The Magnificent Man in his Crashing Machine

The history books tell us that on December 17th 1903, Orville Wright made the first powered flight. It lasted just 12 seconds. But for a horrific accident in the autumn of 1899, Leicestershire might have gone down in history, instead of Kitty Hawk North Carolina, as the location of a pioneering flight in the history of aviation. Today the county is famous in several ways for the development of powered flight not least with the jet engine development work of Frank Whittle at Lutterworth in the 1930's and 1940's.

Our particular magnificent man in a flying machine was Percy Pilcher. He was born in Bath in 1866. During his six years in the Royal Navy he developed an increasing interest in engineering. Over the years his interest in aeronautics grew. In 1895 he built a hang glider which he called the Bat to be followed two years later by another which he called The Hawk.

It was with The Hawk that, not long afterwards, he broke the world distance glider record at just over 800 feet flying at Stanford Hall in the south of Leicestershire.

Percy Pilcher now began to turn his attention to the possibilities of powered flight. Despite increasing money worries he persevered with this and by the autumn of 1899 he believed he was in a position to fly his new tri-plane fitted with an internal combustion engine. To this end he invited members of the Aeronautical Society to Stanford Hall for a demonstration flight.

Alas his new plane suffered a broken crankshaft and despite bad weather he prepared to give an alternative flight in The Hawk. The Hawk rose to thirty feet at which point there was a loud crack as the tail gave way.and crashed to the ground. He was taken to hospital but died two days later.

Had he survived that accident he would almost certainly have gone on to develop the first means of powered flight in Britain and indeed the world. His face might well have appeared on our bank notes and his fame outshone that of the Wright brothers. As it is his story remains one of the great 'ifs' of history

A monument to his memory may still be found near Stanford Hall.

Roger Blackmore