Daily Mail Circuit of Britain
By 1913 TOM Sopwith was only 25 years old, yet he was a well known and highly respected aviator, test pilot and aircraft manufacturer. His achievements and contributions to British aviation were rewarded through his election to the illustrious committee of the Royal Aero Club.
Shortly afterwards, the Royal Aero Club announced that a prize of ₤5000 was to be offered by the Daily Mail for a flying circuit of Great Britain.
The Daily Mail was then owned by Alfred Harmsworth who in 1905 was named to the peerage as Baron Northcliffe.
The Circuit of Britain race would have eight Control Points made up of a mixture of hotels, Naval Air Stations and yacht clubs. There were also a number of flying criteria that had to be adhered to, including crossing certain check points, landing at sea at specified locations, and flying at least one mile off the coast and at a certain altitude. They were also required to carry one passenger. Entrants were received from Sopwith; Cody; Radley; and McClean.
Sopwith Aviation team decided it would build a contender. They must have been fairly confident that they could win the £5,000 prize required to recover their costs, but they were also aware that the prestige that would come their way from winning this prize.
The impressive machine built for this event was similar in design to the “Anzani” floatplanes, but with a 100hp Green engine, and it met the all-British competition rules. Harry Hawker was chosen as the pilot for this competition and his passenger and companion on this daring adventure would be none other than his close friend and fellow Australian, Harry Kauper.
Although there are four entries in the competition, tragically on 7th August “Colonel” Sam Cody, one of the great early pioneers of aviation in Britain and his passenger were killed when their “hydro-aeroplane” broke up in the air near Farnborough.
The Radley-England Waterplane entrant had a good pedigree and was powered by a 150hp Sunbeam engine. Strangely it had one crew member sitting in each of the two clinker-built floats.
The Frank McClean entrant was a Short S.68 floatplane that was powered by a 100hp Green engine.
On the 8th August 1913 the Sopwith “Circuit” floatplane was delivered from the works to Cowes for testing. The editor of the Aeroplane wrote “like all the Sopwith machines the new biplane is beautifully made and gives one great confidence in her construction”.
The start date for the competition was on scheduled to commence on 16th August, and preparations it got off to a bad start, as not only was Cody killed before the competition’s start date, but one by one the other competitors dropped out. The only competitor still remaining in this challenge was the Sopwith Aviation entry.
On the morning of Saturday16th August 1913, large crowds lined the banks of the Solent at Netley for the 6am start of the much promoted Daily Mail “Circuit of Britain” air race. The crowd would certainly have been be aware that “Colonel” Sam Cody had died testing his machine, but most would not have known that two other competitors had virtually withdrawn at the last minute citing mechanical problems.
This only left Harry Hawker and Harry Kauper in the Sopwith “Circuit” floatplane who were still setting their compass and waiting for the correct tide at the Calshot naval seaplane base at the mouth of the Solent. The Sopwith team had meticulously planned this attempt of the extraordinary and historic challenge, to fly 1,540 miles around the coast of Britain within 72 hours, only landing in the sea, harbours or salt water estuaries.
The Royal Aero Club race headquarters for the contest, was located on the crowded motor-yacht Enchantress. Aeronautical and military dignitaries as well as representatives of the press, watched as the two Harrys prepared to commence their epic flight. After some complex manoeuvres the floatplane was judged to be behind the start line and was flagged away at 11.47am.
The take-off, against the wind, was remarkably short and they then disappeared majestically south into the haze. Harry made a deliberate decision not to strain the 100hp Green engine in the early stages of the flight, and settled for “half throttle” though still achieved a remarkable 144 miles in just 144 minutes. The first leg took them to the Ramsgate check-point, which was the Royal Temple Yacht Club. Then at 3.02 pm after the official compulsory scrutineering, which occurred regularly throughout the route, they left Ramsgate.
During the final leg for the first day they flew 96 miles to the Great Yarmouth check point at the Yarmouth Naval Air Station, arriving at 4.38pm. During this final leg on day one, they achieved another remarkably consistent mile-a-minute for the distance travelled. The two Harrys came ashore at Gorleston-on-Sea, which is just south of the mouth of the River Yare. The Naval Air Station was north of the river entrance.
All was not right however as that evening Harry Hawker collapsed after complaining of severe pains in his head and eyes. Harry had discarded his goggles during his flight and was also very close the loud exhaust and its carbon monoxide fumes. This coupled with the possibility of sun stroke was thought to be the cause of his sudden onset and collapse. Tom Sopwith’s well connected sister, May, found Harry a nursing home for the night, but despite the rest the following morning he was deemed too unwell to continue. Harry Kauper, who had sat up front of the biplane was unaffected.
