Waterbird and Associated History

A replica Waterbird flying over Windermere would be a world-class and unique experience. We have received the Lake District National Park Authority’s approval for speed limit exemptions and for navigation by an aeroplane.

The following, in the North-West Evening Mail on 30 May 2012, summarises it all:

‘The replica (Waterbird) – regardless of whether it flew just once or a dozen times – would become an important part of local history.

‘I certainly think it is important to celebrate (Windermere’s) cultural heritage and cultural heritage isn’t just about its landscape and literary associations.

‘Its industrial heritage and boat building and seaplane building is just as a legitimate part of Windermere’s history.’ – Bob Cartwright.

The golden age of the lake spanned a period from the late 19th to the early 20th centuries and featured steam boats and hydro-aeroplanes. Waterbird was built in 1911; the same year as steam launch Swallow, which is the sister launch of Osprey and Shamrock. When a Sunderland flying boat (1990) and a Catalina flying boat (1994) visited the lake, Shamrock acted as tender.

In October 1909, Captain Edward Wakefield went to the Blackpool Aviation Meeting where he saw flying machines for the first time. There, he witnessed accidents to Hubert Latham’s Antoinette aeroplane when it came down too suddenly and Henri Rougier’s Voisin which was caught by a gust. He concluded, at a time when nobody in the world had successfully developed an aeroplane capable of rising from and alighting upon water, that in the event of structural or engine failure it would be safer to land on water. However, his pioneering theory was ridiculed by the leading experts who were present.

Wakefield commissioned A.V. Roe & Company to build ‘Waterbird’, an Avro Curtiss-type hydro-aeroplane. Construction took place at Brownsfield Mills, Manchester, testing at Brooklands and delivery to Windermere on 7 July 1911. The plan is the oldest surviving plan of any Avro aeroplane. Power was a 50 hp Gnome Omega rotary ‘pusher’ [the propeller was behind the mainplanes]. The rudder is the oldest surviving part carrying the legend ‘A. V. Roe & Co’.

The first task at Windermere for Wakefield was to have a hangar designed and built. The site which he chose was land which he owned at Hill of Oaks, on the south-east shore of the lake. However, this proved too out of the way for business and he wanted to come to Bowness, where he took out a lease of land at Cockshott Point in 1912.

On 25 November 1911, piloted by Herbert Stanley Adams, Waterbird took off from Windermere and safely alighted. Such was the success of Waterbird’s performance, that 8 flights were carried out that day at distances of between four and five miles, during which there was no damage.  Two days later, exhibtion flights were made for the press – The Westmorland Gazette, 2 December 1911. Waterbird ‘had the distinction of being the first successful British hydro-aeroplane.’ – Flight magazine, 7 December 1912. More precisely, it was the first outside of France and the USA.

It was the world’s first successful flight to use a stepped float, only being achieved after considerable experimentation by Wakefield over two years and when a second step was added at the stern. The design of floats had become a science of its own. On 11 December 1911, Wakefield filed patents No. 27,770 and No. 27,771 relating to the means for float attachment including rubber bungees for shock absorption when taking off and alighting, and a stepped float, which were respectively granted on 12 September 1912 and 18 March 1913. The first patent for a stepped hydroplane, for a boat, had been granted in 1907 to Albert Edward Knight. Today, all seaplane floats have steps. Also, on 13 November 1913, Wakefield was granted patent No. 18,051 for the float of a seaplane to support its own weight or the greater part of such weight during flight.

On 18 November 1911, at Cavendish Dock, Barrow-in-Furness, an Avro D fitted with a pair of stepped floats, flown by Commander (later Air Vice-Marshal Sir) Oliver Schwann had flown for 50 or 60 yards, but he he had only taught himself basic pilot skills and was unprepared for the climb to a height of 20 feet. The aircraft fell back into the water, damaging the float and the port wing. Schwann was among the founder members of the Hermione Flying Club at Barrow, which included Lieutenant Eugene Gerrard (who was one of the first four officers selected for flying training by the Admiralty, and later Air Commodore) and Captain (later Rear Admiral Sir) Murray Sueter. On 2 April 1912, the Avro D achieved the first successful flight from seawater in Britain, when the pilot was Sydney Sippe.

Like Wakefield, Oscar Gnosspelius was inspired by attending the Aviation Meeting at Blackpool in October 1909. Following a letter of introduction from the Lancashire Aero Club, of which Wakefield was a Vice President, they both visited Henri Fabre at Paris where he was exhibiting his hydravion which made the world’s first flight from water on 28 March 1910 near Marseilles. Earlier in the day than Waterbird’s flight on 25 November 1911, Gnosspelius No. 2 had been going for a minute when there was an untoward gust of wind causing Gnosspelius to lose control. He had been instructed by Howard Pixton at Brooklands, but limited to flying straight and level. He overcorrected, causing a rapid bank to the right and then to the left, following which a wingtip was damaged and the propeller splintered upon striking the water, resulting in the aeroplane turning over onto its back. However, Gnosspelius No. 2 did successfully fly on 14 February 1912, when the pilot was Gnosspelius. Gnosspelius No.1 and Gnosspelius No. 2 were both hydro-monoplanes, whereas Waterbird and Waterhen were hydro-biplanes.

