Captain Edward Wakefield placed advertisements in Flight magazine of 24 September 1910 for a ‘flight machine’ and an engine. Amongst the many replies, was one from A. V. Roe & Company of Manchester, which had been formed on 1 January that year. It was the world’s first company to be registered as an aeroplane manufacturer. Following the flight of the world’s first practical hydro-aeroplane on 26 January 1911 by Glenn Curtiss at San Diego Bay, California, Wakefield ended his negotiations with Avro for a Bleriot-type. Arrangements were entered into for an Avro Curtiss-type machine for £250 and a Gnome Omega 50 hp ‘pusher’ [the propeller was behind the mainplanes] engine for £375. It is believed that there are only 2 of such engines which have survived. Avro was an airframe designer and builder, but not an engine constructor.
‘Alliott Verdon Roe’s early interest in hydro-aeroplanes was sparked by Wakefield’s order.’– Eric Verdon-Roe, grandson.
The aeroplane was built at Brownsfield Mill, Manchester. The plan, dated 9 March 1911, is the oldest surviving Avro aeroplane plan. The rudder is the earliest surviving part carrying the legend ‘A.V. Roe & Co’. Photos of the surviving parts are here.
Delivery took place to Brooklands on 25 May 1911 for test flying. There, various changes were made, including replacing the car-type steering control wheel with a ‘stick’ which Roe invented and patented. The Chief Instructor of the Avro School was Howard Pixton, who watched the first flight. He wrote in a booklet The Brooklands Story 1910/1911 that 1911 was an eventful year for Avro, including the biplane for Wakefield who took one of the best Avro pupils, Herbert Stanley Adams, as pilot.
Whilst at Brooklands, the aeroplane was flown by Ronald Kemp and Frederick Raynham, pilots on the Avro staff.
On 7 July 1911, the aeroplane arrived at Windermere and, having been converted to a hydro-aeroplane, became known as ‘Waterbird’. On 25 November 1911, flown by Adams, Waterbird made the first successful take off and alighting on water outside the USA and France where the very first hydro-aeroplane flight took place on 28 March 1910.
Meanwhile at Cavendish Dock, Barrow-in-Furness, on 18 November 1911, the first Avro D flown by Commander (later Air Vice-Marshal Sir) Oliver Schwann had taken off but crashed upon it falling back into the water. This aeroplane had first been flown by Pixton at Brooklands on 1 April 1911 and he gave a demonstration flight to Schwann who bought it for £700. On 2 April 1912, flying the Avro D at Barrow, Sydney Sippe made the first successful flight from seawater in Britain.
Earlier on 25 November 1911, Oscar Gnosspelius had flown from Windermere, but he also crashed on alighting. In January 1911, he had been taught by Pixton to fly straight and level. In April 1912, Gnosspelius invited Kemp to Windermere to fly his hydro-aeroplane.
In July 1912, Gertrude Bacon flew as a passenger at Windermere in Waterhen and the Deperdussin. In her book Memories of Land and Sky she wrote: ‘I visited the aerodromes and aeroplane works that by then were springing up in all directions. One of the earliest of the latter I found in a mill outside Manchester, where half the building was devoted to the manufacture of men’s braces, and the other to ‘Avroplanes’. Of the former the most romantic example was undoubtedly Windermere.’
Avro built an aeroplane for John Duigan, similar to the Avro D, which Adams bought from him for £180. It was transported from Brooklands to Windermere where new wings, designed by Gnosspelius, were made and the ex-Waterbird engine was installed. It was first flown at Windermere on 28 August 1912 and became known as ‘Seabird’ and later as the ‘Avro’.
In December 1912, Adams test flew the Avro 501 at Eastchurch on behalf of Avro, the float having been designed by Gnosspelius, built to the orders of the Admiralty. It was adapted for alighting on and rising from, either water or land. ‘The combination of wheels and floats is essentially an Avro invention, the subject of a patent that is at the present time being applied for.’ – Flight magazine, 21 December 1912.
The Avro 503, a slightly larger version of the Avro 501, made its first take off from the River Adur at Brighton on 28 May 1913, flown by Raynham. It was the first aeroplane to have floats designed by Avro. On the following day, he carried as a passenger John Alcock who was working at Brooklands as a mechanic and made the first Atlantic crossing in 1919, which brought an award of £10,000 from the Daily Mail.
The Daily Mail, founded by Lord Northcliffe in 1896, stimulated aviation by awarding prizes between 1907 and 1925. In 1907, Roe won £75 in a model competition, which helped fund the full-size aeroplane. In August 1909, Lord Northcliffe wrote to Blackpool Town Hall suggesting that an air display be put on. It was from the Blackpool Aviation Meeting in October 1909 that Wakefield derived his inspiration to try and fly off water. On 14 February 1914, Raynham flew an Avro 504 to 15,000 feet. It was bought by the Daily Mail and carried out displays at towns around the British coast.
Between 1909 and August 1914, Lord Northcliffe gave what was then the enormous sum of £24,050 in prizes, and £5,000 was offered for the first round Britain flight by a seaplane, but World War 1 ended all competition flying. The prototype Avro 510 seaplane was built for the cancelled 1914 Circuit of Britain race. The cheque for it was handed to Roe on behalf of the Navy by Captain (later Air Chief Marshal Sir) Arthur Longmore. On 20 January 1912, Longmore had test flown Waterbird for the Navy, his first take off from water.
On 20 April 1914, flying a Sopwith seaplane at Monaco, Pixton became the first Briton to win the Schneider Trophy.
Sippe flew an Avro 504 on 21 November 1914 during a Royal Naval Air Service raid on the Zeppelin factory at Friedrichshafen, part of the first strategic bombing campaign, for which he received the DSO and the Légion d’honneur.
From 21 July until October 1919, Pixton operated two Avro 504 seaplanes (still displaying their military serial numbers) at Cockshott Point, Windermere for Avro, having taken a lease of the hangar from Wakefield. He carried out joyriding flights, instruction and delivery of newspapers to the Isle of Man.
In 1920, Crossley Motors Ltd bought 68.5% of the shares in A. V. Roe & Co. Ltd. Crossley took over Avro’s car manufacturing business, but Avro independently continued its aircraft manufacturing operations.
In 1928, Roe sold his shares in A. V. Roe & Co. Ltd. Seeking a company to pursue his seaplane ideas, he bought a controlling interest in S. E. Saunders Ltd, so leading to Saunders-Roe Ltd and flying boat production.