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Pilot - - CONTENTS - Steve Slater

Two avi­a­tion greats: Tommy Sop­with and Harry Hawker

No-one with any knowl­edge of World War One air­craft (or for that mat­ter a reader of Big­gles) will fail to recog­nise Thomas Oc­tave Mur­doch Sop­with’s name. Along­side his epony­mous air­craft com­pany, he was a sports­man who ex­celled in many fields, as well as be­ing one of Bri­tain’s most suc­cess­ful pioneer pi­lots. Later, with his busi­ness part­ner, fel­low pi­lot and friend, he es­tab­lished a com­pany whose name be­came no less fa­mous: Hawker. But what was the story be­hind these two names?

Sop­with’s early life per­haps de­vel­oped his qui­etly de­ter­mined per­son­al­ity. He was born in Lon­don on 18 Jan­uary 1888, the eighth child and only son of Thomas Sop­with se­nior, a civil en­gi­neer who op­er­ated suc­cess­ful lead mines in Spain. This al­lowed the fam­ily the re­source to keep yachts and rent shoot­ing lodges, but tragedy struck in 1898 on a hol­i­day in the west­ern isles of Scot­land, when a gun ly­ing across ten-year-old Thomas’s knee was trig­gered ac­ci­den­tally, killing his fa­ther.

At eigh­teen, the young Sop­with had his first ex­pe­ri­ence of avi­a­tion when he was in­tro­duced to bal­loon­ing by C S Rolls. He be­came a part owner of a Short’s bal­loon but never held a bal­loon pi­lot’s li­cence. The Royal Aero Club re­fused to is­sue a cer­tifi­cate un­til a pi­lot was 21 years old, and by the time he had reached such se­nior­ity Sop­with had moved to heav­ier-than-air flight and still greater achieve­ments.

On 18 De­cem­ber 1910, Sop­with won a £4,000 prize for the long­est flight from Eng­land to the Con­ti­nent in a Bri­tish­built aero­plane, fly­ing a Howard-wright ‘boxkite’ bi­plane. Sop­with flew the 169 miles to Bel­gium in three hours forty min­utes, less than two months since his first ever flight in com­mand. That first flight had oc­curred at Brook­lands on 22 Oc­to­ber and, af­ter pitch­ing up too steeply, he had crashed af­ter trav­el­ling just 300 yards!

Sop­with was sub­se­quently given a Royal in­vi­ta­tion by King Ge­orge V to fly into the grounds of Wind­sor Cas­tle to al­low the King and his sons−princes Henry, Ge­orge and John−to ob­serve a fly­ing ma­chine at close quar­ters for the first time. The flight from Brook­lands, made in foggy con­di­tions on 1 Fe­bru­ary 1911 (less than four months af­ter his first solo!) in­volved an intermedia­te halt at Datchet golf course, where an in­ter­ested ob­server was the young sec­re­tary of the Wind­sor Model Aero­plane Club. His name was Sid­ney Camm.

Sop­with then headed to Amer­ica where he could use his fly­ing skills the most prof­itably. Ac­tiv­i­ties such as cir­cling the City Hall in Philadel­phia, bring­ing the city to a stand­still, and tak­ing dig­ni­taries fly­ing, in­clud­ing the Pres­i­dent’s brother, earned him hand­some re­wards, as did vic­tory in sev­eral air races. Sop­with re­turned to Eng­land in 1912 with suf­fi­cient re­sources to set up the Sop­with Fly­ing School at Brook­lands. Among his pupils was a Ma­jor Hugh Tren­chard, who gained his Pi­lot’s Cer­tifi­cate in just ten days be­fore his for­ti­eth birth­day, al­low­ing him to join the Royal Fly­ing Corps and ul­ti­mately be­come its com­man­der.

No less im­por­tant was an im­pe­cu­nious Aus­tralian named Harry Hawker. A year younger than Sop­with, he be­came a me­chanic to Sop­with’s long-stand­ing chief en­gi­neer, Fred Si­grist. De­spite earn­ing just £2 a week, Hawker had saved £50 and pro­ceeded to hag­gle with Sop­with for fly­ing tu­ition, which then ‘of­fi­cially’ cost £75. Sop­with re­lented and, to his great mirth, Hawker rolled up his trousers and pro­duced the money, in Sop­with’s words, “like an old tart, from the top of his stock­ings”.

Hawker proved an ex­cep­tional pi­lot and an in­spi­ra­tional source of ideas, per­fectly match­ing Sop­with and Si­grist’s skills. They pro­duced their first air­craft in 1912, built by match­ing the wings of the orig­i­nal Howard-wright pusher bi­plane with a ‘trac­tor’ fuse­lage to cre­ate ‘the Hy­brid’. It was sub­se­quently sold to the Ad­mi­ralty and the Sop­with Avi­a­tion Com­pany was born.

His­tory records that Sop­with’s built more than 18,000 air­craft be­tween 1914 and the Ar­mistice, in­clud­ing 5,747 ex­am­ples of the leg­endary Camel sin­gle­seat fighter. Sop­with was awarded the CBE in 1918, but was then bankrupted by puni­tive ‘anti-prof­i­teer­ing’ taxes. Un­daunted, he, Si­grist and Hawker stayed to­gether, pro­duc­ing ev­ery­thing from do­mes­tic uten­sils to mo­tor cy­cles be­fore re-en­ter­ing the avi­a­tion busi­ness in 1920, this time un­der Hawker’s name.

Trag­i­cally Hawker was killed in 1921 while test-fly­ing an­other man­u­fac­turer’s air­craft, a Nieu­port Goshawk. Dur­ing the sub­se­quent in­quest, the Coro­ner was told that Hawker was likely only weeks away from death any­way. He had long-stand­ing tu­ber­cu­lo­sis and it was thought the ac­ci­dent may have been caused by sud­den paral­y­sis of his legs. What­ever the cause, Hawker was gone, but the com­pany and his name lived on.

The Hawker Air­craft Com­pany, of course, may be best known for its ele­gant bi­planes, de­signed by Sid­ney Camm in the 1930s, the im­mor­tal Hur­ri­cane, or the trend-set­ting Hunter or Har­rier. How­ever, Sop­with’s big­gest achieve­ment was prob­a­bly in 1935, when he raised the fi­nance to com­bine the ef­forts of Arm­strong Whit­worth, Avro, Gloster and Hawker into a sin­gle in­dus­try com­bine. Hawker Sid­de­ley was, at the time, the big­gest air­craft man­u­fac­turer in the world.

‘Tommy’ Sop­with lived to be 101 years of age, but looked back at those PRE-WWII years with a shake of his head. “Our ob­ject was to keep it small, to make air­craft when there was a need and to keep the wheels turn­ing by mak­ing mo­tor cy­cles and a few other odd jobs. But things hap­pen and look at the damned thing now!”

Stephen is CEO of the Light Air­craft As­so­ci­a­tion, Vice-chair of the Gen­eral Avi­a­tion Aware­ness Coun­cil, flies a Piper Cub and spent seven years help­ing re­store the ‘Big­gles Bi­plane’ 1914 BE2C replica In Sop­with’s first ever flight in com­mand, he crashed af­ter trav­el­ling 300 yards

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