Seaplanes on Windermere

SEAPLANES once graced Lake Windermere in the early 20th C. Martin Hickes looks at the uplifting history of planes afloat.

SEAPLANES are perhaps synonymous with the image of the Great Gatsby era and the dreams of moguls such as Howard Hughes.

But British seaplanes have a strong historical link with Lake Windermere and its ideal setting as a watery runway.

Large bodies of water appealed to several aviation pioneers in the first two decades of the 20th century since they offered ample spaces for take-off and emergency landings.

Those early pioneers with a vision for the future, and perhaps, the sense of an impending world war, also anticipated possible naval interest.

The start of seaplane flying in Britain can be traced to Lake Windermere, where H. Stanley Adams first became airborne in the Lakes Waterbird floatplane on November 25 1911.

The first actual seaplane to fly, on 28 March 1910 at Martigues, France was built by Henri Fabre, though the craft built by Glenn Curtiss and first flown on 26 January 1911 was the first practical seaplane.

In England A.V.Roe & Co had built the first ‘Type D’ with floats -  the Type D was the first biplane design by such..  It left the water on 18 November 1911 at Barrow-in-Furness.

The Lakes Water Bird was built for E.W. Wakefield, of the Lakes Flying School, Windermere by A.V. Roe, who would go on to build bespoke aircraft to the designs of individual customers.  (A V Roe – standing for Alliott Verdon Roe would later become synonymous with the Avro name of fame).

Lakes Water Bird was built as a landplane with the intention of converting it to a seaplane once testing was complete.

Wakefield had been interested in water-borne aircraft since 1909 and had performed experiments with different float designs towed at speed across Lake Windermere.

‘Unsticking’ problems with the floats were the main problem, and these persisted until Wakefield visited Henri Fabre in France and got useful advice on float design.

The 12 ft (3.66 m) long float for Water Bird followed Glen Curtiss' three-step float and was built by boat builders Borwick of Bowness-on-Windermere using mahogany reinforced with metal strips and canvas.

This aircraft went on to make many more successful flights over the next few months.

Avro built the aircraft in Manchester, transporting it to Brooklands for its first flight on 19 May 1911. It was a two-bay seat pusher biplane with wings of unequal span.

The outer half of each upper wing carried a pair of ailerons; the larger inner one had a semi-circular trailing edge extending well behind the wing trailing edge.

Bamboo outriggers fore and aft of the wings supported leading elevators and tail surfaces plus rudder. Both elevator and rudder were operated by bamboo pushrods.

Power was provided by a 50 hp (37 kW) Gnome Omega 7-cylinder rotary engine driving an 8 ft 6in (2.59 m) propeller.

After testing as a landplane at Brooklands in May 1911, the Water Bird was brought to the Hill of Oaks on Windermere and the float fitted in place of the wheeled undercarriage.

A pair of cylindrical floats was mounted below the wing-tips for lateral stability on the water.

The successful first flight was on 25 November 1911, with ex-Avro pilot H. Stanley Adams in the cockpit.

Water Bird flew intensively during December 1911 and January 1912, logging some 60 flights. The longest was for 20 miles, reaching 800 ft. Joyriding passengers were carried through the winter, until its unfortunate destruction.

In March 1912, Water Bird was destroyed in its lakeside hangar by a storm. Remnants of the aircraft (float, rudder and tailplane) survived until at least 1961 according to some reports.

It was succeeded by the Lakes-built Water Hen, almost identical to its sister craft, though it would later be modified with a [m1] wider central float.

Early aviation at Windermere was split between two locations, Cockshott Point, close to Bowness, and Hill of Oaks further down the lake’s east side.

Another wealthy pioneer involved in those early days was minerals pioneer Oscar Gnosspelius, who had made an unsuccessful attempted flight on the same day as H Stanley Adams.

Gnosspelius would eventually gain immortality as ‘Squashy Hat’ in Arthur Ransome’s 'Swallows and Amazons' series of books. 

Additionally, the Short company’s future chief test pilot, John Lankester Parker, served as a flying instructor at Windermere.

He joined Shorts in 1916 as a part-time test pilot and assistant to then Chief Test Pilot Ronald Kemp, having been recommended for the post by Captain, later Admiral Sir, Murray Sueter, RNAS. By the time he retired he was a director of the company.

He gained his first flying experience as a pilot and instructor flying for the Northern Aircraft Company's Seaplane School based in Windermere, where he flew, first as a pupil and then as an instructor, between 1914 and 1916.

It was during this time that he made the acquaintance of Murray Sueter, Ronald Kemp and Oscar Gnosspelius, all of whom would figure later in his work at Shorts.

After Water Hen came Sea Bird, the final design being a hydro-monoplane.

The seaplanes performed many pleasure flights from the lake for the general public and in November 1914 the company was bought by the Northern Aircraft Company. 

The lakeside facility was expanded and pilot training undertaken, as well as extended pleasure flights though there was tremendous opposition [m2] to any form of flying in this part of the Lake District  - local clergy were among the vociferous and even Beatrix Potter is reported to have objected.

In 1916 the Royal Naval Air Service decided to fully take over and Windermere became known as either RNAS Windermere or RNAS Hill of Oaks. 

