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John Moore-Brabazon- the first Englishman to pilot a heavier-than-air machine under power in England

Neil Patrick

Moore-Brabazon learned to fly in 1908 in France in a Voisin biplane. He became the first resident Englishman to make an officially recognized aeroplane flight in England on the 2nd of May 1909, at  Shellbeach on the Isle  of Sheppey with flights of 450 ft, 600 ft, and 1500 ft. On 4 May 1909, Moore-Brabazon was photographed outside the Royal Aero Club clubhouse Mussel Manor (now Muswell Manor Holiday Park) alongside the Wright Brothers, the Short Brothers, Charles Rolls, and many other early aviation pioneers. In 1909, he sold the Bird of Passage to Arthur Edward George, who learned to fly in it at the Royal Aero Club’s flying-ground at Shellbeach and bought a Short Brothers-built Wright biplane.

In 1909, he sold the Bird of Passage to Arthur Edward George, who learned to fly in it at the Royal Aero Club’s flying-ground at Shellbeach and bought a Short Brothers-built Wright biplane. A documentary, A Dream of Flight, was made in 2009 to celebrate the centenary of his achievement on the Isle of Sheppey.

John Moore-Brabazon in his Voisin Bird of Passage in 1909
John Moore-Brabazon in his Voisin Bird of Passage in 1909 Source

On the 30th of October 1909, flying the Short Biplane No. 2, he flew a circular mile and won a 1,000-pound prize offered by the Daily Mail newspaper.  Later on, something that originated as a joke that pigs can fly, Moore-Brabazon  put a small pig in a waste-paper basket tied to a wing strut on his aeroplane. This may have been the first live cargo flight by aeroplane.

With Charles Rolls, he would later make the first ascent in a spherical gas balloon, which had been made in England by the Short brothers.

On 8 March 1910, Moore-Brabazon became the first person to qualify as a pilot in the United Kingdom and was awarded Royal Aero Club Aviator’s Certificate number 1his car also bore the number-plate FLY 1. However, only four months later, his friend Charles Rolls was killed in a flying accident and Moore-Brabazon’s wife persuaded him to give up flying.

In 1934, Moore-Brabazon fitted a gyro-rig to a Bembridge Redwing, an Isle of Wight class of yacht that allows and encourages the development of different rigs. The area of the rotating blades complies with the sail area limits of the class and are painted red, also to comply with the class rules. The boat was, and remains, dangerous, but it was probably the first autogyro boat. The boat is currently in the collection of the Classic Boat Museum at East Cowes, Isle of Wight, and still ‘sails’.

With the outbreak of war, Moore-Brabazon returned to flying, joining the Royal Flying Corps. He received a special reserve commission as a second lieutenant (on probation) in the RFC on the 2nd of December 1914, in the appointment of flying officer (assistant equipment officer), and was confirmed in his rank on 11th of  February 1915. He was promoted to lieutenant on the 19th of February 1915 and was appointed an equipment officer on the 31st  March, with the temporary rank of captain.On the 1st of  September 1915, he was promoted to the substantive rank of captain, with a special temporary promotion to major on 18 May 1916.

He served on the Western Front where he played a key role in the development of aerial photography and reconnaissance. On the 1st April 1918, when the Royal Flying Corps merged with the Royal Naval Air Service to form the Royal Air Force, Moore-Brabazon was appointed as a staff officer (first class) and made a temporary lieutenant-colonel. He was promoted to the substantive rank of lieutenant-colonel in the RAF on 1st January 1919 in recognition of his wartime services, relinquishing his commission that year.

Moore-Brabazon finished the war with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. He was decorated with the Military Cross (MC) on the 1st of  January 1917 and was also twice mentioned in dispatches, on the 15th October 1915  and on the 13th November 1916. He was further decorated as a Knight of the Légion d’honneur in February 1916.

by Walter Stoneman, bromide print, 1944.Source
by Walter Stoneman, bromide print, 1944.Source

Moore-Brabazon later became a Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) for Chatham (1918–1929) and Wallasey (1931–1942) and served as a junior minister in the 1920’s. In 1931 and 1932 he served as a member of the London County Council. He was strongly opposed to war with Nazi Germany and in early 1939, when war seemed imminent, he made contact with Oswald Mosley in an attempt to co-ordinate activity against the war. 

Despite his earlier anti-war agitation, in Winston Churchill’s wartime government, he was appointed Minister of Transport in October 1940 and joined the Privy Council, becoming Minister of Aircraft Production in May 1941. As the Minister of Transport, he proposed the use of Airgraphs to reduce the weight and bulk of mail travelling between troops fighting in the Middle East and their families in the UK. He was forced to resign in 1942 for expressing the hope that Germany and the Soviet Union, then engaged in the Battle of Stalingrad, would destroy each other. Since the Soviet Union was fighting the war on the same side as Britain, the hope that it should be destroyed, though common in the Conservative Party, was unacceptable to the war effort.

Moore-Brabazon was elevated to the House of Lords as Baron Brabazon of Tara, of Sandwich in the County of Kent, in April 1942.In 1943, he chaired the Brabazon Committee which planned to develop the post-war British aircraft industry. He was involved in the production of the Bristol Brabazon, a giant airliner that first flew on the 4th of September 1949. It was then and still is the largest aeroplane built entirely in Britain.

A keen golfer, Moore-Brabazon was captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, the governing body of golf, from 1952 to 1953. According to the UK newspaper the Daily Mail, he was a member of the original Pools Panel, which for betting purposes assessed the likely outcome of postponed football matches.

Moore-Brabazon was president of the Royal Aero Club, president of the Royal Institution, chairman of the Air Registration Board, and president of the Middlesex County Automobile Club from 1946 until his death in 1964.

Neil Patrick

Neil Patrick is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News