Those Magnificent Men

Those Magnificent Men

The first British pilots’ certificates were awarded just over a century ago – here we pay tribute to the pioneers of aviation and reveal a new way to learn more about them online.

Header Image: The biplane used by Samuel F Cody in an early prize-winning tour of Britain.

Andrew Chapman, Editor of Discover Your Ancestors Periodical

Andrew Chapman

Editor of Discover Your Ancestors Periodical

British aviation began in the Edwardian era as a pastime of wealthy gentlemen. The first flight was conducted on 2 May 1909 at a country estate, now called Muswell Manor, on the Isle of Sheppey. This was the site of the first aerodrome in the country, set up by the Aero Club, which itself had begun in 1901 as a recreational ballooning society.

That first flight was taken by John Moore-Brabazon, who had become interested in flight through working for Charles Rolls, co-founder of Rolls-Royce and also the Aero Club itself. Brabazon, as with many other pioneers, learned to fly in France, and the club was keen to put England on the flight map, as it were. On 8 March 1910, Moore-Brabazon became the first person to qualify as a pilot in the UK and was awarded Aviator’s Certificate number 1 by what had now been renamed the Royal Aero Club – his car even bore the numberplate FLY 1.

The early years of flight were marked by disasters as much as triumph, however, and only four months later, Charles Rolls was killed in a flying accident and Moore-Brabazon’s wife persuaded him to give up flying.

The early records of the Royal Aero Club have been digitised by data website TheGenealogist and offer a fascinating insight into the pioneer years of British aviation. Sadly, they also reveal that of the first 20 people to be granted a certificate, three were dead from accidents by 1914, including the US-born aviation pioneer Samuel F Cody (see the case study).

The Club was hugely influential in these fledgling days, and its members included and indeed trained most military pilots (more than 6,300 of them) until 1915 when military flying schools were established.

The Club was responsible for UK control of all private and sporting flying, as well as records and competitions, and continues to represent recreational flying in Britain today.

Those early certificates also list the types of plane each aviator flew. A popular early choice, including that of Moore-Brabazon, was the Short Biplane.

The Short brothers, Eustace and Oswald, started out as balloon manufacturers at the turn of the 20th century, but after hearing reports of the Wright brothers’ first flight in France in 1908, they moved into plane manufacture. Oswald is reported to have declared: This is the finish of ballooning: we must begin building aeroplanes at once! They persuaded a third brother, Horace, to join the team.

The Short No. 1 Biplane was exhibited at the first British Aero Show, held at Olympia in London. The No. 2 edition was built for Moore-Brabazon and in November 1909 he used it to win a £1000 Daily Mail competition to complete the first closed-circuit flight of more than a mile in a British aircraft.

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Although Moore-Brabazon gave up his personal aviation career, he remained closely connected with the growing importance of flight. In World War One he became a pioneer of aerial photography and an early member of the Royal Air Force. After the war he became a Conservative MP and in World War Two he served as Minister of Transport and then Minister of Aircraft Production. He was also the instigator of the airgraph communication system (see Issue 2 of the Discover Your Ancestors bookazine for a feature on that subject).

Early aviation in Britain was a classic example of the realm of gentlemen amateurs of private means. Of the first five Aero Club certificate holders, three were from titled backgrounds; one was from America; and only one, George Cockburn, was of more ordinary origins, the son of a Liverpool merchant.

Exploring these early aviators’ lives via these online certificates and biographies provides a fascinating window into what was perhaps the last pioneering era of modern times.

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