Wakefield’s letters of congratulation included from Schwann and also the mother of Gnosspelius.

On 20 January 1912, Lieutenant Arthur Longmore (who was one of the first four officers selected for flying training by the Admiralty and later Air Chief Marshal Sir) test-flew Waterbird for the Admiralty. He compiled a report, concluding that ‘the float and undercarriage are excellent’.

Disaster struck on 29 March 1912, when Waterbird was written off in a hangar collapse at Cockshott Point. Photos of the surviving parts are here. By then, Waterbird had accomplished about 60 flights, the furthest for 20 miles, and attained 800 feet.

Wakefield entered into a contract on 14 March 1912 with the Admiralty for floats and undercarriages, or royalties, and to convert Admiralty Deperdussin M1 (a monoplane) into a hydro-aeroplane.

On 24 July 1912, Lieutenant Reginald Gregory (who was one of the first four officers selected for flying training by the Admiralty and a member of the Technical Sub-Committee of the Standing Committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence (‘C.I.D.’)) accepted the Deperdussin for the Admiralty, and flew it the following day. Commander Charles Samson (who was one of the first four officers selected for flying training by the Admiralty, the first pilot to take off from a British warship on 10 January 1912 and the first from a moving ship on 2 May 1912, a member of both the C.I.D. and its Technical Sub-Committee, and later Air Commodore) had flown in the Avro D at Brooklands on 12 May 1911 and flew in the Deperdussin at Windermere.

‘I should say that you are certainly the first [in the world] passenger in a hydro-monoplane.’ – A letter of 17 July 1912 from the Editor of The Aeroplane magazine to Wakefield, after he had flown at Windermere in the Deperdussin which he converted into a hydro-aeroplane within 3 weeks. ‘[The Lakes Flying Company] had a share in producing, we believe, the first hydro-monoplane to lift passengers.’ – Flight magazine, 7 December 1912.

In July 1912, Gertrude Bacon flew in Waterhen becoming the first woman in the world to make a passenger flight in a hydro-aeroplane, and in the Deperdussin becoming the first woman in the world to make a passenger flight in a hydro-monoplane. In 1909 at Rheims, she had become the first Englishwoman to fly as a passenger in an aeroplane. She wrote in her book Memories of Land and Sky: ‘To fly over water is certainly to taste to the full the joy of flight, and when the water is Windermere and the scenery the pick of English Lakeland, which is to many a traveller the pick of the whole world, in its soft intimate loveliness, the result is something not lightly forgotten’.

The Windermere Hydro-aeroplane Protest Committee was established; the principal spokesperson for the objectors was Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley. Opinion was divided: for example, the Westmorland Gazette of 20 January 1912 carried not only a letter to the editor from Beatrix Potter that any increased numbers of trippers being attracted to Bowness due to hydro-aeroplanes would not be sustained, but also a report of a meeting convened by the Windermere Trade Association which supported hydro-aeroplanes as an advantage to the district. There was a national campaign with a petition of 10,000 signatures, deputations were made to the House of Commons, and many letters were written by both sides including to Windermere Urban District Council, the Royal Aero Club, the Westmorland Gazette, the Times, the Liverpool Daily Courier, the Daily News, Country Life, the Spectator and Flight magazine. However, Wakefield’s hands were tied as to citing his contract with the Admiralty since he had signed the Official Secrets Act.

Matters came to a head on 16 April 1912, when a question was raised in the House of Commons. The answer was given by Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, who stated that flying would continue at Windermere.

On 16 August 1912, the Kendal Mercury & Times reported that ‘On the water the aeroplane is a companion among the lake craft, for former fears are fled as the terrors of a dream vanish with waking hours’.

Nevertheless, a Public Inquiry was held at Windermere on 27 August 1912 by the Home Office and the Board of Trade, at which Wakefield, a Barrister, represented the Lakes Flying Company against an array of 4 Solicitors and a number of representatives. The only definite allegations against hydro-aeroplanes were:

(1) That babies had been awakened by them,

(2) That a horse might have been frightened one day but, in fact, was not, as the aeroplane turned aside before getting too near, and

(3) That a sheep jumped into the lake on seeing one. As this seemed the most substantial grievance alleged, the Commissioners inquired further into it, as follows:

Q. The sheep was drowned?

A. No, it was not.

Q. Well, at least seriously endangered, and rescued with difficulty?

A. No, Westmorland sheep are good swimmers.

Q. Then what damage is alleged?

A. Well, it might have got a chill and developed pneumonia, and pneumonia is very fatal among sheep.

Q. But, in fact, it did not?

A. No!

Wakefield had formed the Lakes Flying Company, with the Earl of Lonsdale as Patron and Adams as Manager, on 1 January 1912. A civilian Seaplane School was established, with the first lesson on 9 September 1912 given to Lieutenant John Trotter. On 12 November 1912, Trotter was awarded Aviator’s Certificate No. 360, the first Brtish Certificate with the tests having been achieved on a hydro-aeroplane.

