The man behind one of the most famous names in aviation.
Harry George Hawker was born on 22nd January 1889, in a small brick-built house up a narrow dirt track at South Brighton (now Moorabbin), on the outskirts of Melbourne, Australia. He was the second son of blacksmith George Hawker, the son of an immigrant worker from Devon, England.
Within a few years he had qualified as a ‘junior mechanic’ at the tender age of 14 years. He joined the Tarrant Motor & Engineering Co, road testing imported Oldsmobiles and making Tarrant cars.
The Tarrant Car was the first petrol driven car to be produced in Australia although with the production numbers being very small, sadly Tarrant ceased production in 1907 in favour of becoming a dealer with Ford Motor Company.
When the state of Victoria introduced driving licences for the first time, Harry and his brother Herbert were amongst the first in the queue.
Hawker left Tarrant and he set up his own garage in Caramut, Western Victoria from where he serviced the fleet of cars owned by wealthy property owner, Ernest De Little.
In 1910, he travelled with his father George, Herbert and his brother-in-law Albert Chamberlin to Diggers Rest, north-west of Melbourne where they would be part of a select group who were to see the first public demonstrations of powered flight made in Australia. The flights were being made by none other than the famous escapologist, Erich Weisz, or as he was more commonly known - Harry Houdini.
Hawker was simply enthralled and along with similarly minded friends Harry Kauper, Harry Busteed and Eric Harrison, he departed for England in March 1911 to become involved in the exciting world of aviation. He arrived in the UK in May 1911 and spent his early days visiting flying meetings and demonstrations, talking with the early pioneers of aviation design and flying.
With his money running out, Hawker obtained a job with the Commer Car Company based in Luton and although his wage of 7d an hour was meagre to say the least, the job allowed him frequent visits the Brooklands Race Track (for vehicle testing).
In January 1912, he secured a job with the British agents of the Mercedes Company although within months he had moved to the Austro Daimler Company. During this period he spent most of his spare time racing cars at Brooklands, watching the flying and talking with the likes of Maurice Farman, Alliott Verdon Roe and in particular, Tommy Sopwith.
Hawker’s friend Harry Kauper (Designer of the Sopwith – Kauper propeller / machine gun synchronisation gear) had already secured a job with Sopwith Aviation Company and he put him in touch with Fred Sigrist, the company’s works supervisor.
Brooklands was fast becoming the hub of British aviation before the war and it was where the Sopwith Aviation Company employed a workforce of just 14.
In June 1912, Harry became the 15th member of the team which were centred around the Sopwith Flying School and the building of the Howard Wright biplanes.
Harry Hawker Racing Driver and Aviator
Hawker continued with his motor racing and this bought him into frequent contact with many pioneers of aviation including his new employer and racer Tommy Sopwith.
However, it was flying that really dominated his interest and he soon persuaded Sopwith to teach him to fly, using what little savings he had put aside in case he needed to return home.
He was a quick learner and made his first solo flight after just three lessons and was awarded his Royal Aero Club pilot's licence (No 297) on 17th September 1912.
A measure of his aviation talent came a month later when amazingly on 17th October 1912 he was appointed as a Test Pilot for Sopwith Aviation. Hawker also won the Michelin Cup in a Curtis-Wright biplane on 24th October 1912, with a record endurance lasting 8 hours, 23 minutes, just 7 minutes inside the maximum allowed time limit.
A further ‘claim to fame’ arose in 1914, when he is said to have been one of the first to perform an ‘intentional spin and recovery’, demonstrating one method (although it is generally not the one used today) to return to level flight from this unusual attitude. Spins of this kind had been previously reported by Lt Wilfred Parke RN, at Larkhill in August 1912 and with the further demonstrations by the likes of Hawker, the technique introduced and acclaimed as a major advance in aviation safety.
