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Harry Hawker: The Boy who wanted to Fly

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Harry George Hawker. Courtesy Kingston Collection.

Harry George Hawker, the second son of a Moorabbin blacksmith of Cornish blood was born in a small rented terrace cottage in Wickham Rd., on January 22, 1889. When he was born, John King and his wife Deborah, the original settlers of the Moorabbin district were still living on the land which they had pioneered as the first white settlers to take up residence.

Australia itself had only been established 101 years and already there was a new era which in turn heralded a crisp challenge to a coming generation to face up to the machine age. Harry Hawker although still a schoolboy was ever eager to accept that challenge so much so in fact that he disregarded the essential pre-requisite of a sound primary education.

His first tuition was gained at the Worthing Road State School, Moorabbin, but the depression coupled with his own lack of interest in basic education saw him move to another three schools in the six short years of learning that represented the only schooling he was ever to enjoy. The fourth and final school that he attended was at Brighton and it was from here that this lad with the great mechanical mind finally decided to abscond from school for all time to accept five shillings per week from the motor firm of Hall and Wardens at a time when the adult wage had reached an all time high at six shillings per day. But to Hawker a paid job in the field of mechanical engineering was all that mattered.

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Moorabbin State School at Worthing Road, C1910.

He became known through the local districts as a man who could set the most stubborn of motors in action within a very short space of time. The monetary reward was excellent but success as it was later to be proven always brought restlessness to Hawker who was ever eager to improve upon his immediate lot.

The automobile trade has been a valuable one for him. It had been the means of gaining jobs outside his normal employment hours. He had no fears about leaving the trade as he could always come back to it, but to become an aviator in his own country – the thought was almost laughable.

In 1910 an aviation event which stirred the air-minded people of the whole world – caused a restlessness amongst the keenest of the keen that was hard to overcome. It was the London to Paris air race. In London the great pioneers of world aviation, first known as aeronauts and later as aviators, assembled to prepare for the first massed attempt at crossing the English Channel by heavier than air machines. England became the centre of attraction of thousands of would-be British flyers, including many Australians, who realised the hopelessness of waiting for the new mode of adventure to reach their own shore.

Hawker believed that in England he would soon learn to fly and the young man of scarcely 22 years of age left his native shores hoping of success in the new sphere and perhaps at the same time wondering if he was doing the right thing. With three other Australians, Hawker arrived in England in May; and in the spring of 1911, he felt the need for a holiday more urgent than of the task of looking for work. However when after a short rest he foresaw the difficulty involved, he regretted having taken the break, as the employment position was not what he believed it to be. As he was to find out later the problem that facing him was a general one which also confronted the English mechanic as well as those from various parts of the globe.

The position was created by the enthusiasm of England’s own youth who were already working as motor mechanics and were lining up at airport employment offices eager to break into newer mechanical field. Anyone without references just did not stand a chance and Hawker, 10,000 miles from home, had not the word of one referee in writing. Then as he moved from one workshop to another, first in the aircraft industry and then in the motor car trade, he began to realise what his neglect was costing. Without documentation, he couldn’t even get a trade test let alone a job.

One of his main disadvantage s was that by this time he was an adult and as such his services were more costly to the employer. As an ‘unknown’ he was considered a risk and what was needed was someone to explain, how his ability had always kept pace with the remuneration he received for his services at home and, with a pool of employers only too anxious to place him on the payroll. But towards the end of July 1911, when he had fully made up his mind to return to Australia, he received an offer of steady employment from the Commer motor firm and decided to postpone the plan.

By February 1912, things were again improving through a new job at the Mercedes Company at two and a half pence an hour more. Next thoughts were ‘should I go home as planned or spend the money I have on flying lessons?’ Later an invitation came to visit the foreman of the Austro-Daimler Company. This led to a better position again than his previous one, although he had still to break into the somewhat exclusive aircraft industry.

The temptation to return to Victoria as a top rate mechanic presented itself but was overwhelmed by another urging him to stay on until the opportunity to enter a cockpit presented itself. That opportunity came to him per medium of the Sopwith Aviation Company at Brooklands early in the summer of 1912 after he had been advised by a friend to call on Mr Sigrist at the company’s airport hangar. Actually the Sopwith Company had a work force of 14, and Hawker became the fifteenth member. The business of the company centred around a flying school and the building of the Howard Wright biplane, but to Harry Hawker it was the opening of a complete world of aviation.

