The smiling figure of a Victorian man dangles from two thin wires above the heads of visitors to the Otford Heritage Centre. It looks like he’s sitting in a flying goalpost, but he’s actually harnessed into the wooden frame of an early tri-plane. The man is Percy Sinclair Pilcher and his plane was called the Hawk.
Percy Sinclair Pilcher – early English aviator
Percy was born in Bath in 1876 and from an early age was fascinated by the thought of powered flight. In 1895, he developed his first two hang-gliders, the Bat and the Beetle, but they were unstable and difficult to control. Undeterred, he moved to Eynsford in 1896 to work with another early aviation pioneer, Hiram Maxim. Maxim had a munitions company at Upper Austin Lodge Farm, just north of Otford, which is where the Maxim automatic-firing gun used throughout World War One was developed. It was also the site that Percy moved his latest project – the Hawk – to.
Mainly constructed of bamboo, the Hawk had a wingspan of 24ft 8inches and weighed just 50lbs. ‘Nainsook’, a material used to make racing sails, was stretched over the delicate wing structure and a hundred bracing wires were secured to the frame to keep it together. Evidence of Percy’s early experiences in the Royal Navy showed through the extensive use of cord lashing and a sprung undercarriage was incorporated to reduce the impact of landing. Finally, sitting amongst this carefully laced creation sat Percy, the pilot, vulnerable to all weathers and totally unprotected from any impact.
Taking to the sky
In 1896, the Hawk was ready and Percy’s first test flights took place on a nearby hill known as the Knoll. The tri-plane was attached to a thin line and pulled into the air through a combination of speed and downwards movement. The first flights were short and low, at around 30ft but Percy had achieved his aim and later on his flights covered 300-400 yards and rose to about 60ft.
The next step was to achieve powered flight and for that to happen, Percy needed financial backing. Working with Walter Wilson, Percy developed a new tri-flight aircraft based closely on the experiments of Octave Chanute in Chicago with the aim of attracting sponsors. Finally, in September 1899, Percy was ready to demonstrate how it worked.
Within the grounds of a wealthy friend’s house in Stanford Park, Percy prepared the Hawk to make a final demonstration. A new engine was being bench tested and he hoped the flight would secure the backing he needed. His first two attempts were unsuccessful as the towline snapped and Percy remarked that the damp conditions were making the nainsook heavier than usual. The third attempt was much better but as the plane rose to around 60ft there was a loud ‘snap’. The tail spar had broken and the Hawk somersaulted to the ground. Percy was left totally unprotected and suffered severe concussion and a fractured left femur. Sadly, he never regained consciousness and, at 32 years of age, he died at 3am the following morning
Percy Sinclair Pilcher was the first man in England to fly a heavier-than-air aircraft. His advances within the field of aviation were significant and just two years later, when the Wright Brothers became the first to achieve powered flight in a heavier-than-air machine with a pilot aboard, they acknowledged his achievements.
Percy’s story is just one of those told at the Otford Heritage Centre and I would like to thank Carol Griffiths, the Centre’s Administration Assistant, for all her help with this blog.
Go and see Percy at The Otford Heritage Centre, The School House, 21 High Street, Otford,Kent. TN14 5PG.
Admission is free but I would advise you to call 01959 522384 before traveling to confirm opening times.
You may also find the following links helpful –
Otford Heritage Centre – ‘Take a journey through 4,000 years of Otford’s geology, natural history, ecology and archaeology. Features include model of Otford Palace, 56 foot timeline, Roman artefacts, historic photographs, local artwork and Otford’s unique millennium solar system model is explained. Walks leaflets and booklets available.’