Hawker still remained as a regular competitor in the car and motorcycle meetings held on the infamous banked track at Brooklands where he also demonstrated Sopwith machines to the huge crowds and amongst his competitive achievements during 1913, he claimed a number of new altitude records, often carrying wealthy paying passengers in his 80hp Gnome rotary engine machine.
Graduating to International competition, he entered the 1913 Daily Mail Circuit of Britain Air Race, setting out to win the £5,000 prize.
Hawker, along with mechanic and friend Harry Kauper, turned out to be the only contestants to start the race that year, flying a new Sopwith Circuit of Britain floatplane, fitted with a six-cylinder 100hp Green engine. Of the other entrants, Gordon England had damaged one of the floats on his radical 3-engine machine, designed by James Radley.
Meanwhile, the only other entrant, Samuel Cody (the first man to fly in the United Kingdom), had fatally crashed at Farnborough just a week before the start of the competition.
Harry Hawker with the Sopwith Circuit of Britain biplane
As it turned out (and despite being the absolute favourites) Hawker was taken ill from either sunstroke or the engine fumes (or both) during the early legs between Southampton and Great Yarmouth and so well-known cross-channel pilot Sydney Pickles was sent for to continue the flight whilst Hawker recovered.
Pickles suffered problems when it was discovered that the aircraft tailplane had become waterlogged at its overnight berth and the aircraft flatly refused to take off. Nothing could be done other than to return the machine by rail to Brooklands, which at least would allow Sopwith the opportunity to extend the exhaust pipe as well as a small number of other modifications. This also allowed Hawker to fully recover and with the consent of the competition organisers (The Royal Aero Club), he and Kauper set off once more from Southampton on 25th August 1913.
Harry Hawker Sopwith Circuit aircraft at Scarborough
The 1,540 mile route needed to be completed within 72-hours, landing at pre-determined ports and harbours around the UK. The initial route took Hawker and Kauper to Great Yarmouth, via Ramsgate, which they completed at an average of one mile-a-minute.
From there, they tracked along the east coast where they land and are met in Scarborough by huge crowds.
The enthusiastic welcome at Scarborough is due in the main to the popularity of aviation in Yorkshire, created by the likes of the Blackburn Aircraft Company who ran regular passenger flights from the Pleasure Beach. After a meal and a short rest they are airborne once more, heading for Inverness via rendezvous points at Montrose, Aberdeen and Cromarty.
From Inverness, they turn inland towards Oban. The storms and turbulent air over the mountains and coastline in the northern part of Scotland were considered to be too dangerous for aircraft of the day. Harry reported 'great difficulty' controlling the aircraft in the gusts of wind that were created by the mountains as they followed the Caledonian Canal.
After an overnight halt in Oban and another short delay caused by a waterlogged float, they set off to cross the 81-miles of the Irish Sea to Larne. The sea crossing was relatively problem free but as they left Larne Hawker is growing increasingly concerned about what he suspected was a broken valve-spring in the engine. As the noises became louder, he spotted a small cove at Loughshinney, near Skerries and decided to put down to see if he could fix the problem.
Unfortunately, as he made his approach into the bay, his foot slipped off the rudder bar and he clipped the tops of the waves and crash landed into the water. Kauper sustained a broken arm as a result and the attempt (and the competition) came to a very abrupt end.
The Sopwith had flown 1,043 miles, a new record for a seaplane and so the Daily Mail awarded Hawker a £1,000 consolation prize. The battered aircraft was eventually returned to Brooklands for a rebuild although during later testing Hawker crashed once again, this time sustaining a back injury which would plague him forever after.
Not deterred, he flew the Sopwith Circuit of Britain aircraft for a final time during the 1913 Aerial Derby at Hendon. He was placed at a close third in the speed competition at 67mph, just slightly behind Vickers Flying School Chief Instructor and good friend Harry Barnwell.
