Monday, 19 March 2012

Captain Patrick Hamilton of the Royal Flying Corps - A Tribute

Captain Hamilton in his two seater 60 h.p. Deperdussin Monoplane
 ready to fly to headquarters upon his appointment to the
Royal Flying Corps in April 1912

100 years ago on the 6th September 1912, a 100 h.p. Deperdussin Monoplane piloted by Captain Patrick Hamilton and Lieutenant Athole Wyness Stuart, both of the newly established Royal Flying Corps, took off from Wallingford on a reconnaissance exercise. Both men were killed when the French Deperdussin's Gnôme rotary engine suffered a catastrophic failure at an altitude of about 500 feet causing an unsurvivable crash near Willan in Hertfordshire, England.

Captain Patrick Hamilton of the Royal Flying Corps
3.6.1882 - 6.9.1912

Having served as an Infantry Officer with the Worcester Regiment in India, Captain Hamilton had returned to England on leave in Easter of 1911. He had only been home a few days when he announced his intention of taking up flying, considering that he had the required qualifications, "A good nerve, a light weight and a good turn for mechanics." 

After attending aviation schools at Hendon and Brooklands Captain Hamilton decided to join a Mr Dyatt flying in America, investing his modest capital on a plane of his own. Again he ably justified his actions by stating that "he could not get the [flying] experience any other way". His plane was a French made 30 h.p. single-seater Deperdussin Monoplane, being quickly named by his family "The Golden Eagle".

Captain Hamilton flying the single seater Deperdussin Monoplane,
"The Golden Eagle", 1911

Flying in America had it's challenges, with unprepared "airfields" requiring much preparation and even an instance where an unruly crowd threw stones because he would not take off due to high winds - which would have meant certain death. He wrote to his family that he had been more worried about stones hitting and damaging his plane than himself ! 

Video of a 1910 35 h.p.Deperdussin belonging to 
the Shuttleworth Collection in England.

The inherent dangers in early aviation finally proved their point in December 1911 :

" right wing got into a fearfully bad air pocket (a hole in the air), and dropped right down. I warped and did everything possible, but failed to right the machine, and she turned completely over in the air.... having turned upside down, myself still on board, and the engine running full tilt, she struck the ground on the nose of the machine at about an angle of 45 degrees. There was a fearsome crash and rending of wood, etc. The propellor was not even good for matchwood, the tops of the skids went like paper.... I watched the oil and petrol pouring out of the tank, and wondered if it was going to fire, but nothing happened... I crawled out and started looking over the wreck, and then began to realise I'd had about the most wonderful escape anyone could possibly have. The aircraft fell about a hundred feet.... I was not even shaken, and I cannot realise how I could have escaped."

"The Golden Eagle" upside down after falling 100 feet, Dec 1911

"The Golden Eagle" proved repairable, the mainframe and wings effectively only being wood, canvas and wire. Captain Hamilton praised the Deperdussin : "This plane has clearly demonstrated what a wonderfully safe one for the pilot it is in the event of a bad fall... I hope to never fly any other machine except a Deperdussin. They are absolutely marevllous."    

Flying had other hazards and Captain Hamilton mentions the difficulties of distinguishing landmarks "when looking down upon them from a great height" to get one's correct bearings and how such a difficulty could be overcome in time of war. Flying through rain proved "anything but soft and refreshing", the force of wind "being so great that his face felt almost pushed to one side", and the occasional bird "inadvertently killed by dashing themselves against the engine".  

"The Golden Eagle" - The Deperdussin Monoplane piloted by
Captain Hamilton, taken after being repaired, 1912

Returning to London at the end of February 1912 and with leave from his Batallion in India extended, he gained his formal "Brevet" Pilot's Certificate on the 16th March 1912. Meanwhile he arranged for strengthening of his latest 60 h.p. Deperdussin plane, including fitting sheets of aluminium instead of canvas and duplication of warping and wing support wires. His flying orders from the War Office arrived on the 23rd April 1912, confirming his appointment to the newly established [13 April 1912] Royal Flying Corps, without probation, and to take up his duties as soon as possible.

The two-seater 60 h.p. Deperdussin Monoplane in flight.

On a flight from Beaulieu to Farnborough he recounted flying through fog by compass, spotting the landmark St Catherine's Hill protruding through the mist, following the railway line to Basingstoke before picking up his bearings at Fleet, then finally feeling some "very bad air eddies" while coming in to land. 

Based at Larkhill on the Salisbury Plain, Captain Hamilton took his "Special Aviator's Certificate" in July 1912 which included reaching 1,500 feet, a glide of at least 500 feet with the engine cut off, and to land within 100 yards of the [required] mark. A cross-country test involved flying to Weymouth and back within five hours, a distance of 50 miles :

"The journey there took 45 minutes, a rate of 73 miles an hour.... and the journey back took exactly an hour and a quarter. There was a thick mist and heavy clouds the whole way. To within five or six miles of the coast it is easy to recognise Weymouth, but on the return journey I could see nothing but clouds and the occasional glimpse of the ground behind me. ... by the time I got to Larkhill it was nearly dark, and they were going to light the flares... I just managed to recognise Salisbury, so knew I was near home but jolly nearly got lost between Salisbury and Larkhill...."  