Harry Hawker was employed as a mechanic with the small Sopwith company and scarcely had he been placed on the payroll when he began lessons in flying as a pupil of Sopwith, his employer. He paid for his tuition from £40 which he had managed to save from wages during the time he had been employed by the various automobile manufacturers. Hawker was an outstanding pupil who was ready for solo four days after receiving his first lesson.

Here was a natural pilot who had learned so much from merely watching others take their machines into the air and land them at Brooklands that everyone came to him quite readily, and in September he was granted his flying ticket. Then within a matter of days he was giving instruction to other newcomers to the craze and gaining success as a tutor. But like all routine practices, that of flying instructor soon became a bore to Harry once he had recouped the cost of his own lessons, and he was again in search of adventure, this time in the form of competitive flying.

The British Empire Michelin Cup was his first attempt in this field. Taking advantage of the calm atmosphere Hawker glided his machine gracefully but carefully in order to maintain the greatest possible altitude, then, drifting into a side slip, the plane into a banking exercise to the renewed sound of the clattering airscrews and motor, only to be silent again and repeat the previous act.

The Sopwith Company men had gone to the trouble to rebuild the American Burgess-Wright biplane which had had a twin propeller, and to modify it to their own design in order to meet the competition requirements. He had to stay aloft as long as was humanly possible. After eight hours and 23 minutes after take-off the casual, smiling pilot lifted his frame from the cockpit as the new duration flight champion. He had gained the Michelin Cup No 1 and won the £500 prize money. Hawker had shattered the record.

Despite the fact that Hawker had left school at the age of 12, he managed to gain his ambition to become an aviator. After suffering the hardships that meet the technically unqualified he reached another goal, but still his mission was far from complete in that he wanted to fly his machine high above the trees and farms that flourished in his native soil in the Parish of Moorabbin.

Hawker was fully convinced that the aeroplane had a definite future but there was still a lot of others, important people like heads of government and those with capital to finance production who were sceptical about the whole idea. Too many ordinary people, even among his own admirers, regarded the machine as something of an aerial bicycle on which the rider performed his feats in the sky instead of at a velodrome.

With the offer of prizes now being made Hawker saw the means of making flying a paying proposition. Geoffrey De Havilland’s endurance record of 10,650 feet was his first target in this new plan to prove the ability of his machine. The £50 offered by the Brooklands Automobile Club as a prize to anyone who could go higher provided the incentive to meet the challenge.

Hawker climbed into the Tractor Biplane (another of Sopwith’s products) and the aircraft rose into the calm wind of the day and circled above the heads of the crowd. When it finally landed there alighted the new solo height champion, Harry Hawker, with 11,451 feet to his credit. But it was not good enough for Harry. He was soon to be seen taking off with a passenger whom he took higher than he had gone solo. He later followed up by taking two passengers to another record breaking effort, then in July of the same year four men rose to a height of 8400 feet with Hawker again at the controls.

That was good enough in any man’s book, it had proven beyond all doubt that given the correct design and power to match it, an aircraft could extend itself beyond the one-man carrying stage and lift a good number of passengers safely having at the same time ability if required to rise in inclement weather to the safety of a higher altitude.

More than two years passed since his arrival in England and now that his mission had been achieved Harry George Hawker felt the need to return to his native Australia and the Parish of Moorabbin where he had planned to make his first flight in his own country. He had funds – enough to buy his own aircraft to crate back to Melbourne, pay his fare and keep himself until orders for machines from Australians could perhaps set him up in business in Victoria.

Hawker was met by friends soon after the ‘Maloja’ had berthed and was taken to the St Kilda Town Hall, where he was greeted by the Mayor of St Kilda and citizens and councillors from St Kilda, Brighton and Moorabbin. After the reception the aviator had one thought uppermost in his mind and that was to again experience the thrill of flight, but first of all the Sopwith was scheduled for a ground display at the C. L.C. Motor and Engineering Works in Melbourne. Then came the long awaited flight over Melbourne’s suburbs, the first of which began from a paddock in New St., Brighton, as a solo test flight, but eventually took in an aerial display over the whole of the Parish of Moorabbin, which included the City of Brighton and the Shire of Moorabbin.

