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By Philip Jarrett

When Flight's first "proper" issue appeared on 2 January 1909, British aviation was in the doldrums. Apart from worthies such as Sir George Cayley, William Henson and John Stringfellow, Frederick Wenham, Percy Pilcher and Horatio Phillips, the previous decades had seen fitful progress. From 1903 the Wright brothers had been making powered flights in the USA, and in 1908 other leading pioneers such as Louis Blériot and Glenn Curtiss began to make tentative flights.

The wake-up call came from France in 1908, when English-born Henri Farman won 50,000 francs on 13 January by flying a circular 1km (0.54nm) course. Then, in August, Wilbur Wright astounded the world with the first demonstrations of practical powered flight at Le Mans. Another American, SF Cowdery ("Colonel Cody"), accomplished the first powered, sustained and controlled flight in the UK, at Farnborough on 16 October 1908, in British Army Aeroplane No 1.

While activity accelerated in France and the USA, UK aviators struggled in 1909 but nevertheless the magazine's first year was to be a momentous one for aviation. In its first issue Flight reported that JTC Moore-Brabazon was making flights in his Voisin biplane at Issy in France, and gave a brief account of the work of the Aerial Experiment Association in Canada and the USA, but carried no word of British experiments.

In February 1909 the Short brothers were contracted to build six Wright Flyers, valued at £8,400, in the UK, becoming the first British company to manufacture aeroplanes in series. On 19-27 March the first "British Aero Show" took place at Olympia in London, a prominent exhibit being Moore-Brabazon's Voisin. In this on 30 April he made the first accredited flight by an Englishman in England, flying a distance of 137m (450ft) at Leysdown, Isle of Sheppey. Then, on 14 May, in his rebuilt British Army Aeroplane No 1, Cody few for more than a mile over Laffan's Plain, Hampshire.


At Lea Marshes, Essex, AV Roe accomplished tentative straight-line flights 200-300 yards in his all-British triplane on 23 July, but this modest achievement was thrown into dramatic perspective only two days later when Frenchman Louis Blériot flew across the Channel.

The week-long Reims Meeting in France from 22-29 August heralded the aeroplane's "arrival" as a practical vehicle. During the event Farman installed one of the new Gnome rotary engines, the light and efficient powerplant that played a significant role in aviation's early advance.

On 8 September Cody made the first flight in Britain of more than an hour's duration, and on 30 October Moore-Brabazon, flying his Short No 2 biplane, won the Daily Mail £1,000 prize for first Briton to make a flight of a mile in an all-British aeroplane. He was awarded the Royal Aero Club's first Aviator's Certificate on 8 March 1910.

In April 1910 Louis Paulhan of France and Englishman Claude Grahame-White, both flying Farman biplanes, vied for the Daily Mail's £10,000 prize for the first flight from London to Manchester. Despite making a night flight, Grahame-White lost to Paulhan. The potential of naval aviation began to be realised on 14 November, when Eugene Ely flew a Curtiss biplane from a platform over the bows of the US Navy cruiser USS Birmingham.

In February 1911 a regular airmail service organised by Capt Walter Windham operated between Allahabad and Naini Junction in India. On 18 June the Circuit of Europe race started , won on 7 July by Lt de Vaisseau Conneau ("Beaumont"), flying a Blériot.

The first use of aircraft in war occurred in 1911-12, by the Italians during a conflict with the Turks in Tripolitana. The initial operation was a reconnaissance of the enemy lines by Capitano Piazza on 11 October 1911.


On 13 April 1912 the Royal Flying Corps was constituted, comprising a Naval Wing (later the Royal Naval Air Service, RNAS), a Military Wing and a Central Flying School. That August British and foreign aircraft participated in the Military Aeroplane Trials on Salisbury Plain. Cody's biplane won, although it was inferior to other entrants, but all were outshone by the B.E.2, designed and flown by Geoffrey de Havilland, which, being a product of the Royal Aircraft Factory and ineligible to compete, flew hors concours.

