VICKERS: THE BEGINNINGS OF POWERED FLIGHT
Dartford played an important role in the early history of a mode of transport which has revolutionised the lives of people throughout the world. Powered flight has transformed our world into a 'global village'.
DARTFORD SALT MARSH
Following on from Hiram Maxim's experiments with flight, the Crayford based firm of Messrs Vickers Ltd decided, in 1910, to get more actively involved in the pioneering field of aviation. The company purchased land at Dartford Salt Marsh in 1911, with a view to constructing a rudimentary airfield suitable for the testing of prototype aeroplanes. The site they chose comprised a number of small fields, separated by drainage ditches. It was bounded on the west by the River Darent, and on the east by Joyce Green Lane which led to the embankment of the River Thames and Long Reach Tavern. No proper runway was constructed: instead, aeroplanes were expected to take off from grassy fields. Drainage ditches which constituted dangerous obstacles were boarded over, opening up a large expanse of grassland for take-off and landing.
FIRST TEST FLIGHTS
The first aircraft tested at this river-side airfield was a monoplane (single-winged plane) built under licence at Vicker's Erith works to a design by the French aviation pioneer Robert Esnault-Pelterie. Unlike most aircraft of this period, very little timber was used in its construction; timber was restricted to the skids, which formed part of the undercarriage, and the wings. This radical design feature proved unpopular with a number of potential customers, including the Admiralty. Vickers offered to supply one Pelterie-type monoplane, at a cost of £1,500, with a framework initially constructed of steel; they intended to substitute a much higher alloy, Duralumin, in subsequent versions. Admiralty chiefs were not impressed with this proposal, and did not place an order. However, Vickers failed to be disheartened and continued to construct aircraft using these 'advanced' methods.
The maiden flight of the No 1 Monoplane - as it was called - took place in July 1911 under the skilled control of Captain Herbert F Wood. Wood had been appointed Manager of the Aviation Department of Vickers in March 1911. His inaugural test flight was the first of many carried out from this Dartford airfield until 1919.
Experimental work was not devoid of danger. The first victim was claimed on 13 January 1913 when a Vickers No 6 Monoplane, which had been converted into a biplane, crashed into the River Thames. Both the pilot, Leslie McDonald, and his mechanic, Harry English, were killed. At the official inquest held at Dartford, the Coroner concluded that the accident had occurred as a result of a sudden loss of power to the engine.
Seven different types of monoplane were produced by Vickers before the
company decided to build its first biplane. This was known as the Experimental
Fighting Biplane 1, or EFB1 for short, exhibited at the Olympia Air Show
in February 1913. The appearance of this prototype attracted a great deal
of interest, particularly since it was the first purpose -built plane
to be armed with guns, and to fulfil a 'fighter' role. The plane earned
the nickname 'Destroyer'. It was designed as a 'pusher type ' aircraft:
the engine and propeller were positioned behind the pilot at the rear
of the aeroplane, thus pushing it forward. This configuration greatly
resolved the problem, later solved by the invention of an 'interruptor'
mechanism, of how to fire through the arc of the propeller without destroying
it! The EFB1 (eventually abbreviated to FB1) was the forerunner of the
well-known Vickers 'Gunbus'.
Among the many designs initiated by the Drawing Office at Vickers was one that became known as the 'Hydravion', based on the notion that an aeroplane should be able to take off from water as well as from land. Floats, made of the alloy known as Duralumin, were apparently made at the company's Dartford works and tested in the nearby River Darent. Archives retained at company headquarters imply that the Hydravion would be constructed at Dartford. In reality this would be difficult given that at that time the Dartford factory was only producing explosives and projectiles.
AIRCRAFT PRODUCTION IN WORLD WAR ONE
Experiments with variants of the Fighting Biplane continued apace. The last of these variants - the FB5 - eventually emerged as the Gunbus. With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the works at Crayford took over the production of Vickers aircraft. Two of the first batches of FB5s were sent to Joyce Green to be based at the Royal Flying Corps airfield, established close to the Thames at Long Reach. The Gunbus first saw action on Christmas Day 1914, when one of the planes took off from Joyce Green airfield to intercept and presumably destroy a German Taube monoplane. It is believed that the Gunbus successfully completed its mission. Experimental work continued during the war. Perfection of the basic Gunbus led to the emergence of the FB9, known as the 'Streamline Gunbus'.
In 1917 Vickers were approached to produce a twin-engined bomber. This was achieved by utilising designs produced in 1915 by Rex Pierson, who worked in the Drawing Office. The prototype aircraft FB27 flew at Joyce Green on 30th November 1917, piloted by Gordon Bell. Various types of engine were used to power the prototype before a decision was made in April 1918 to utilise the Rolls -Royce Eagle engine. The aeroplane went into production that month and was known as the Vickers Vimy. Ironically, it was never used operationally in the First World War.
On 14th/15th June 1919, in a Vickers Vimy, Captain Jack Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten-Brown made the world's first non-stop trans-oceanic flight, across the Atlantic. Ross and Keith Smith flew a Vimy all the way to Australia at the end of 1919, thus highlighting the possibility of organising scheduled flights to far-off lands.
COMMERCIAL AIRCRAFT PRODUCTION
Possibilities stemming from civilian flights had been considered by Vickers as early as January 1919. Consequently a civilian version of the Vimy was designed, with a larger capacity fuselage than the military version. The fuselage was oval in section. No less than ten passengers could be carried in the new 'Airliner'! The test crew objected to the idea of an enclosed cockpit which impaired their vision and deprived them of fresh air, so the 'Vimy Commercial' had the same kind of open cockpit as the military version. The plane first flew from Joyce Green at Dartford on 13th April 1919. It was designed to double as a freight carrier and once the seats were removed it was possible to carry 2,500 lbs of cargo.
The Vimy Commercial was the last plane to be test-flown at Joyce Green, because in 1919 Vickers transferred their aircraft operation to Weybridge in Surrey and the adjacent airfield at Brooklands. Joyce Green had been used for eight years to test aircraft built at Bexleyheath, Crayford, Dartford and Erith. In the early days, aircraft built in the various factories were dismantled, taken by road to Joyce Green, re-assembled and tested. By 1916, finished aeroplanes were flown from open land at Crayford to Joyce Green. The fields used by Vickers at Joyce Green still exist today but are now used for farming.