In order to continue with the attempt at the circuit, Tom Sopwith managed to secure the services of the experienced cross-channel pilot and yet another Australian, Sydney Pickles, who was at that time the pilot for Short Bothers. Luckily, Sunday was deemed a no fly day on the rules, which meant that Sydney, having accepted Sopwith’s offer to replace Harry Hawker, could arrive at Yarmouth on the Sunday in time to start out the on the following Monday morning.
However, in the large swell and choppy seas the tail of the heavily fuel laden biplane became water logged. Then the engine also succumb to the elements and stopped which put Pickles and Kauper in a precarious situation with no means of manoeuvring the biplane in the heavy sea waters. Fortunately, both occupants and the floatplane were soon rescued by boat with no further damage occurring.
The only Aeroplane to attempt at the circuit of Britain was now also out of the race. The Sopwith biplane was returned to Kingston by train for immediate repairs including extending the engine exhaust pipe to avoid future pilot inhalation of the engine fumes.
The competition was not to abandoned though. The Royal Aero Club soon declared that the “Circuit of Britain” challenge could re-start on a later date, 23rd or 25th August. Despite the Sopwith failed attempt, all was not lost as it was hoped that Harry Hawker would recover and Frank McClean would have his aeroplane ready to make a race of it.
Despite the postponement for the second start of the £5000, 1,540 mile Daily Mail “Circuit of Britain” challenge, again the only starter on Monday 25th August was the Sopwith team entrant.
This time their carefully planned attempt started even earlier than the first attempt. Harry Hawker and Harry Kauper once again take-off from the Solent at Netley, this time at 5.30am. In the first leg of their flight, the repaired Sopwith “Circuit” floatplane flew the 144 miles to arrive at Ramsgate at 8.08am. Not needing to stay there too long, exactly an hour later and after the compulsory scrutineering, they left for the next 96 mile leg to Yarmouth, arriving there at 10.30am.
A little over an hour later, at 11.44 am they are away again. During the next leg they encountered, many gusts of wind. One minute the floatplane would rise to a height of 3000 feet, and the next it was down to 500 feet. At 2.45pm, after flying another 150 miles, including 10 miles of which was through fog, they arrive at Scarborough where they are met by large crowds who had situated themselves at the countless view points from the cliff tops The distance travelled so far is 390 miles, in 9hr. 13min, not including the mandated stoppages. The checkpoint at Scarborough is the Grand Hotel, which in the 1880’s was the largest hotel in Europe.
Whilst at Scarborough, they were able have a meal and a rest on the yacht Naidia and the principals of the Town Association presented Hawker with an aeronautical instrument as a souvenir of his flight of 150 miles, covered in 185 minutes. Although Harry Hawker was quite well this time, it was Harry Kauper who this time complained of a headache.
After this slight delay they positioned the floatplane into the head wind and left Scarborough at 4.33pm. However, when heat from a burst water pipe boiled away the engine’s cooling water, they were forced to make an unscheduled stop at Seaham where thsy successfully repaired the faulty waterpipe. They refilled the radiator with sea water and were off again passing over Tynemouth at height of a thousand feet, to finally land and anchor for the night at Beadnell, in North Sumberland at 7.40pm . They had now flown 495 miles and established a new world record for the longest over-sea flight in one day.
Understandably, there were no aerial maps available at the time, and as the motor car was also only in relatively early development they relied on maps that were primarily intended for cyclists. Harry pasted the maps onto cardboard so as to keep them ridged in the cockpit. Furthermore, as the cockpit was open to the elements and obviously very noisy, talking and hearing each other very difficult, and these maps also served as a means of communication between the two Harrys. They wrote short messages to each other. passing the maps back and forth.
On Day two, Tuesday 26th they were away from Beadnell by 8.05am and completed three more legs, alighting at Montrose, Aberdeen for the check point at Aberdeen at the Palace Hotel , and then on to the Cromarty Naval station checkpoint before completing a further 94 miles to Inverness and then down the Caledonian Canal to Oban on the west coast of Scotland. The Oban check point was the Great Western Hotel. When they arrived at 6.55pm, Harry Hawker reported that the last leg was the most difficult battle gusting winds between the mountains. They completed 341 miles on this 2nd day.
