wings to catch the air. With a quick movement of a lever your steersman unleashes the small craft, which begins its motorless flight and gracefully glides downward to a safe landing, while the mother plane speeds out of sight.

It turns out that this was an idea which cropped up repeatedly in the first few decades of flight. But such 'aerial trains' never quite came to commercial fruition. Which suggests that yes, you could indeed consider yourself leaving an airliner in mid-air; but you probably wouldn't want to.
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The lost Gotha of New Farm Park is lost in two senses. Firstly, because I'm fairly sure that it no longer exists. Secondly, because I'm quite sure that it never existed.

Chris O'Regan pointed out on Twitter that 'there used to be a captured German plane in New Farm Park' in Brisbane. This was easy to confirm in Trove; it was offered to Brisbane as a war trophy in 1921:

The Brisbane City Council yesterday agreed to accept a captured German aeroplane offered by the Australian War Museum. Authority was given for the erection of a shelter at a cost of £50, in New Farm Park, on a site to be fixed by the chairman of the Parks Committee and the superintendent of parks.1

But the shelter evidently didn't offer much protection from the elements, because by March 1930 the aeroplane was in poor condition and 'badly in need of reconditioning':

The chairman (Alderman E. Lanham) stated that no financial provision had been made for the work, and while there was some sentiment attached to the capture of the machine it was not a proposal upon which the council was prepared to spend a big sum at present. The committee had agreed to defer the question of repairs until an inspection had been made by the parks superintendent (Mr. H. Moore) and himself.2

The aeroplane was offered to the Queensland Museum -- home to another, unique, war trophy, A7V Mephisto -- which unfortunately had 'no accomodation' for the machine.3 Dismantling began the following January, at which point the Queensland branch of the Australian Flying Corps Association offered to maintain it. The council agreed, but on condition that it was moved elsewhere.4 In June, it was announced that the association had 'offered to recondition the machine and place it in a conspicuous position on the Archerfield Aerodrome', then Brisbane's major (and very new) airport.5 In May 1932 it was said to be 'at present being reconditioned by the [Queensland] Aero Club' -- so not the Australian Flying Corps Association -- 'preparatory to its being mounted at Archerfield aerodrome'.6 I can't find any trace of the aeroplane after that. I suspect it was never placed into any 'conspicuous position' but instead the reconditioning stretched out until it was eventually scrapped, perhaps in 1939 when the RAAF moved in.
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  1. Telegraph (Brisbane), 21 December 1921, 8. []
  2. Brisbane Courier, 26 March 1930, 14. []
  3. Brisbane Courier, 1 October 1930, 14. []
  4. Telegraph (Brisbane), 21 January 1931, 8. []
  5. Telegraph (Brisbane), 6 June 1931, 9. []
  6. Brisbane Courier, 26 May 1932, 14. []


Boeing E75, VH-JLW

This a Boeing (Stearman) Model 75, built in 1941 for use as a primary trainer for the US Army Air Forces. After a postwar career in the US as a cropduster, it was registered in Australia as VH-JLW and is now operated by Fleet Adventures, based at Armidale Regional Airport. And last Friday, as a surprise, and very touching, farewell present from my friends (aided and abetted by my partner), I flew in it!
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Malaya XV

David Payne sent me this great photograph of Malaya XV Cheon Teong, Ngoh Bee, a B.E.2c which was donated to the British war effort as part of the Imperial Aircraft Flotilla I blogged about last year. David's grandfather, Arthur Chapman, is in the cockpit; he was an engineer at Shorts on the Isle of Sheppey, though not necessarily at the time of this photo. David provides the following information:

Arthur Chapman (1877-1937) worked as Shorts "head man" from '09 but I don't know how long for. He taught himself to fly and helped teach the first four naval volunteers to fly. Also he was in the passenger seat when Commander Samson flew the first hydroplane off the Hibernia at the review of the fleet in 1912. At what date he left Shorts I don't know although he joined the RFC in 1917.

Otherwise the details of this photo was taken are unknown, including the identity of the two men standing in front of the B.E.2c. It would likely have been taken in 1916, which is when the Over-Seas Club's book recording the growth of the Imperial Aircraft Flotilla was published; Malaya XV was the 15th of 17 aeroplanes in the Malayan squadron.

I notice that while the names of this aircraft's donors are given as Cheon Teong and Ngoh Bee, in the Over-Seas Club's book the first name is given as Cheow Teng.1 This seems to be an error; at least the name is given as Cheon Teong in a contemporary Singaporean newspaper.2 Either way, I hope he was pleased with his aeroplane.