The first flight was intended to be something of an unofficial take-off and landing in the shape of a ‘circuit and bump’ affair but by the time that Harry had carried out a ground run to check his ‘revs’ people were beginning to gather in anticipation of a flying performance and Hawker was not the kind to ignore their interest. Climbing to about 1000 feet he circled the near vicinity, intending to land, only to see the pupils of the Sandringham State School in the south assembling in the playground to greet him, so with a swift bank at about 200 feet, the plane swooped low over the school with the pilot’s arm clearly visible returning the waves of the teachers and the pupils. Further south again, the Mordialloc State School was ready and received the same exchange of greetings.

Never was a welcome more sincere and never was one more appreciative. There was not a school nor a home nor a farm or business premise where the occupants did not turn out in force to greet the successful aviator. What was to be a five minute circuit and bump test flight ended after 50 minutes of furious waving.

After the exchange of greetings came the business side of the adventure and the triumphant airman found no difficulty, as he turned his attention towards barnstorming, in bringing in passengers at £20 at a time.

On February 7, 1914 a Saturday, Hawker had signed himself up to a promoter, Albert Soulthorpe, of Swanston Street, Melbourne, to give ‘a public display of aviation at Caulfield Racecourse or other suitable grounds’. Proceeds were to be equally divided between the promoter and the aviator. Again the Moorabbin people turned out in full force, but only to become insignificant in their numbers against the thousands who arrived from other parts of the metropolitan area and beyond.

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Harry Hawker's plane the Tabloid Sopwith on the Elsternwick Golf Course. In the foreground is Harry's father, George. 1914.

The following Friday was in fact Friday 13, but it was not regarded as unlucky by Harry and his intended passengers. It was a V.I.P. day for Hawker and the plane with ‘SOPWITH’ boldly printed along the fuselage. One passenger was the Minister for Defence, Mr Millen, who thereby became the first Australian Defence Minister ever to go aloft. He was of course suitably impressed, but recorded no comment that was strong enough to bring forth aircraft orders on behalf of the Commonwealth Government.

Hawker could not wait. He had to be back in England in time for the flying season which would reach its height in June, and after a few short weeks in Australia he was off on the return journey. At Caulfield everything was back to normal, although it has since been noticed that there is a bent lightning conductor on the tower of a convent, which a number of people say lost its straightness when Hawker’s Sopwith struck it on a landing approach.

The Sopwith ‘Tabloid’ as the plane which Hawker brought to Melbourne was known, was produced at the Kingston factory of Sopwiths for the first time in November 1913, and in bringing it to Australia, Hawker was giving his people the opportunity to see the very latest in aircraft design. But there was something very special about the ‘Tabloid’ in that it was to prove a point that eventually led to the biplane being produced in preference to the monoplane for a number of years to follow. It was Hawker who proved by looping the loop in the Sopwith ‘Tabloid; that in the long run biplanes were more manoeuvrable and (when properly designed to the correct wing stagger) were also faster.

It was largely due to the ultimate proof presented by Harry Hawker that World War I was fought with biplanes rather than their single winged counterparts, monoplanes. But in his efforts to prove this theory, Hawker suffered a permanent injury when looping the ‘Tabloid’ with the motor idling. In one of a series of loops designed to test the machine to its utmost, the airframe stalled and went into a tailspin to land with a clumsy thud among the trees adjacent to the aerodrome. Harry suffered a back injury which although only appearing to be slight at the time, gradually became worse during the few years of life that followed.

But the war was close at hand and Hawker became the chief test pilot of the Sopwith group. This was his wartime occupation and three months before the cessation of hostilities the name of Harry George Hawker appeared in the Birthday Honors list as a Member of the Order of the British Empire. The citation referred to his work in the development of a number of aeroplanes such as the ‘1 ½ Strutter’, the ‘Camel’, the ‘Pup’, the ‘Triplane’, the ‘Dolphin’ and the ‘Snipe’.

