How the Lancashire coast played a major part in the history of flying
The Fylde coast was the place to go to see in-air action in those very early, turn of the century days of flying. Two hundred thousand people descended on Blackpool to see the very first air pageant in 1909. Historian David Hewitt tells a colourful story of how they watched the pilots in awe...
There was the 1909 air show, for a start, which wasn’t just the first one in the town, it was also the first official one in the country.
And what a show it was, with 200,000 visitors coming onto the airfield at Squire’s Gate, and getting through 36,000 bottles of beer and five hundred cases of champagne.
A Briton, Mr AV Roe, might have been the very first competitor, if he had only been able to get his flimsy craft to leave the ground.
He could, though, claim to be the first Englishman to fly in a British-made aeroplane. And his ‘Avro’ company would make the little planes that transformed flying between the wars.
It was at Avro’s suggestion that, in the summer of 1928, another pageant was held.
The company had been offering pleasure flights over the Fylde for a decade and had recently moved to what was now Squire’s Gate Aerodrome.
The Corporation was easily persuaded.
It was looking to develop an aerodrome of its own, on land to the east of Stanley Park, and the publicity from this new event was thought likely to be helpful.
Large sums of municipal cash were therefore laid out, and expectations grew and grew.
Advertisements appeared in newspapers across the country, promising ‘Britain’s Greatest Aerial Display’.
A quarter-of-a-million paying spectators were predicted, and a grandstand was erected that would seat twenty thousand of them.
And permission was even secured for Gerhard Fieseler to come over from Germany.
Herr Fieseler was a bona fide air ace, who had chalked up a score of ‘kills’ during the Great War and been awarded the Iron Cross for his efforts.
Now, he was the highest-paid stunt-pilot in all of Europe. And the aircraft he flew – the ‘Fieseler F1’ – had been built to his own design.
The pageant took place on the first Friday and Saturday in July, and the weather was suitably changeable, with high winds and driving rain eventually giving way to glorious sunshine.
Trams and trolley-cars bound for Squire’s Gate were said to be packed.
The streets had as many pedestrians as motor cars or charabancs.
And the The Tatler, nervously venturing north, reported that ‘a vast, restless multitude swarmed the enclosures round the aerodrome.’
Spectators weren’t, though, confined to the official site.
Many watched the two days’ events from outside, with perhaps the best view being enjoyed by the 140 Catholic schoolboys who were staying under canvas in the holiday camp next door.
Proceedings began with a fly-past, featuring none other than Mr Roe, together with a man who had recently flown to India, several of the fastest pilots of all time, and a woman who had made it back from Cape Town in an open cockpit.
There were more than a hundred aircraft on show, two hundred civilian pilots, and over three hundred flyers from the RAF.
The officers among them were being put up at the Queen’s Hydro on the Promenade, while the ordinary airmen slept beneath the grandstand.
It was the RAF flyers who were proclaimed the stars of the show, and special mention was made of their silver machines, which had been seen to sparkle in the bright sunshine, with their distinctive markings of red and blue, and multi-coloured streamers fluttering from the struts and wires.
Flight-lieutenant Webster got up to 200mph in the world’s fastest bomber.
Squadron Leader Noakes brought his bomber to within thirty feet of the ground.
A ‘sandwich’ was performed, with one pilot flying with his wheels to the earth in the traditional way, and the other pilot flying on top of him and upside down.
And there was a mock battle, in which a fort was attacked and squadrons of ‘enemy’ aircraft were shot down by British fighters and fell to the earth in flames.
An American parachutist jumped from three thousand feet and didn’t open his ‘chute until he was half-way down.
A British woman known as ‘Miss June’ made a successful descent from only 150 feet. But when a Mr Irwin attempted to demonstrate his new safety parachute, he was caught in a gust of wind and dragged for several hundred yards over bumpy ground, to the great amusement of spectators.
Those looking for more immediate thrills could easily find them.
Table d’hôte lunches and cream teas were being served in a special marquee.
The band of the Royal Marines played light-classical music throughout the day.
And more than two thousand people took up the chance of a joy-ride around the Tower.
Some of those people were passengers in a little Avro biplane, but most went up in an ‘Argosy’ that called itself an ‘airliner’, had cushioned seats and curtains on the windows, and could accommodate as many as fourteen.
It was half-a-guinea-a-time for that, although the Mayor and Mayoress and the entire civic party would be treated to a free ride.
And when it came to Herr Fieseler, he didn’t disappoint.
He flew the length of the aerodrome upside down. He rolled over and over and over again.
He looped the loop, went into the terrifying ‘death dive’ that he had made his own, and bottomed out only feet from the ground.
He was greeted by gasps and huge cheers, and by the people in the grandstand rising to their feet and waving their hats.
And when he taxied to a halt, his ‘F1’ craft was besieged by autograph-hunters.
The whole thing was broadcast live on the radio, with a running commentary from Flight-lieutenant Wragg, and it was recorded for posterity by cameramen sent by the Pathé film company.
The pageant wasn’t, though, without its problems.
The cost of preparing Squire’s Gate for all those aeroplanes was four times what he been predicted, while the number of paying visitors – at 75,000 – was less than a third.
Too many people, it was said, had been able to get a free show.
Among them were members of the choir of St Peter’s church in Tamworth, enjoying their annual outing to the seaside, who boasted of having watched everything from the sand dunes just off the road into St Annes.
All of this, coupled with the poor weather and the cost of advertising, created a shortfall for the Corporation of £6,000 – the equivalent of nearly £400,000 today.
And the disasters weren’t merely financial.
The mock battle had ended with an airman losing three of his fingers, while on the second day, as an RAF flyer was taking off, the wheels of his ‘Imp’ struck the wing of a de Havilland ‘Moth’ that had just come to a halt.
The Imp was only ten feet in the air at the time of the collision, but it had already reached a speed of 80mph, and the effect was dramatic.
The wheels were torn off, the propeller smashed, and a wing broken.
The plane dropped onto the ground and bounced a few feet, before burying its nose in the soft earth.
And a passenger, Alice Broughton, was thrown out of the cockpit to a cry of ‘Oh!’ from spectators.
Miss Broughton was 24 years-of-age and came from Rochdale, and this brief flight had been her first.
It had been the prize in a competition run by a newspaper, but now, she was being lifted up semi-conscious and carefully ushered onto a stretcher.
Afterwards, in the first-aid tent, Alice said she hadn’t seen what happened, because she ducked down to get out of the wind.
She felt a bump, something hit her nose, and everything went blank.
It was obvious that she would need to go to hospital, but when she was put into an ambulance, it got stuck in the Squire’s Gate mud and simply refused to move.
Then, Alice re-appeared in the open doors of the ambulance. And even though there was blood on her face, she was utterly undaunted.
‘It hasn’t upset me at all,’ she said. ‘I may fly again later today.’