The aviator who lost his place in history

Pilcher’s Hawk glider Pictured at Eynsford, near Sevenoaks

They say when fate takes a hand it sometimes leads to disaster. Tragically, this came true when an early flight pioneer ended up plunging to his death after trials in Kent. Robin J Brooks recalls the intriguing tale…

It is common knowledge that credit for the first manned and powered flight went to the American Wright Brothers. Orville and Wilbur flew a distance of 120ft in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and by doing so entered the history books as the first to fly. 

But it so easily could have been a British aviator, had he not lost his life in another aviation attempt.

Percy Sinclair Pilcher was born on 16 January 1866 in Bath. A bright boy who was interested in all things mechanical, he chose to join the Royal Navy as a Midshipman upon leaving school. Having served for seven years, he left the Navy and took up an apprenticeship with the shipping company Randolph, Elder and Co. 

He then left the company to take up the post of assistant lecturer in marine engineering and naval design – a job he continued with for a number of years – but it was really the thought of designing and building his own aeroplane that finally brought him to Kent.

Baldwyns Park was a large ancestral mansion house near Dartford. Its owner, American Hiram Maxim, was an inventor of considerable fame, having developed a mechanical machine gun in addition to his flying activities. He built the first aircraft hangar in Baldwyns Park to house his steam-powered aeroplane, the design of which was a replica of Colonel Cody’s machine. He went on to build further aircraft, and for the purpose of testing he built a single 1,800ft railway track. 

It was Hiram’s scientific mind, plus the fact that he was a civil, mechanical and electrical engineer, a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour, and a member of the London Chamber of Commerce, the Royal Institution, the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Royal Society of Arts that brought Percy to his door in Kent in 1896. 

Hiram was impressed with the work that Percy had already done, and offered him a job to help work on his latest project. 

He later introduced Percy to Otto Lilienthal, the leading German expert on gliding, who also found Percy’s designs and his ability to make gliders encouraging. 

After many discussions between the two men, Percy went on to build his first
hang-glider, naming it the ‘Bat’. Two further versions of this design were forthcoming which he named the ‘Beetle’ and the ‘Gull’. 

At this time, however, Percy saw his future lay in designing and flying his own gliders,
and after leaving Baldwyns Park he scoured the Kent countryside looking for a place to suit his purposes. 

He eventually settled down in Eynsford in the Darent Valley, at a site owned by Hiram Maxim called ‘Magpie Bottom’. Quiet and tranquil, with the River Darent flowing through its centre, it seemed the perfect place for Percy to carry out his experiments. 

Meanwhile, the enormous hangar that Hiram had built at Baldwyns Park did not find favour with the local authority, and so he had it taken down and re-erected at a place called Upper Austin Lodge Farm on the village outskirts. 

It was here that Hiram tested automatic and other guns made by the Maxim Nordenfeld Guns and Ammunition Company Ltd, but when Percy made it known that it was also here that he wanted to set up his company, Hiram allowed him the use of the hangar.

The experiments carried out with the Beetle and Gull gliders had not proved successful for Percy, even though these were based on the work of his mentor, Lilienthal. 

Once he was installed at the farm his thoughts turned to making a glider that would sustain a longer flight. From the Beetle and the Gull came the ‘Hawk’. Still basically a hang-glider, it had a wingspan of over 23ft and was launched by an elaborate catapult system designed by Percy. 

Using the wind flowing down the sides of the valley to give him the conditions that he wanted, he sometimes reached a height of 40ft, flying a distance of 300 to 400yds. 

He therefore became the first person to carry out a manned flight in Britain – something that is not generally recognised.

As news spread around the country that flying in a heavier-than-air machine was possible, Austin Lodge Farm became a focal point for scientists, aviation-minded people and the general public. 

At the first public demonstration attended by hundreds of people, Percy had risen to a height of around 70ft when the line towing the Hawk into the air broke. 

Not appearing to panic at all, he managed to descend into the valley, landing gracefully amid much applause and cheering. 

It seemed as though other members of the Pilcher family wanted to get in on the act, too, as several days later a cousin, Dorothy Rose Pilcher, persuaded Percy to let her have a flight. 

Launching the Hawk into the air she flew it down one of the slopes, managing to hit a cameraman who was recording the flight as she landed. Luckily, no damage was done to the Hawk, the cameraman or Dorothy!

Finding success in gliding was just a stepping stone to what Percy actually wanted to achieve. For some time he had worked on plans for a powered glider, and in particular a wing that could lift the weight of an engine and the pilot. 

Months earlier he had struck up a correspondence with another aviation pioneer, Octave Chanute, who suggested putting two wings on top of each other, similar to biplanes of today. This would allow the wings to give more lift and bear the weight of the engine. 

Further designs saw Percy develop a tri-plane that was to be powered by a 4hp engine. But the cost of constructing such an aeroplane placed him severely in debt, so much so that he looked for sponsorship and found it in the form of Walter Gordon Wilson, with whom he formed a partnership. 

Walter was more well known as the co-inventor of the military tank, but such was his faith in Percy’s tri-plane that together they built it. A patent was taken out on the aircraft (No 9144), and their creation was ready for testing by mid-September 1899. 

Accepting an invitation from a friend, Lord Braye, to demonstrate it at the peer’s Leicestershire home, Stanford Hall, Percy was disappointed when upon arrival the weather was not conducive for powered flight. 

However, in order not to disappoint his Lordship and the crowd that had gathered to see the demonstration, it was suggested that he flew the Hawk glider instead. 

Eager to please, Percy agreed, and with all the preparations done he was launched into the air. But sadly this was the last flight that he ever did, for the Hawk suffered a structural failure and crashed to the ground, severely injuring Percy. Removed to the local hospital, he died two days later, aged just 32.

His tri-plane was never flown, thus depriving him of the acclaim of being the first man to fly a powered aircraft. 

But his contribution to aviation was immeasurable – he truly was one of the greatest pioneers. 

A memorial plaque was erected at Austin Lodge Farm, together with a larger stone memorial at Stanford Hall on the very spot where he fatally crashed. 

But for that accident, Percy Sinclair Pilcher would have been sure to enter the history books as the first man to fly!