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Aviation at Barrow-in-Furness

Early Aircraft History at Barrow-in-Furness

‘The combined efforts of designers, aviators, ship and boat builders-turned aircraft manufacturers at Barrow-in-Furness and Windermere during 1908-1914 justify the area’s claim to be the birthplace of British naval and civil marine aviation.’ – Triplane to Typhoon by J H Longworth. 


Airship officers at Barrow, based at HMS Hermione a support ship which arrived during late September 1910, became interested in the seaplane experiments which were being carried out at Windermere. Concerned by the Admiralty’s apparent lack of interest, they formed the Hermione Flying Club, a ground trainer was bought from A. V. Roe and Commander Oliver Schwann (later Air Vice-Marshal Sir, KCB OBE) purchased an Avro D. The Avro D’s engine was only made to function after Herbert Stanley Adams, the pilot of Waterbird at Windermere, correctly re-assembled the rocker gear.


Captain Reginald Bacon (later Admiral Sir, KCB KCVO DSO), who had supervised the introduction of submarines built by Vickers, Sons & Maxim Ltd (‘Vickers’) into the Royal Navy, submitted a paper on 21 July 1908 to the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir John Fisher, proposing that Vickers be approached to construct a rigid airship of the Zeppelin-type. On 7 May 1909, the Admiralty signed a tender by Vickers for His Majesty’s Airship No. 1 (‘HMA No. 1’) which was the largest and most technically complex aircraft of its day. Unfortunately, on 24 September 1911 it was wrecked.

A Whirling Table was erected in 1910 to test full-size propellers for the airship under the conditions of flight. ‘The machine is, so far as we are aware, the only one of its kind that has ever been constructed.’ – Flight magazine, 16 July 1910.

Subsequent airships built at Barrow spanned from SS17 for the Admiralty which first flew in 1915 to an SSZ type for the Japanese Government in 1921.

AVRO D (Note HMA No. 1 in the background of this photo)

Captain Murray Sueter (later Rear Admiral Sir, CB), who was in command of work on HMA No. 1, gave permission for a small hangar to be constructed. Cavendish Dock was ideal for test-flying in that it enclosed a 142 acre area of shallow, tideless water, then being the largest single dock in the world.

Schwann acquired the Avro D for £700 in June 1911 at Brooklands. Following transportation by rail to Barrow, floats were lashed to the skids. The final Mark VII floats included a hydroplane step. On 18 November 1911, take-off was achieved to just clear of the surface of the water for 50 or 60 yards in skips, but, upon falling back, the floats were damaged and the port lower wing was smashed up. ‘Schwann’s lack of experience let him down and the subsequent crash cannot be considered the first water landing even though both pilot and aircraft survived.’ – The Royal Navy’s Air Service in the Great War by D Hobbs. He gained an Aviator’s Certificate (No. 203) on 16 April 1912.

Schwann requested Sydney Sippe to come to Barrow in order to prove the Avro D’s capability to fly from water. On 2 April 1912, Sippe (later Major, DSO OBE FRAeS) became the first pilot to fly from British seawater. Sippe is shown second from left on this photo, taken just prior to the mission for which he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. On 18 April, Schwann also succeeded, but his was the last flight at Barrow in the Avro D.


Patents applied for in 1911 were:-

  • 3,330: to alter wing inclination in flight and enable the angle of floats to move with that of wings
  • 3,331: anti-ice on wings by leading engine exhaust gases into hollow spaces inside wings so heating the frames and the air between
  • 3,333: to catapult an aeroplane from the deck of a ship using a trolley upon rails propelled by a falling weight – this was a system first adopted on land in September 1905 by the Wright brothers
  • 3,334: to enable an aeroplane to send wireless telegraphy by producing electric oscillations using the engine’s magneto and condenser, signalling to be effected by a key in the aerial
  • 11,102: by using inflatable bags near wing tips to be filled with air or engine exhaust gases and thus provide greater buoyancy, the framework being made watertight by waterproof material or thin sheets of duralumin
  • 12,005: an autopilot operated by way of a swinging weight through a servo-motor.

Details were written up by Sueter and published in the Royal Aircraft Factory Reports and Memoranda of December 1911. ‘The importance of Schwann’s work was not so much that he produced a workable floatplane, rather it was the fact that his experiments were officially recorded and acted as a catalyst for further, more scientific work.’ – A Memoir of Commander Oliver Schwann, RN by I M Burns, Cross & Cockade Journal.


Beardmore W.B.III designation S.B.3F (No. N6100) was the first production version of a modified Sopwith Pup, with folding wings and an undercarriage which folded into the fuselage so as to save space. It was stowed in a small hangar underneath the bridge. Trials took place at Barrow docks in 1917 from light cruiser HMS Cassandra which was built by Vickers. The flying-off deck comprised an arrangement of troughs fitted by Vickers over the forecastle forward of the gun, replaced in 1918 by a turntable deck.


3 Valentia prototype flying boats were ordered from Vickers in May 1918. The intention was to use Barrow for production but this did not occur, albeit in November 1918 work on the prototypes was transferred to Barrow from Cowes. 


HMA No. 1 was the first British airship to be built of duralumin. Barnes Wallis (later Sir, CBE RDI FRAeS FICE FIMechE FRS) worked on airship design at Barrow from 1913 until 1926. Between August 1918 and July 1919, Wallis worked on experiments to demonstrate the potential of duralumin for the structural members of aeroplane wings. In February 1919, 3 Vigilant flying boats were ordered from Vickers with the hull to be built of duralumin, but the order was cancelled. The ‘geodetic’ design devised by Wallis and made of duralumin, was first used on the R100 airship in 1930, and then for the Vickers Wellington bomber the prototype of which first flew at Brooklands in June 1936.  


In October 1928, Vickers fitted a hydraulic catapult to Submarine M2, built at Barrow and launched in 1918, which carried a Parnall Peto seaplane (No. N181).


Birthplace of British naval and civil marine aeroplanes