Hawker took part in the various Brooklands handicap races that year although during the running of the 1913 Michelin Cup Contest in October, he crashed his Gnome-powered Sopwith on the banks of the River Wey, near the Track at Brooklands. He hurt his back yet again and in further attempts to complete the contest, a violent headache, fuel feed problems, and fog lost him any chance of claiming the £800 prize money.
Nevertheless, Hawker did win the £500 prize in the more difficult Mortimer-Singer event, flying a 100hp Sopwith seaplane. The gruelling contest involved a number of sea flights and numerous landings and take-offs. At the end of the competition a disgruntled Hawker complained that ‘Sopwith got the lolly whilst all I got was a silly souvenir!’
Just before the outbreak of the First World War, Harry Hawker returned to Australia to demonstrate the advanced new Sopwith Tabloid prototype, an aircraft which he had helped design. Soon after his departure and with a full diary of appearances Hawker was unable to return when Sopwith placed their entry into the new 1914 Schneider Trophy Race being held against the glamorous backdrop of Monaco and the harbour at Monte Carlo. Howard Pixton was chosen as a replacement pilot and much to Hawker's annoyance it was he who won what was Sopwith’s greatest achievement.
C. Howard Pixton on the port float of the Schneider Trophy-winn...
Meanwhile in the southern hemisphere, Hawker was demonstrating the Tabloid at the immensely popular aviation meetings which had been bolstered by news of the success in the South of France. These flying meetings often attracted up to 50,000 spectators and on one occasion a particularly wild crowd nearly wrecked the aircraft as they all clambered to simply touch the somewhat fragile machine. It should also be recorded however, that it also suffered more damage during the numerous ‘minor accidents’ created by Hawker’s often over-exuberant demonstrations of stunt flying, especially those which ended nose down and with a buried propeller during landings from inappropriate angles.
On 19th January 1914, Hawker arrived back in his home town of Melbourne, just in time to celebrate his 25th birthday with his family. He was immediately welcomed as ‘a local-boy-made-good’ with a Civic Reception held in St Kilda Town Hall.
The City Mayor, Councillors, local businessmen and special civic guests were also honoured by the presence of a special VIP, Australia’s Postmaster General, Agar Wynne who had a vested interest in aviation as he was responsible for the introduction of the country’s first air mail service.
During the speeches, Wynne spoke of avidly following Harry’s flying achievements and how, by making a name for himself, ‘he had advertised Australia to the rest of the world’.
In the national papers, Harry’s proud father described him as ‘a model son and that the thoroughness with which he does his work is an abject lesson which young men might copy’. The local papers described him as a ‘quiet, modest-looking young man of slight but supple build, brown eyes, brown faced and wearing a brown suit’ adding that ‘an occasional smile lights up his face and particularly his eyes.’
The Australian Tour was declared a success with Hawker returning home on 7th June to resume his flight test duties at Brooklands.
Saturday morning, 27th June 1914, saw a motor car, motorcycle and air race meeting at Brooklands where the Sopwith Company had placed three entries in the afternoon air races. It was one of Brooklands' premier meetings with a very large crowd. Unfortunately, and because of its recent success, both Hawker and Pixton’s Sopwith Tabloids were heavily-handicapped which resulted in their failure to record any significant finish positions.
However, later that day and during a demonstration for the crowds, Hawker dived the 100hp Tabloid with its engine off before pulling up to the top of one of his ‘slow loops’ at about 1,000ft. Observers on the ground were horrified as the aircraft was seen to fall sideways, turn nose-down and then rapidly descend vertically, spinning around its own axis. The machine seems to flatten out at around 200ft before diving once again into a copse on the nearby St Georges Hill Estate, to the east of the airfield. Everyone feared that this was the end of Harry Hawker.
Harold Pixton grabbed the nearest available aeroplane and took off to see if he locate the wreckage but once in the air he could see nothing in the dense woodland below. Meanwhile on the ground, other rescuers had set off on motorcycles towards the scene. Pixton quickly landed and he set off on foot to help look for his dear friend. He was astounded when a motorcycle drew up alongside, complete with Harry Hawker riding pillion and grinning broadly.