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Mr Tom Young, the Mayor of Moorabbin, Cr H Stevens, Mr Arthur Saunders, Mr Harry Hawker, Mr Tom Sheehy, Messrs Bill and Bob Chamberlain and Mr Leo Whelan with a propeller believed to come from plane which Hawker flew at his demonstration over Caulfield race course, 1966. Leader Collection.

In the ‘Atlantic’ a Sopwith plane, Hawker set out with Commander Grieve in Newfoundland to fly the Atlantic. The ‘Atlantic’ was a single-engine biplane with 350 horsepower Rolls Royce engine weighing 850 lbs. The all up weight of the plane was 2850 lbs and it had a maximum speed of 118 miles per hour.

Frustrated by bad weather, which delayed the flight from the very beginning, Hawker and Grieve decided to chance the elements on May 18, 1919, after a seven weeks’ wait for improved weather conditions. Before leaving Hawker saw reason to exchange the four-bladed propeller for one with two blades, and after take-off he also dropped the under cart, the idea being to reduce the load as well as cut down the air resistance. But predictions went astray and the inclemency of the day sent winds from the north instead of the anticipated north-easterlies. Thus they were blown 150 miles off course; ‘fog, cloudbank and ice formation on the wings added to the dilemma of the trip’; then an over heated radiator forced them to fly in search of a ship with a view to ‘ditching’ the machine. A two and a half hour search found the ‘Mary’ which was bound for Lentland Firth from the Gulf of Mexico, and Hawker set down on the sea about a mile in advance of the ship and awaited rescue.

There seemed to be a jinx on Hawker as far as prizes offered by tehe Daily Mail were concerned. Just as misfortune had cost him the chance of winning the prize for the flight around England in earlier years, history had repeated itself in the Daily Mail £10,000 Atlantic offer. Hawker might well have waited for better weather conditions when he arrived at the flying base near St Johns aboard the S.S. Digby had it not been for the British pride that was part of his make up. Two days before he decided to set out on his venture he had been informed of three American flying boats, the NC1, 3 and 4, having left Newfoundland and arriving at Portugal. He accepted the American rivalry as a challenge and took off prematurely, only to become reported as ‘missing at sea’ while the American NC4 in the meantime went on to claim and win the £10,000.

The evening paper on Sundays was the ‘Sunday Telegram’, and through its columns England learned of Hawker’s safety. The ‘Mary’ had picked up Hawker and Grieve, but had left the Sopwith to the mercy of ‘Davey Jones’, and perhaps it was adding insult to injury that the Americans picked up the floating ‘Atlantic’ and carried it aboard ‘Lake Charlottesville’ to Falmouth. In the meantime Hawker was transferred to a British destroyer as a guest of the Royal Navy. Leaving the ship with it reached Scotland, he and Grieve began their train journey to London which began with massive crowds turning out to cheer them on their way. Later in May both the airmen were called to Buckingham Palace where King George V, a keen admirer, presented them with a new award, as jointly they became the first recipients of the Air Force Cross.

But with the war over there were difficult times ahead for the Sopwith Company, which in 1920 went out of business. Hawker’s name came into prominence when, with the aid of his former Sopwith colleagues, the H.G.Hawker Engineering Company was formed. Hawker filled in his time during the next few months by participating in motor racing events as well as flying. But on July 12, 1921, the tragedy that shocked an empire came suddenly when a Nieuport ‘Goshawk’ in which Hawker was flying caught fire in the air. Hawker remained skilful to the end. Although badly burnt he managed to extinguish the fire and was attempting a forced landing when the plane hit the ground and threw him clear of the machine; but with the burns and possibly because of the added injuries he received in impact. Hawker lived for only a few minutes.

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Unveiling a plaque to honour Harry Hawker at the Moorabbin Primary School. Cr D Blackburn (left) Mr Wheeler of Hawker de Havilland, Tom Sheehy and Mr Shannon with Alan Biggs, Graeme Wilson, Robert Wheelar, Guy Coape-Smith, Robert Ellis and David Clottu, 1966. Leader Collection.

Author

Tom Sheehy

Footnotes

  • This story is an abridged version of six articles originally published in the Moorabbin News commencing in January 19, 1966.

Category: People
Reference Number: 188
Date Created:
Date Revised:

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