  1. The Imperial Aircraft Flotilla (London: The Over-Seas Club, n.d. [1916]), 28. []
  2. Straits Times, 3 March 1916, 8. []


Tu-95 Bear

Every so often, Vladimir Putin gets annoyed with NATO and engages in a bit of sabre-rattling, sending a few Tu-95 Bear bombers on long-range flights off the coast of Portugal or Canada in order to remind them that Russia is not to be taken lightly (I happened to be at a conference at a RAF base shortly after these flights resumed, and it had certainly caught the attention of the air force officers there). In many ways, the Tu-95 is the equivalent of the American B-52: they are both strategic bombers, which first flew in 1952 yet are expected to remain in service into the 2040s. Remarkably, though, the Tu-95 is not a jet, it's a turboprop. That makes it seem like a charming old relic of a bygone age; and maybe it is, but it's a nuclear-capable one. Which is precisely why interceptors are scrambled whenever these bombers appear off the coast and why reports of the interceptions soon appear in the media, which in turn is why Russia keeps doing it. Earlier this week, two Tu-95s were sent down the English Channel, as far as Cornwall, apparently in response to British concerns about Russian involvement in Ukraine and the Baltics. Lately, these flights are becoming so frequent as to almost be routine: the RAF carried out four times as many interceptions in 2014 as in 2013; another English Channel flyby took place three weeks before the latest one.
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A widespread assumption in 1913 was that the mysterious airships then being seen in British skies were real and German. The vast majority certainly were not: there were just too many of them, in too many places, for no conceivable purpose. But it remains a possibility that a few of them really were German airships. In particular, competent authorities then and later have concluded that the Sheerness incident on 14 October 1912 was caused by the intrusion of a Zeppelin into British airspace. At a meeting of the Committee of Imperial Defence in December, Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, reported that

There was little very doubt that the airship reported recently to have passed over Sheerness was a German vessel, and this incident had renewed anxiety.1

At the next CID meeting, in February 1913, Vice-Admiral Sir John Jellicoe stated that 'A German airship of the Parseval type had flown over Sheerness and back to Germany'.2 When the Prime Minister, H. H. Asquith, asked what the evidence for this was, Jellicoe replied that 'it was known that an airship had left Germany on the day previous', and Churchill added that there was 'information from other sources which confirmed their belief'.3 The nature of these 'other sources' is suggested by a letter written by Churchill to Admiral of the Fleet Sir A. K. Wilson several days earlier, though then the implication was not that it was a Parseval but rather Hansa, a civilian Zeppelin:

14. Visit of 'Hansa' over Sheerness.

One of the pilots of the Bristol and Colonial Aeroplane Company, Mr. E. Harrison, recently visited Farnborough, and stated that he was in Germany on the night of 13th October, and saw the 'Hansa' start on a trip, and he stated that everybody knew that she had been over the North Sea. The 'Hansa' is an older and smaller airship than the German naval airship.

It has not been thought advisable to take the matter up closely with Mr. E. Harrison, but enquiries are being made in other directions to confirm the accuracy of this information.4

I'm not aware of the results of these further inquiries. But in 1931, C. F. Snowden Gamble, an early aviation historian, perhaps drew on Admiralty sources for his flat assertion that Hansa did indeed fly over Britain (though without specifically mentioning Sheerness):

There is every reason to believe that, at the time, the Admiralty knew that the craft was the Hansa -- a Zeppelin airship belonging to the Deutsche Luftschiffahrt A.G. (German Airship Transport Company) but manned by naval officers and ratings. Although the allegations were denied by the German press there is now no doubt that this ship did cruise over part of southern England.5

John Cuneo remarks that Gamble's confidence is hard to understand, 'because the facts are far from being well-known despite the insinuation by the author. No reference is given although the history is otherwise unusually well documented'.6 He attempted to find supporting evidence in published sources, including the Official History and Flight, but was largely unsuccessful.7

No date is given of the cruise or cruises of the Hansa but it seems to place it over England in 1912 or the early part of 1913. It is true that this Zeppelin was used to train navy crews and such training frequently took place over the North Sea but this was only after the explosion of the only naval airship in October, 1913. Of course a special trip was a possibility. It seems peculiar that such a visit was not described by some Zeppelin commander or crew member in the flood of post-war revelations.6

For that matter, it also seems peculiar that no archival records of such a flight have ever turned up. Douglas Robinson, who drew on the logbooks of the Naval Airship Division and other sources, dismisses the phantom airship reports as 'alarmist rumours' and likens them to 'the "flying saucer" craze of our own day'.8 Of course, he might have missed something, or the records might not have survived. Or the crew might not have survived the war to write their memoirs. It would certainly be unwise to dismiss altogether the possibility that evidence from German primary sources might turn up: after all, the contemporary spy scare was ridiculed then and later, but there were some German spies in Britain before the war, just not remotely as many as was claimed.9 In fact, one of those spies published a book in which he claimed that a German airship secretly flew over London in peacetime. Was he telling the truth? I'll leave that for another post.

  1. The National Archives (TNA), CAB 38/22/42, Committee of Imperial Defence meeting, 6 December 1912. []
  2. TNA, CAB 38/23/9, Committee of Imperial Defence meeting, 6 February 1913. []
  3. Ibid. []
  4. TNA, CAB 38/23/11, letter from Winston Churchill to Admiral of the Fleet Sir A. K. Wilson, 3 February 1913. []
  5. C. F. Snowden Gamble, The Air Weapon, volume 1 (London: 1931), 205; quoted in John Cuneo, Winged Mars, volume 1 (Harrisburg: Military Service Publishing, 1942), 125. []
  6. Cuneo, Winged Mars, 125. [] []
  7. He did note a similar statement in George Fyfe, From Box-kites to Bombers (London: 1936), 161. []
  8. Douglas H. Robinson, The Zeppelin in Combat: A History of the German Naval Airship Division, 1912-1918, 3rd edition (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1980), 22. []
  9. Thomas Boghardt, Spies of the Kaiser: German Covert Operations in Great Britain During the First World War Era (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), chapter 3. []