It appears that the aircraft, still descending, flew ‘left wing-up’ into the tops of the trees, from which it then fell vertically, buffered by a number of tree boughs. It ended the right way up resting on saplings in the undergrowth with the wings folded in over the top of Harry’s head and protecting him from injury. Immediate thoughts were that there was some sort of break up or control issue although later investigations established that it was not a mechanical failure.
This much feared spin had become known as ‘Parke’s Dive’ as he is one of the few who has escaped death, despite the fact that he had no idea how he did).
Hawker however, believed he now knew how to recover and the very next day (28th June 1914) he took off in an 80hp Sopwith Scout, climbing to around 1,500ft. He then deliberately entered a spin, against the advice of all present.
It was reported by observers on the ground that the machine ‘hung on its tail, slowly rotated, started spinning and then down it goes. Quite suddenly, the turning stopped and the spin became a straight dive’.
After a perfect landing, Hawker was asked what he had done and he replied ‘I did nothing, absolutely nothing. I simply took my hands and feet off everything and as I thought, it came out of the spin and I found myself in a straight dive’.
It was typical of Hawker’s fearless approach as centralising the controls and simply waiting is certainly a brave counter-intuitive experiment.
After the outbreak of hostilities on 4th August 1914, Hawker spent most of the early part of World War I designing, improving and testing the Sopwith Company’s fighters. Having established his name as an accomplished aviator and Sopwith Chief Test Pilot, this gave him the personal use of a small aircraft, a Sopwith Bee. He headed the test flying program for many of the most significant British aeroplanes of the Great War, including the likes of the Sopwith 1½ Strutter , the Sopwith Pup and the Sopwith Camel.
Sopwith Camel 2 F.1 at Brooklands in 1917
The Sopwith Camel is said to be one of the most successful fighters of WW1 and this was largely down to the work of Harry Hawker, who test flew this often difficult aeroplane with his usual skill. He also had a major involvement in pioneering the techniques required for deck-landings during 1917, firstly from the Cunard liner ‘Campania’ and later from HMS Furious at Scapa Flow.
In addition to his flying ability, he used his mechanical knowledge and contributed greatly to the testing of new engines such as those used by the French air squadrons, whom he visited on a regular basis.
On 14th November 1917, Hawker married Muriel Alice Peaty at St Peter's Church, Ealing, in West London. Romance had blossomed when he first met 23 year-old Miss Peaty, a sporting young lady who had started to drive whilst she was still a schoolgirl. One day in Richmond Park during 1915, her light car had stopped due to a build-up of water in the poor quality petrol available to private motorists during the war period.
Hawker, who happened to be passing in his exotic French Gregoire, managed to get her car going and later he invited her out for a drive in his 27/80hp Austro-Daimler.
In an attempt to impress, he drove very fast and with so much flamboyance that they ended up in the ditch beside the Brooklands Aerodrome. Thankfully they were both unhurt but many have speculated that if his future in-laws had been aware of the accident Muriel would have been banned from having anything to do with the 26 year-old Australian.
As war subsided, Hawker was joined by navigator Lieutenant Commander Mackenzie Grieve, who he had met during a period of service during his dealings with the RNAS, as they attempted to win the £10,000 Daily Mail prize for the first flight across the Atlantic over ‘72 consecutive hours’.
On 18th May 1919, the pair set off from Newfoundland in a Sopwith Atlantic, a 360hp V12 Rolls-Royce Eagle engine biplane. The Atlantic, as the name suggests, had been specifically designed for the challenge although disappointingly after just 14½ hours of flight they were forced to change course with an overheating engine. The aircraft had been fitted with a 330-gallon fuel tank which weighed in at 6,150lbs and it simply over-stressed the engine. They diverted to reach the busy North Atlantic shipping lanes where they located the freighter ‘Danish Mary’. They ditched the ailing aircraft and were successfully rescued from the daunting Atlantic Ocean. After failing to arrive as planned, they were presumed lost at sea with Muriel Hawker receiving a long telegram from H M King George V, expressing his condolences.
