Early naval flyers

In March 1911 the pioneer aviator Mr Frank McClean lent the Royal Navy two Short aircraft so that potential naval aviators could learn to fly.

The Admiralty sought four unmarried volunteer officers, to be trained by the well-known civilian pioneer aviator Mr George Cockburn, who had offered his time at no cost to the Admiralty. In addition to flying instruction the officers would receive technical training at the Short Brothers factory also based at Eastchurch.

The four officers selected from the 200 volunteers were Lieutenant C.R Samson, Lieutenant A.M Longmore, Lieutenant R. Gregory of the Royal Navy and Lieutenant E.L Gerrard of the Royal Marine Light Infantry. They arrived at Eastchurch in March 1911 and quickly obtained their Royal Aero Club certificates; Samson and Longmore on 2 April; Gerrard and Gregory on 1 May. Gregory notes in his flying diary

‘Between March 15th and about April 10th did passenger flights with Mr Cockburn, in order to get accustomed to handling the controls. The duration of (total) all passenger flights was 1 ½ hours & distance covered about 60 miles. The passenger flights were very much hampered by bad weather, there being intervals of as much as 10 days, on which no flying was possible. Made first flight (straight) by myself on April 22nd. A first circular flight on April 26th and qualified as pilot under 1911 rules at 4.15 am on Monday 1st May 1911’.

In his first solo he flew 2 miles covering ‘1st 300 yards along ground, then open throttle full up and flew to tip of ground at almost 10 to 15 feet. Felt very uncomfortable about landings and general control’.

Having obtained his certificate Gregory undertook numerous flights, building up his flying knowledge and competence. Early visitors to the flying school included Prince Louis (later Lord Mountbatten of Burma) and Princess Louise of Battenberg, who visited in June 1911. Prince Louis paying particular interest to the aeroplanes as reported in Flight magazine

‘The Prince expressed a wish to have a closer view of an aeroplane starting. This evolution was entrusted to Lieut Gregory, who got into the air nicely after a run of some 20 yards, and continued a gradual ascent up to 500ft.’ The Prince and Princess would visit Eastchurch again with Princess Harry of Prussia in late July. This time the Royal visitors were treated to flights in the aircraft.

Flying however was soon to stop as Gregory records with some exasperation on 28 August

‘This being the last day of Eastchurch Naval Aviation Course, scheme has had to be abandoned temporarily. After midnight both machines belonging to Mr McClean pending their purchase etc etc by the Admiralty: so here endeth the 1st Naval Aviation Course.’

Encouraged by the lessons learnt from the first course, however the Admiralty responded quickly and by the end of December, they had purchased two machines from Mr McClean, agreed a lease for the aerodrome at Eastchurch and established a Naval Flying School there. This action was possibly spurred by the findings of the Submarine Committee which had been sitting since April 1911. It had received submissions that aircraft could prove useful in anti-submarine operations.

Lt Gregory was also aware of the submarine threat. In May the Fleet was to be reviewed by the King at Weymouth. The Navy, keen to demonstrate their newly acquired aeroplanes, despatched their four pilots to Weymouth. Gregory, Gerrard and Longmore were to demonstrate their aircraft above the Royal Yacht; Gregory wrote

‘On approaching the R Yacht there was a submarine of the “C” type on the surface, as I wished to further prove the value of aeroplanes, I made a vol plane dive from 700 feet to within 30 feet of her periscope, when I put my engine on again, circled the yacht and flew round the fleet.

I have been accused of being spectacular in this matter, but the submarine and the aeroplane are analogous to the cormorant and the herring. And I hope further experiments will prove this to be so.

The day before, Gregory had also demonstrated the potential for using aeroplanes to attack ships when he dropped a bomb in front of the King

‘There was no bomb dropping sight and the whole thing had to be done by eye. My orders were to drop it in the vicinity of the Royal Yacht so that the King could see, and from a height of not more than 300ft.

There is no doubt at all that it was unfair to expect this old biplane to carry such a weight. In the four mile flight, trying hard as I could I only got to 200-250 feet approx. I crossed the breakwaters at about 250 and flying parallel to the Royal Yacht and the breakwater – I pulled the releasing lever and then turned round to see if I could see my splash, but as I saw no splash I knew the bomb had not gone. I made the complete circle and pulled the lever, till I wrenched it off. The bomb then dropped and fell with (what I am told by eyewitnesses) a tremendous splash in the northern entrance to Portland and exactly in the middle.

The machine got a perceptible ‘wobble’ as the bomb left. But I was head into the wind and had her head down in a dive, at the moment of releasing – so I did not anticipate much danger of capsizing. Machine felt very lively in the air after releasing this bomb. For myself, I was also greatly relieved. Having achieved three things:

1) Releasing the heaviest weight that has ever been dropped in the world from a heavier than air machine
2) Proving that aeroplanes can carry heavy weight & release them without danger of capsizing
3) I had dropped the bomb where H Majesty could see the whole thing, & with (no) damage to anybody.’

Another notable feat took place during the Royal Review when Samson became the first man to take off from a moving ship. Lt Gregory was due to make this notable first as he recalls

’embarked my machine in launch & towed off to Hibernia & hoisted in place on rail – all ready for flying off.

It was expected that Hibernia would put to sea with the fleet & I should get off the rail under weigh with the fleet.

However – we received no signal all day and the fleet having returned to Weymouth. Cmdr Samson told me, the day’s work was finished so I went ashore. On arriving at Weymouth I saw my machine landing at Lodman.

Cmdr Samson had taken her off during my absence, as he had gone on board flagship after I left and asked for further orders, & was told that we had been forgotten and that the manoeuvre could take place immediately. So in my absence he acted for me.’

The flying demonstrated at the Royal Review highlighted the potential capabilities which aeroplanes would have in any future conflict and three of the first four pilots were to have distinguished careers in the Naval Wing of the RFC followed by the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) when it was formed in 1914 and when they transferred to the RAF from 1 April 1918. Both Gregory and Samson were members of the sub-committee of the Committee for Imperial Defence that recommended the formation of the RFC.