A 1910 35 h.p.Deperdussin Monoplane preserved in the
Shuttleworth Collection in England.
[Source :  Rob 68]

Gaining his "superior certificate" would, he felt, certainly make him a Flight Commander on a wage of about £450 a year. To this position he was in fact appointed. He continued to fly his own Deperdussin although the Royal Flying Corps also used the British built Avro two-seater and Bristol monoplane. 

He related to his family that he did not fear death, "He simply knew no fear for himself, but owned that he felt a little nervous when he carried a passenger". Three of his own brothers had in fact died in the [Second] Boer War, all of a like mind and not fearing death.

A French advert for 3 or 4 seat Deperdussin
Aeroplanes, 1911
[Source : Armand Deperdussin]

From his original 33 h.p. Deperdussin, he had progressed from flying 60 and 70 h.p. machines to the newly delivered French made 100 h.p. Gnôme engined Deperdussin. His biography records that "I think scientific men will realise something of the pluck and courage required to start off for the first time under orders in a machine, so little tried by him, of such terrific speed."  His own words describes his excitement at flying this new aeroplane : "She is a wonderful machine, climbs like a rocket."

A 100hp Deperdussin Monoplane, flown by  J. Vedrines in  1913
[Source : Armand Deperdussin]

Captain Hamilton as Pilot and Lieutenant Athole Wyness Stuart as Observer departed Wallingford at 6.10am in the Deperdussin with orders to make observations and land at Welwyn. Passing over Gravely at about 1,500 feet the machine was observed to rock violently, the wings collapsed, and it dived to the ground with the immediate death of both men upon impact.

"For the people of North Hertfordshire, flying machines were very much a cause of wonder and excitement; when one passed overhead, which was rarely, work stopped, housewives ran to their windows and small boys jumped on their bicycles to pedal off furiously in vain pursuit. Consequently, when Captain Hamilton brought his Deperdussin monoplane over Stevenage and began his descent over the villages towards Willian alighting ground, hundreds of eyes were upon him. There were many, therefore, who witnessed with horror the deaths of the two men."

The accident proved to have been entirely due to engine trouble, and that no amount of knowledge, experience or skill on the part of the pilot could have saved them : 

"A valve, being disconnected through the fracture of a valve-rod, was twisted round with the revolution of the engine, and probably tore out a piece of the engine which in turn smashed up the front diagonal strut. then the vertical strut became broken, and the wires which kept the wings in place, being liberated, flapped... loosely in the wind. The machine then fell like a stone."

A Newspaper Report, 7 Sept 1912
[Source : Frank.Cooke]

The funerals of both men took place with full military honours at St Saviour's Church in Hitchin. A hymn was specially composed for the men :

'Direct with thine all-seeing eye 
Watch each dread journey through the sky;
Through every storm and danger zone,
Bring each brave pilot safely home.'

Thence the coffins were carried on gun carriages in a procession to the Railway Station. Captain Hamilton's remains were interred in Hythe Churchyard in Kent and those of Lieutenant Athole Wyness Stuart at Wells in Someset.

"The Graveley air disaster brought home to the public with brutal suddenness the fact that the young men pioneering military aviation were engaged in an occupation that contained far more danger than glamour." 

The military funeral procession through Hitchin, Sept 1912
[Source : Frank.Cooke]

A small granite obelisk bearing the names of the pioneer aviators was erected about half a mile away from the crash site by the side of the road that runs between Willian and Great Wymondley. Captain Hamilton's mother laid a wreath of chrysanthemums upon it and his Flight Commander made a short speech after which the uniforms of the dead Officers were buried under the memorial stone obelisk. His Mother also received a letter of Sympathy from His Majesty King George V. 

The Memorial Stone, taken 20th Nov 1912
[Source : Frank.Cooke]

"Some people,' said Major Brooke Popham [at the service], 'may think a memorial stone a waste of money and that it would have been more profitable to give it to the hospital or some local charity. I beg to differ. We should be a poor nation without recollections of noble deeds and heroic deaths to inspire us. The careless child and the weary wayfarer will pass along this road, look at this stone, read this inscription and realise that they, too, have a duty to perform. They will know that patriotism is not an empty word and that Englishmen are still ready to lay down their lives in the service of their country." [Re-copied from Frank.Cooke - The Aviators]

Major Brooke Popham's [later Air Chief Marshall] words indeed proved prophetic as only two years later saw the start of World War One - which included the first use of aerial warfare. We pay tribute to all those pioneer aviators of the Royal Flying Corps.

Latest News 2012 : 

The Letchworth, Hitchin and District Branch of the Royal Air Forces Association [click here for link], in conjunction with Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation and the RAF No. 3 Squadron, are holding a service of dedication at the memorial site in September 2012 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the crash.

Please Note : The spelling of Lieutenant Athole Wyness Stuart's name differs from some other sources and was not hyphenated. This error dates back to at least 1913. His birth certificate for 28 Dec 1881 (which I have sighted) gives the correct spelling. 

Bibliography : 

- "Soldier and Aviator - A Tribute to the Memory of Capt. Patrick Hamilton of the Royal Flying Corps", published 1912 (from my own collection)
- Frank Cooke - The Aviators
- Royal Air Forces Letchworth, Hitchin & District Branch  
- Various Internet resources.
- Unless otherwise stated all images are from the above publication and are not copyrighted.

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