Early Air Pioneers

Until about four days ago I didn’t know that the first powered flight of an aircraft in the UK occurred on the Isle Of Sheppey. The island isn’t that far from here and so I went to have a look at a beach.

Upon some investigating it turns out that the first purpose-built aircraft factory was on Sheppey and built by the Shorts brothers. Then it turns out that they then build the first airfield nearby in 1909. This is amazing and I don’t know why I didn’t know this before this week.

I had previously known that Shorts used to make aircraft at Rochester and used the Medway there as the aerodrome. It is here that they made the Sunderland and other famous planes.

Eventually they moved production to Belfast and now the company is known as Bombardier. It would have been magnificent to see sea planes taking off and landing on the river Medway, such an age of exploration and adventure. This would have made Rochester such a target during the second world war as there was a Royal Navy shipyard and also an aircraft manufacturer there.

On Sheppey I drove to the old RAF Eastchurch site which is now three prisons built on Crown land. It was strange driving to the museum as there was lots of security along a public road. It felt like entering an RAF base. Two of the prisons there are high security and the walls were impressive. The third prison is an open prison and the museum is on the land of that prison with a cafe nearby run by inmates.

RAF Eastchurch
RAF Eastchurch

The key to the things I have marked in the above photo runs such:

  1. The museum
  2. The first aero hangar in the UK
  3. The RAF base water tower
  4. The original airfield control block
  5. The E-W runway
  6. The N-S runway

There are plenty of features there to see and the person running the museum was really friendly and told me loads about the history. It’s strange to me all these old air force bases that are now re-purposed. I guess I hanker for the old days of aircraft everywhere.

One of the buildings on the site still shows the scars of war with bomb damage on the brick wall:

Bomb Damage
Bomb Damage

The museum is based in one of the original base buildings and certainly contains lots of lovely information about the early days of aeronautical exploration in this country.

RAF Eastchurch Museum
RAF Eastchurch Museum

Inside the building was a photograph taken at Muswell Manor on the east coast of the island and one of the early headquarters of the Royal Aero Club. In that photograph the following people are pictured:

  • The Short Brothers
  • Frank McClean
  • Frank Hedges Butler
  • Warwick Wright
  • JTC Brabazon
  • Wilber Wright
  • Orville Wright
  • Charles Rolls

That is an amazing collection of rich people who had the money to start the aviation industry in this country and the world. The Wright brothers had come across the Atlantic with their flyer to try and create interest and also start manufacturing the product. This they managed and the Short brothers built the Flyer under licence. The rest is pretty much history as we know. I hadn’t even been aware that the Wright brothers had come over here!

Near Muswell Manor is a statue to the Short Brothers. It stands as a marker for the start of aviation in this country and the adventuring that started at Shellness.

Shorts Brothers
Shorts Brothers