Major Oscar Theodor Gnosspelius FRAeS (1878 – 1953)

Oscar Gnosspelius was a pioneer aeronautical engineer, the only person at Windermere to design and fly his own hydro-aeroplane.

Whilst his father was Swedish, Gnosspelius was born at Liverpool and lived at Windemere from 1909.

Having attended the Blackpool Aviation Meeting in October 1909, Gnosspelius began the task of designing an aeroplane which was capable of flying from water. He was a skilled fitter and turner, having served his time with a boatbuilder’s yard at Arnside. His motive was that it would be more sensible to use freely available water than expensive land.

Together with Edward Wakefield, in October 1910 he visited Henri Fabre at Paris who had made the world’s first flight from water on 28 March that year.

In July 1910, floats with a ‘step’ were constructed by Borwick & Sons for Gnosspelius from his designs and which he tested tested at Windermere – the first floats with a hydroplane step in the world. However, his hydro-aeroplane, Gnosspelius No. 1, was not capable of taking off due to lack of power from the 25 horse power engine.

Gnosspelius did not protect his designs and it was Wakefield who obtained Patents No. 27,770 and 27,771 for the means for attachment and a stepped float, having applied on 11 December 1911 through Arthur Edwards & Company, chartered patent agents. The application concerning attachment was granted on 12 September 1912, but the application for a stepped float was opposed by The British and Colonial Aeroplane Company Limited, with a statutory declaration by Gnosspelius. Wakefield, a Barrister, represented himself at the Hearing, having turned down the suggestion by Arthur Edwards of a specialist Barrister at a fee of five guineas. Wakefield wrote that opposing Counsel ‘was very well up in Patent Law but quite at sea about hydroplanes’! At the end of the Hearing, the Judge declared the sealing of a patent and awarded legal costs in Wakefield’s favour, stating that he would give his full decision in a written judgment. Delivered on 18 March 1913, the decision was that, having conducted considerable experiment successfully, Wakefield had combined features in a novel way.

Following instruction in February 1911 by Howard Pixton at the Avro Flying School at Brooklands, where Gnosspelius learned to fly straight and level, on 25 November 1911 he  became the first person to take off from Windermere, in Gnosspelius No. 2. However, following a gust of wind, control was lost, and a wingtip dug into the water causing the aeroplane to flip over onto its back.

Nevertheless, a first successful flight was made on 14 February 1912 when piloted by Gnosspelius. – The Westmorland Gazette, 24 February, 1912.

His other work included Waterhen (the immediate successor to Waterbird), the Gnosspelius-Trotter, the Lakes Monoplane, the wings for Seabird and the float for the Avro 501. Gnosspelius No. 1 and No. 2 were both monoplanes, whereas Watebird and Waterhen were biplanes.

In a move away from the flat bottom of initial floats, designers developed the wave-cutting, spray-deflecting, V-shaped float bottom which is used on every float today. On 12 February 1914, Gnosspelius obtained Patent No.10,801 for a V-shaped construction.

Gnosspelius joined the Royal Naval Air Service in 1914, at the inspection staff of the Admiralty Air Department and then the Technical Department, becoming a Lieutenant Commander, and a Major upon formation of the RAF. He was engaged by Short Brothers at Rochester in 1919 to take charge of their experimental department. Despite leaving Shorts in 1925, he took part on many test flights into the 1930s. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1922.

Commodore Murray Sueter recommended John Lankester Parker, a Windermere instructor, to Oswald Short for the position of a test pilot at Eastchurch. Parker became Chief Test Pilot for Shorts 1918-1945, and in September 1942 flew the first Windermere-assembled Sunderland flying boat. Parker succeded Ronald Kemp as Chief Test Pilot, who had flown Waterbird as a landplane at Brooklands in June 1911 and Gnosspelius No. 2 at Windermere in April 1912. Gnosspelius served under Sueter at the Air Department. Gnosspelius designed a Gull aeroplane, which was built by Shorts at Rochester and test-flown by Parker in 1923. So, when German bombers were attacking Rochester in 1940, achieving a direct hit on the Shorts’ works, and it was decided to urgently disperse part of Sunderland production, there was a significant resource of experience of Windermere to draw upon in coming to the decision as to where that factory should be sited. Gnosspelius was involved on behalf of Shorts in the local negotiations for the factory built at White Cross Bay.

Gnosspelius also had an interest in motor boats, being a first year member of Windermere Motor Boat Racing Club and wrote a chapter ‘Motor-boating’ for the book The Lake Counties by his father-in-law W.G. Collingwood. Pigeon Post by Arthur Ransome, published in 1936, was dedicated To Oscar Gnosspelius, in which the character ‘Squashy Hat’ was based upon him. He lived at Coniston from 1925, where he is buried.

Windermere: birthplace of British naval and civil marine aeroplanes