The Westmorland Gazette of 12 July 1913 contained the following remarkable report:

‘Lieutenant Trotter had Mr Gnosspelius’s monoplane out on Monday. He made two flights upon it, and in concluding a third he descended in Parsonage Bay. By some mischance the machine instead of alighting horizontally, or nearly so, on the surface of the lake dipped into the water with its front end and turned right over from back to front. The propeller was broken, and the aviator was thrown into the water, this being about 200 yards from the shore; but he seised hold of the upturned hydro-aeroplane and was soon taken off by a motor-boat which was approaching. He received a cut on the chin but was otherwise unhurt, and later in the evening the hydroplane was righted and towed to the shed at Bowness for repairs. Lieutenant Trotter, seeing what was going to happen, jumped from a height of 12 or 15 feet into the water in order to avoid risk of injury from becoming entangled in the machine. He swam about for some time until the motor launch came along.’

Trotter was not the only pilot associated with Windermere to jump from an aeroplane to save himself, as described in The Story of a North Sea Air Station by C F Snowden Gamble. Flight Commander John Cripps, who commanded the Royal Naval Air Station at Windermere from May 1916 until January 1917, jumped on 8 September 1915. Cripps was previously the Senior Flying Officer at RNAS Great Yarmouth, and was endeavouring to locate approaching airships north of the town when the engine of his B.E.2c stopped. The Daily Report was:

‘Owing to complete darkness and mist on the ground, the pilot could see nothing but blackness underneath him, and as he was afraid of his bombs going off if he hit a house or a wall, he landed in the following manner. When his altimeter showed 100 feet he stepped out on to the planes, still holding his control lever. He held the machine down for about 6 seconds and then jumped off the machine, and he fell on his shoulder on some soft mud and was unhurt. The machine landed by itself and sustained very little damage.’

‘One of Cripps’ brother officers remarked at the time that ‘He was absolutely scared stiff – not by his landing, for he wasn’t scratched – but by the cows that came up and smelt him and his machine!’

Lessons at Windermere included flying by moonlight, ‘a feature unique to this special school’ – Flight magazine, 5 February 1915.

Wakefield went with the Royal Aero Club delegates to a Conference at Paris on 28 January 1913, when the rules were drawn up by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale for the Hydro-aeroplane Certificate for pilots. The first two such UK Certificates were awarded to Windermere pupils.

On 11 November 1914, the Cockshott Point hangar lease, together with Waterhen, Seabird and the Lakes Monoplane were purchased by the Northern Aircraft Company Ltd.

Upon Adams joining the Royal Naval Air Service at the outbreak of World War 1, his successor was Rowland Ding. Ding became a director, general manager and chief pilot of the Northern Aircraft Company, whose booklet About the Seaplane School included that he was ‘the first aviator to carry a member of any Royal Family as a passenger’: Princess Anne of Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg, from Hendon to Calais in 1914.

In 1916-17, there was a Royal Naval Air Station at Windermere. For the naval importance, click here

Waterbird arrived at Windermere from Brooklands on 7 July 1911. Aeroplanes were transported to Windermere station, and then either by water or road. In 1912, a Borwick & Sons‘ pile-driving barge was used for a Deperdussin aeroplane. In 1916, an F.B.A. flying boat and Nieuport seaplanes were hauled by rail, and respectively onwards by tender and steam lorry to Hill of Oaks.

Save for Avro 504’s to the Isle of Man and on charters flown in 1919 by Pixton, there was only one occasion when a Windermere-based aeroplane flew out of the Lake District. That is, having arrived by traction engine, Waterhen [Note the wheels in this image] was exhibited on land and flew on 12 June 1913 from Hornsea Mere, Yorkshire (which later became a Royal Naval Air Station).

Experience derived at Windermere contributed to pilots being appointed to the demanding and influential role of Chief Test Pilot. Ding for the Blackburn Aeroplane and Motor Company Ltd, Ralph Lashmar for White Aircraft, and John Lankester Parker for Short Brothers in which capacity he flew the first Windermere-assembled Sunderland flying boat in 1942. Whilst Adams was not an employee of Avro, his achievements at Windermere and elsewhere were such as to warrant inclusion as a Chief Test Pilot by Peter V. Clegg in his book Avro Test-Pilots since 1907. Also, Gnosspelius took charge of Short’s experimental department and flew on many test flights.

Seaplanes which flew at Windermere between 1911 and 1919 were:

WaterbirdGnosspelius No. 2WaterhenDeperdussinAvro Duigan/ SeabirdGnosspelius-TrotterLakes MonoplaneBlackburn Improved Type 1P.B. 1Nieuport VI’s, F.B.A.’sShort 827’s and Avro 504’s.

Seaplanes which subsequently flew at Windermere included:

Short Sunderland flying boats (1942-1945 and 1990), Slingsby Falcon 1 glider (1943), Catalina flying boats (1944,1945 and 1994), and Tiger Moth (1979).

Windermere: birthplace of British naval and civil marine aeroplanes

Edward Wakefield

Alliott Verdon Roe

Herbert Stanley Adams 

All historical photographs at Windermere on this website were taken by Frank Herbert