However, and because of the lack of a functioning long distance radio aboard the steamer, it was not until 6 days later that word was received that they were safe. A coherent message was received as soon as the Danish Mary reached the Butt of Lewis, in the Outer-Hebrides, where they were transferred to the destroyer HMS Woolston. Finally, the pair returned home aboard the Flagship HMS Revenge.
Their Sopwith Atlantic was later found complete, remarkably still afloat and was subsequently recovered. It spent a period on display at Selfridges whilst the wheels from the undercarriage (jettisoned soon after take-off) were also recovered and were donated to the Rooms Provincial Museum in St John's, Newfoundland. One wheel however, is now on display at Admiralty House Communications Museum at Mount Pearl, Canada.
Sopwith Atlantic wreckage on display on the roof at Selfridge's...
After the end of the race, Hawker and Grieve were awarded a consolation prize of £5,000 by the Daily Mail and Hawker later named his second daughter Mary in honour of the ship that had rescued them from a watery grave.
Hawker had the opportunity to drive Louis Coatalens' 350hp V12 18.3-litre Sunbeam at the second of the post-war car race meeting at Brooklands on 19th June 1920. During the practice session however, a front tyre burst as he drove high-up on the famous Brooklands Banking. He wrestled with the big car just long enough to keep it on the track and managed to reach the railway straight where he subsequently crashed through the fence and down a 4ft drop towards the railway line. Thankfully, he stopped short of meeting a London to Portsmouth locomotive.
Harry Hawker car crash at Brooklands
Hawker was unhurt, declaring himself 'impressed by the very nice car'.
Later that day, Harry also took part in the 4th race of the day, this time in a smaller, 6-cylinder Indianapolis Sunbeam where he beat his rival's Vauxhall at an average speed of 99.5mph.
The end of World War I brought a huge financial depression throughout the world and one of the most notable casualties in the UK was the Sopwith Aviation Company. Faced with huge debts, potential tax demands and the impending return of war loans to the government, they went into liquidation on 11th September 1920.
Sopwith Aviation held many key patents however, and despite a huge surplus of ex-RAF machines, on 15th November 1920 Harry Hawker and Tom Sopwith joined with Fred Sigrist and Bill Eyre to form a new company, H.G Hawker Engineering Ltd, each contributing £5,000. Tom Sopwith commented at the time that ‘to avoid any muddle if we had gone on building aeroplanes and called them Sopwith’s then there was bound to be a muddle somewhere and so we called the company the H.G. Hawker Company - I didn't mind as he (Harry Hawker) was largely responsible for our growth during the war’.
The company set about developing new types alongside supporting contracts for a huge number of privately-owned Sopwith machines - everything appeared to be going to plan until 12th July 1921 when the company was rocked at its very foundations.
Still more interested in flying aeroplanes than sitting at a desk, Harry Hawker tragically crashed his Nieuport Goshawk during practice for an Aerial Derby at Hendon Aerodrome in North London. He was said to have been executing a climb out from the grass runway when the machine fell to the ground.
Medical examinations led physicians to believe that Hawker had actually suffered a haemorrhage and that he had tried to get back down on the ground. Fire in the air and spinal tuberculosis were also considered as contributory factors to his death. The nation had lost one of its most distinguished airmen, who by his skill and daring, had contributed so much to the success of British aviation.
Hawker is a name synonymous with aviation which still lives on today in various engineering related companies and if Harry had lived to an age, similar to his great friend Tommy Sopwith (1898 – 1989), then he would have loved the idea of the high-altitude, high-speed travel of the jet fighters which proudly bore his name.
One can easily imagine the famous broad smile that would have certainly greeted the idea of the vertical take-off and hovering ability of the Hawker Harrier!
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