Of note, Oban was to become a base for Catalinas during WW2 and a number of hotels still have photographs on display from that time. The Great Western Hotel still exists and also has a number of photographs on display. There is a Photo of Harry Hawker is seen standing on the port float (right side of the photograph) with Harry Kauper on the other float.
Day three, Wednesday 27th they had yet another early start attempting to leave Oban at 5.42am, however, they were unable to lift off the water as the floats became water logged and they were forced to return to the shore to once again undertake repairs. Once the repairs were completed, they were eventually able to leave Oban at 6.48am. A short while later, concerned with the performance of the engine, they land at Kiells to check the engine before making the 81 miles across the Irish Sea to Larne (25 miles north-east of Belfast) where they were able to take on more fuel.
They eventually left Larne at 11am still hoping to reach Falmouth that day, with the aim of completing the full circuit before 9.30 on the Thursday morning. However, by 1.15pm they are again concerned about the engine and Harry Hawker suspects the problem may be a broken valve spring. Spotting a sheltered bay at Loughshinney near Skerries, Harry Hawker makes his typical spiral decent in order to land near the beach when tragedy strikes in the form of his oil soaked boot, which slipped off the end of the rudder bar and they plunged 50 feet sideways into the sea.
Quite fortunate for the pair, the local coastguards were on duty near the area and upon seeing this tragedy unfold they quickly put out in their boats and in just a few minutes rescued Hawker and Kauper. Harry Hawker was not injured, but Harry Kauper suffered injuries to his face, body and a broken arm. Kauper was taken to shore and his injuries treated as best as they could before sending him off to Dublin by ambulance where the nearest hospital was located in order to receive additional treatment to his injuries.
The damage to the biplane was significant. The left wing was broken and the biplane was all but a wreck, thus ending their gallant attempt. At the time they were unaware that just 12 miles away in Dublin, engine designer Gustavus Green was waiting with a new set of valve springs.
Their circuit of Britain attempt was over. Whilst the Sopwith team focussed on recovering the valuable engine and what they could of the airframe, there was considerable acclaim for their amazing achievement and Harry Hawker is fast becoming a public celebrity.
Winston Churchill, who was then the First Lord of the Admiralty, in a message to the Daily Mail, said, that “Hawker achieved a wonderful result, and the competition was of real value to British flying. Though we started last, we must preserve till the first place is gained.” Former Australian Prime, Sir George Reid, who at the time was the Australian High Commissioner for the Commonwealth, sent a telegraph from Dublin before the accident: - "Win or lose, Australia is very proud of you both."
Although they failed to complete the circuit, they had managed to fly 1,043 miles, which resulted in a new world record for distance travelled over water. With less than 500 miles remaining to complete the circuit of Britain, Harry Hawker and Harry Kauper were, at the time of their mishap, well on track to make the final leg within the time remaining. Had it not been for that unfortunate slip on the rudder, they would no doubt have taken the prize. True to his nature, Harry Hawker accepted responsibility for the accident that brought them to an end to their attempt. However, in recognition of their impressive achievement, the owner of the Daily Mail, Baron Northcliffe, in a gesture of great sportsmanship, awarded them a £1000 consolation prize.
In an interview, Harry recounted his experience leading to this mishap: “"It was a silly mishap. My foot slipped on the rudder bar, the machine tilted, swerved round and the mischief was done. So close to the water, too! , We only fell about fifty feet. It was quite wrong to say one of the wings of the machine snapped. The engine was going well— everything was going well. The engine missed fire once or twice. It was while descending at Lough Shinny to do this that my foot slipped on the greasy bar. That was all. But for this mishap I think I should have won. A race against time. People forget that Kauper and I could have planed on the water at night, and covered at least 15knots an hour. We should have won with a comfortable margin.
"My worst experience? Travelling down the Caledonian Canal. Absolutely. One couldn't fly high because of the clouds. And the wind was so tricky. The machine was tossed about like a feather. And it weighs a trifle over 3,0001b.! "Yes I'm going to try again— next year, all being well.
One hundred years later, to commemorate Harry Hawker’s heroic flight, the oldest airworthy amphibian still flying in the UK, the IWM Duxford based Catalina G-PBYA completed the same circuit. The Catalina and crew followed the 1913 route as closely as possible over a five day historic flight (without crashing). The 2013 Circuit of Britain challenge was mounted by Catalina Pilot Jeff Boyling who, like Harry Hawker, was born in Australia, shares a passion for aeronautical adventure