The first flight over Penzance was a short but memorable affair. Lasting just three minutes, and at a height of only 200 feet, it was achieved in a rather fragile biplane called a Farman with a propeller in the rear.
In the Shuttleworth Collection there is a replica Bristol Box Kite, developed from the Farman and very similar. This is the only machine of its type still flying and gives a very good impression of the flimsy "string bags" to which these early flyers enthrusted their bones.
The flight took place at around 6.00 pm on Saturday July 23rd, 1910. The pilot was the renowned Claude Grahame-White, and his purpose was to fly over the three fleets assembled in the bay, awaiting informal review by the recently crowned King George V.
Grahame-White had learnt to fly at Reims, under Bleriot - who had been the first aviator to cross the Channel, the previous year in 1909. Now, in 1910, his intention was to show the vulnerability of the Navy to aerial attack. Local photographer Vaughan T Paul, who supplied photographs to the Daily Mirror, supported Grahame-White in this endeavour. Something of a showman, the pilot had a collection of planes which he shuffled around the country for demonstration purposes.
Grahame-White had arrived by rail – as had one of his dismantled planes. Crowds gathered in Poniou Field, near to the present-day Eastern Green trading estate. Those who could afford half a crown were permitted the thrill of joining Grahame-White in the cockpit for a spin up into the clouds. Others – less affluent, or perhaps just less venturesome - could, for a lesser sum, inspect the plane on the ground. Grahame-White was reported in the local press as being “utterly devoid of nerves”.
Poor weather delayed the flight, and high winds curtailed this first effort. But three hours later, Grahame-White’s second take-off – this time from Marazion - was more impressive. “We believe”, the Cornish Telegraph journalist reported of the whirring propellers, “they reach the speed of 2,500 revolutions per minute”. Then came a draught like a hurricane, and soon the Farman was airborne - first for a three-minute flight and then, once Grahame-White was sure of the air currents, over the Promenade and the Royal Navy Fleet assembled in the Bay.
The flight lasted some 15 minutes, and as he passed over the 200 ships of the now-illuminated fleet, Grahame-White was able to identify the flagship of the Royal Navy, The Dreadnought, and the Admiralty yacht, The Enchantress. Those gathered on the Prom were “rooted to the spot” by his display; those further up in town could see his white scarf, so low did he fly. There were fears that he would surely “meet with some untoward accident”, but all was well.
Commemorative postcard of Grahame-White's first flight in Cornwall (via Michael Potter on FaceBook)
The following day, Grahame-White took off again, but was forced inland by contrary winds and eventually landed on the north coast: the same winds also led to the unexpected departure of the Navy for Torbay, to the disgust of local tradesmen who were left with unsaleable perishables on their hands.
The aviator’s last word on West Cornwall was delivered when he was asked what he thought Camborne looked from the air. His reply: “a damn’d sight better than it does down here”. He perhaps had his mind on bigger adventures: the next month, he would fly a Farman biplane over Washington, landing close to the White House.
Despite the attention which it attracted, this 1910 display was not the first heavier-than-air flight to take place in Cornwall. Jack Humphries, a Dental Surgeon from Fowey had observed bird flight and made at least two flights with gliders from nearby cliffs. And other flights would follow: In 1912, the French aviator Henri Salmet, with the financial support of Lord Northcliffe, arrived with his Bleriot machine on the 14th of June in Falmouth. He had intended to fly over Land’s End, but the headwinds proved too strong for the monoplane.
On 24th September 1913, the Hamburg-born Gustav Hamel, just 24 years old, arrived at Trengwainton. More ambitious than Grahame-White, he priced his flights at £5 – although his optimism may have been misplaced, as he only sold one flight in advance (to a Mrs Saunders) and, evidently discouraged, cancelled the offer and did not actually bring his passenger plane. But despite poor weather, he flew his Bleriot monoplane over Penzance - where he could be seen clearly from the Market Place and Market Jew Street - and then to Newlyn Coombe and on to St Ives. He was greeted by a large crowd upon his return. After meeting Lord and Lady St Leven and the local MP, Mr T Bedford Bolitho, who examined his aircraft, the energetic Hamel flew off once more, the monoplane’s 32-foot wings flapping and flexing “like the wings of some living denizen of the air” - and returned once more, Hamel having fulfilled his ambition of being the first aviator to fly over Land’s End.
Ballooning at Hendon had taken place as early as 1862, and here Hamel and Grahame-White collaborated in the development of the airfield which became a flying school and site for aircraft manufacture. Later taken over by the RAF, it is now their museum.
Airship bases were built in Cornwall during 1915 and 1916. For example, the Royal Naval Air Station Mullion was developed on a 320-acre site near the village of Cury, and the first airship transported to the area by train. This Lizard Airship Station was later to contain a hydrogen producing plant and a small Marconi transmitter. Its situation was ideal for attacking U-boats in accordance with the intentions of the First Sea Lord, Lord Fisher.
But the future was in planes. Within six years of Hamel’s visit, a “system of aerial transport” between the Scillies and Penzance was already being promoted. In 1927 a plane overhead was still newsworthy, but soon a new breed of aviation pioneers were campaigning solidly for airports rather than indulging in the riskier business of showpiece flying.
Flight had ceased to be a sensation, and had taken its place as functional feature of 20th century life.
Aviation in Cornwall, Peter London, 1997
Cornish Telegraph 28 7 1910, Cornishman 28 7 1910; Cornishman 25 9 1913, Cornishman 2 7 1919, Cornishman 25 5 1927