Did you know there was an aeroplane race over Suffolk in the 20s?
PUBLISHED: 02:02 18 February 2020 | UPDATED: 09:33 18 February 2020
One competitor was forced to land on an Ipswich school’s field during battle to win The King’s Cup in 1929
Competing for The King's Cup, a coveted aviation trophy, Flying Officer PW Jackson saw his hopes of success evaporate pretty quickly. Mind you, it could have been much, much worse...
He'd taken off from newly-opened Heston Aerodrome, west of London, and made it to Norwich. But then, racing towards Hadleigh in Suffolk, he suffered engine trouble.
Jackson had to make a forced landing on the Ipswich Grammar School playing field off Henley Road... just missing the top of a tree. Happily for him, he got down safely.
Although his plane wasn't damaged, mechanical problems meant the pilot was unable to continue in the 1,169-mile race. Instead, he arranged for a car to take him to the school, where he apologised to headmaster the Rev EC Sherwood for his unavoidable descent.
Jackson later carried on to Hadleigh, though not by air. His disabled plane was left at Ipswich, presumably collected later. His dream was over.
This was at the start of July, 1929. That's less than 26 years after America's Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, were generally recognised for designing, constructing and flying the first successful plane.
Over the next couple of years they honed their inventions, resulting in the first "proper" fixed-wing craft.
Subtracting 26 years from 2020 takes us back to 1994. Not so long ago. For anyone watching the planes in the Suffolk skies in 1929, there must still have been an air of Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines about it all - passionate and brave aerial adventurers attempting something still relatively novel and risky.
Cool and unconcerned
Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines was a mid-1960s comedy film about early aviation. A fictional newspaper baron offers £10,000 to the winner of an air race.
Not so very different than the real King's Cup, an annual handicapped contest. The first was in 1922 and was the "baby" of King George V, who saw it as a means of encouraging the development of light aircraft.
The 1929 two-day race started on Friday, July 5 and saw 41 planes take off from Heston. They headed to Norwich, then Hadleigh and Bristol, finishing the first day at Blackpool.
Mrs AS Butler (our report was so formal!) was one of three female pilots. Her husband was also competing, making them the first husband and wife to enter the race.
"Mrs Butler was cool and unconcerned before starting. 'It is quite true that I only obtained my pilot's certificate a month ago,' she said, 'but I feel quite confident. I have flown a lot, but not much solo. My husband has lent me this machine. I am not expecting to win, but I am going to do my best.'"
The 41 brave souls soon found themselves battling high winds. Only 29 planes were still involved by the end of Friday. Many who struggled on were blown off course.
The first casualty was Flying Officer M Brunton, whose Cirrus Moth was forced down at Harrow. "Soon after," said our report, "Capt RW Bailey's Gipsy Moth machine, in landing at Norwich in the teeth of a strong wind, broke its under-carriage and was forced to retire."
BE Lewis went missing in his Gipsy Moth, but later found his way back to the start. He'd had three forced landings because of carburettor trouble. "I think I have the earth of half England in my carburettor, so naturally it was blocked."
Another frustrated pilot was an MP, Capt HH Balfour, who had to quit at Hornchurch. (In 1944, he'd be a key figure in the creation of Heathrow Airport.)
During the stop at Norwich. Suffolk's own Lady Bailey suffered a blow while landing, when the nose of her Gipsy Moth Coupe was damaged slightly, but she was able to continue her flight.
Hadleigh Aerodrome, home of Suffolk and Eastern Counties Aeroplane Club, was one of the "turning points" in the race. Club officials acted as timekeepers and observers.
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The committee had announced that the doors would be thrown open to the public, free, but it was a surprise that few turned up to watch.
"As it was, apart from officials and a few members of the club, the 'drome was deserted, though a few motorists pulled up on the highway."
There was initially a strong wind of 25 to 30mph in Hadleigh. By 1pm it was gale force.
Lady Bailey was actually president of the club. She made her turn at 12.06pm. "As she passed the turn, people on the ground cheered and waved hats and handkerchiefs, and the president could be seen waving in response."
Also competing was DS Schreiber, in a Gipsy Moth. He was part of a Suffolk family from Marlesford, near Wickham Market.
Holiday crowds waiting at Blackpool's aerodrome were disappointed to learn the first planes weren't expected until early evening. Comedian Will Hay kept them entertained with his patter, over loudspeakers.
First to arrive was Capt TN Stack in his Cirrus Hermes Avian - quite some doing, as he'd had his handicap increased by nine minutes just before the start.
Three other planes finished the first day's flying within minutes.
The fastest average speed was 148.5mph, by Flight-Lieutenant Richard Atcherley, entered under the name R Llewellyn. A member of the Schneider Trophy team (a race for seaplanes and flying boats) he was one of the favourites for The King's Cup.
Atcherley suffered bad luck on that first day. When landing at Blackpool he hit a rut and part of the tail of his Gloster Grebe was torn off. New parts were flown up from Gloucester.
The three women completed the first stage. "Their faces were blackened, their shingled heads when they removed their helmets looked like mops, but the knowledge that they had won through made them the happiest people in the aerodrome."
'A topping flight'
The final day saw competitors fly from Cumbria to Scotland, and on to Newcastle, Leeds, Nottingham and Birmingham, before ending at Heston.
In what was described as a thrilling finish, "mystery" pilot Flight-Lieutenant Richard Atcherley (aka R Llewellyn) triumphed after "an amazing spurt in the last lap from Birmingham".
His average speed over the 1,169 miles was 150mph.
Only 300 yards separated his plane from the Cirrus Moth of Lieutenant FG Richardson. Captain WL Hope, who won the King's Cup in the previous two years, was third.
Fifth was Winifred Spooner, who had come third in 1928. "It was a bumpy journey," she said. "When I leaned over the side of the cockpit I would get into a 'pocket' and then come up with a bump, my jaw hitting the side of the plane as though I had had a knockout blow by Dempsey (Jack - the former world heavyweight boxing champion).
"Still, it was a topping flight..."
Novice Mrs Butler said: "For bumps, it was the roughest King's Cup anybody has ever seen."
"Our" Lady Bailey finished the race, despite engine trouble and losing her way en route to Leeds.
"I was attempting a short-cut and picked up a railway line. I followed it, but unfortunately it disappeared into a tunnel and I lost my bearings."
She reached Heston, though - coming 20th, two hours behind the victor. "I am afraid I have not made very good time," she said. "I have had some engine trouble, but I was determined to finish the course."
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