Early in 1913 the Royal Aircraft Factory completed the BS 1/SE 2, the world's first single-seat scout. Others soon followed suit, Sopwith producing its Tabloid, Bristol its Scout and Martinsyde its S.1, all of which entered service in 1914.

On 1 April, the Daily Mail announced a £10,000 prize for non-stop transatlantic flight, but none of the intended entrants was completed before the outbreak of war. At Hendon in north London in September the Avro 504 made its public debut. It became a classic trainer, serving in large numbers worldwide well into the 1930s.


Sopwith's little Tabloid revealed its potential on 20 April 1914, when Howard Pixton won the second Schneider Trophy contest at Monaco. In its seaplane variant the aircraft formed part of the RNAS's equipment in the early war years.

However, it was soon evident that warplanes needed to be robust and their engines reliable, and war also spurred development of armament, bombing and aerial photography. As war broke out in Europe in 1914, the aggressive use of aircraft evolved rapidly, the RNAS sending three Avro 504s to bomb the Zeppelin sheds at Friedrichshafen on 21 November that year.

In 1915 the Allies suffered heavy losses on the Western Front to the new Fokker monoplanes with interrupter gear enabling their machine guns to fire directly ahead through the propeller arc. Before such gear became available for Allied aircraft the only response was to use cumbersome mountings directing the gunfire clear of the propeller, or pusher biplanes.

The menace of German rigid airships was gradually overcome, Flt Sub-Lt Warneford earning the VC for bringing down LZ.37 on 7 June 1915, and Lt Leefe Robinson for putting paid to the SL11 over Cuffley, Hertfordshire, on 3 September 1916.

Wartime restrictions deprived Flight of official information on British frontline aircraft, but the magazine overcame the problem by publishing translations of German descriptions of captured Allied aircraft, complementing these with British reports on captured enemy machines. Aircraft evolved continuously on both sides, the outstanding British fighters from 1916 onwards being the Sopwith Camel and Royal Aircraft Factory SE5a, while Germany fielded the Fokker Dr.1 triplane and DVII. On 1 April 1918, Britain's two air arms were merged to create the Royal Air Force.

sopwith camel
Britain's Sopwith Camel was one of the outstanding fighters during the First World War

Following Igor Sikorsky's development of the first truly large aeroplanes, the Il'ya Mouramets bombers, Germany produced a variety of even larger Riesenflugzeug, and in Britain Handley Page fielded its O/400 and V/1500 bombers, the latter appearing just too late to fulfil its intended role as a Berlin bomber. Even before this, Britain's Independent Air Force had inaugurated strategic bombing, using the Airco DH9A among other types. Another wartime latecomer was the Vickers Vimy, destined to win fame in the immediate postwar years as a conqueror of distance.

Phillip Jarrett was Flight International's production editor from 1980 to 1990

Continue reading The Flight Century

Peace ... and war - 1919 - 1939
The inter-war years were a time of renaissance, innovation and record breaking and the creation of the air travel industry

Fight for the edge - 1939 - 1948
The Second World War brought aerospace innovation on both sides, but the sound barrier remained intact until 1947

Flying into a jet age - 1949 - 1958
Despite its problems, the Comet was a revolution in air transport. But this would be a decade of firsts, many of them British

Faster and higher - 1959 - 1979
The jet was king and the Jumbo Jet proved bigger was definitely better. Meanwhile, the Harrier showed the UK could still lead

Electric jets and stealth - 1979 - 1999
Innovations of the 1980s brought far-reaching changes in virtually every area of aviation - and Flight became truly International

Flight 100 - history of 21st century
As we entered the 21st century fuel efficiency and green design were beginning to take over from the quest for size and speed

Flight into the future - The next 100 years
We covered exciting, almost unbelievable, breathtaking developments in our first century of  publishing. What might feature on our pages in the next 100 years?

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Source: Flight International