However, financial difficulties encountered by the civil company later that year forced military instruction and the base itself to cease during the first half of 1917.

Nevertheless this was not the end of flying in this general part of Windermere.

During 1919 C. Howard Pixton, who famously won the 1914 Schneider Trophy air race in Monaco, later mounted joy-riding flights from the summer of that year with a couple of Avro 504K floatplanes, also making pioneering newspaper and passenger-carrying flights to the Isle of Man. 

He was still active the following year, moving to the Isle of Man in the 1930s.

The original slipway at Hill of Oaks is still there hidden among trees.

During WWII, Windermere would once again play a key role in Britain’s history of seaplanes.

The rapid expansion of capacity in Britain's aircraft industry at the start of World War II included the building of two large new hangars at Short Brothers Seaplane Works at Rochester.

But, after the foundations had been laid, concern about the risk of the site being bombed led to a dispersal plan and the buildings were, instead, put up far to the north, on the shores of Windermere.

Although hundreds of miles from the rest of the works, they were still known by their original names, numbers 19 and 20 shops.

The factory was a full manufacturing facility, not just a place relying on parts from other Short Brothers works.

Parts and sub-assemblies for the wings were made at Windermere and shipped back to Rochester while complete wings were shipped to Windermere, along with floats, and some other small parts.

Number 19 Shop was used for parts manufacture while Number 20 shop, by the lake, was the main assembly hangar. The hangar was huge for its day, the only building big enough to house the Shetland flying boat, planned to replace the Sunderland.

Building an aircraft factory in Windermere presented one immediate problem - where to house the workers.

With a plan for up to 1,500 people working at the factory, accommodation locally would be stretched beyond breaking point.

So, the Ministry of Aircraft Production simply created a new Lakeland village.

‘Calgarth’ consisted of bungalows for married quarters and hostel accommodation for single workers built half a mile from White Cross Bay.

The village was taken over by Windermere Council after the war but, since the bungalows were cheaply and poorly built, they were all demolished by the mid 1960s.

There were 35 Short Sunderlands built at Windermere in all.

The first aircraft manufacturers in the world, the three Short Brothers - Horace, Oswald and Eustace - began making balloons but realised that aeroplanes were the future and their first factory built licensed versions of the Wright Flyer in 1909.

The Short Sunderland prototype was K4774 which was first flown from the Medway on 16 October 1937 piloted by John Lankester Parker.

He had learned to fly on Windermere during World War One and returned to test fly the first of the Windermere built Sunderlands. The Sunderland was the most advanced large aircraft in RAF service at the start of the war.

In addition to the Windermere factory, a partnership with Harland and Woolf had led to a Belfast factory - Short and Harland - being set up.

Post war, the government decided Northern Ireland needed the employment more than Kent and shut Rochester. Further developments included pioneering work on a vertical take off aircraft - some of the technology from which was used in the Hawker Harrier.

Civilian aircraft included flying boats such as the Short Sandringham which were converted from [m3] war surplus Sunderlands.

One of the great features of the seaplane in wartime was its ability to act as a deterrent to U Boat blockades, an advantage that may have helped safeguard numerous convoys of food across the Atlantic, to a hungry Britain.

John Russell, chairman of The Seaplane Club, based in Bracknell, Berkshire, says:[m4] 

“It was Winston Churchill who first coined the name ‘seaplane’.

“In WW1 the North Sea and the length of the English Channel were good hunting grounds. For anyone interested, a good book to read on North Sea anti-sub operations is "The Spider's Web" by T. D. Hallam.

 “In WW2, the Sunderlands, Lerwicks and Catalinas saved many merchant ships by their presence above convoys and their seek-and-destroy patrols.

“The Supermarine Walrus was a smaller single-engined flying boat, used for reconnnaissance and convoy patrol when catapulted off escort cruisers. In addition it excelled in the Search and Rescue role, saving many hundreds of aircrews' lives.[m5] 

“Floatplanes were utilised to a lesser extent. A little known use was of ex-Norwegian Air Force Fokker floatplanes after they escaped from Norway in 1940. Until they ran out of spares, these aircraft were used for clandestine drop-offs of agents into occupied Norway. In order to maintain a low height over water at night, they used two spotlights. In 1943,617 Squadron used the same principle for their epic raid on the dams of the Ruhr.

“Glenn Curtiss wouldn't have got airborne from the water without the information about float design and building from Henri Fabre.

“Windermere certainly played a key part in the history of seaplanes in Britain.[m6] 

“As for today, and as an organisation, we tried to get involved in the Windermere Centenary, and were prepared to fly all the way up there just to remind the locals of the importance of their seaplane history.

“Unfortunately, the powers that be would not waive the speed restriction on the lake, so we could not land or take-off. The NIMBY spirit of Beatrix Potter lives on!

“We’ve tended to find that seaplanes are pursued almost to extinction in England and Wales by the bureaucrats  - yet, wherever we go, the people welcome us with open arms!

“If only people knew how important a part in history they once played for the people of Britain !”[m7] 

More info can be found www.theseaplaneclub.org.

Recent changes under Government legislation mean changes to the speed limit under special circumstances are now permissible.

Exemptions are allowed to the overall lake speed limit for special events ‘which are in harmony with the aims of the Windermere Management Strategy and relevant national park policies’.

ENDS


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