51>> Open Cockpit
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