Blair Atholl and John William Dunne

Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, yes, they went up tiddley up and down tiddley down in the Highlands of Perthshire.

It may be a surprise to learn that the War Office had to put out a statement in 1907 dismissing rumours that the Balloon Factory near Farnborough Common was being transferred to some remote spot in the vicinity of Dunkeld in the Highlands. The reason being that during tests of new military airships near London, it was found that the crowds were so great and the photographers so persistent that some quieter spot was imperatively necessary if secret revelations were not to be made. The tests on Saturday 5 October 1907 for the first official flight by a powered steerable semi-rigid airship, the British Army Dirigible No. 1, Nulli Secundus (‘second to none’).

Nulli Secundus flew from Farnborough to Crystal Palace in London piloted by Samuel Franklin Cody with Colonel J. E. Capper, Royal Engineers Superintendent on board. It circled St. Paul’s Cathedral at a height of 750 feet but when the crew tried to return to Farnborough, unfavourable winds forced them to moor the ship on the running track at Crystal Palace. Journalists talked of the spectacular journey mastering the elements, the “conquest of the air” and the change to Great Britain’s strategic military position by this achievement.

A small working party of Royal Engineers from the Army Balloon Factory was therefore sent north it was reported to carry out certain work in connection with the fitting of machinery to a new airship. But it was not to Dunkeld, the out-of-the-way spot was in fact on the Duke of Atholl’s estate at Blair Atholl. Here the aircraft was assembled and camouflaged from inquisitive eyes by having white stripes and dark patches painted on the upper surfaces. These top-secret tests were hoped would lead to the first engine powered British military aeroplane.

The delicate aircraft was put in a railway carriage at Farnborough in July 1907 and transported up to Blair Atholl and then carted from the station up to Glen Tilt, just north of the village. Starting with the glider, Dunne D.1-A, the configuration was tested at Glen Tilt and achieved some success but was heavily damaged on landing, hitting a wall.

Repaired and brought closer to Blair Atholl, power was added to it with two 12hp Buchet engines. The now modified John William Dunne designed aircraft; the D.1-B, first flew for one successful 8-second flight on 29 September 1907. It was damaged again on landing. This was not an uncommon event in the early days of flying.

Certain parts of the aeroplane were sent the next day by train to Farnborough for minor alterations and repairs. They were packed at daybreak and loaded onto two railways wagons ready to be attached to the afternoon express from Inverness.

These experiments had validated the stability Dunne considered so indispensable to flight. Dunne had concentrated his efforts on tailless designs, and he produced some inherently stable aircraft, capable of flying steadily, even with the controls locked on a straight course, all by itself.

In 1905, Dunne had been appointed to the Army Balloon Factory at South Farnborough, England, then under the competent leadership of Colonel John Edward Capper. Capper was the pilot of the Dunne aircraft and was slightly injured in the glider flight. Capper along with Samuel Franklin Cody, had just piloted the first successful British airship flight, that of the British Army Dirigible No 1, Nulli Secundus (Latin: “Second to none”) over London in 1907.

The Marquis of Tullibardine (heir to the Duke of Atholl) told the press in an interview that everything pointed to success. “Even if people like myself, who are sceptical concerning the utility of these things as fighting machines, have been convinced. Personally, and in common with many other soldiers, I would rather they were unnecessary, but while other nations are at work on them it would be poor tactics for Great Britain to lag behind. Lieutenant Dunne wishes his inventions to be at the disposal of the British Government, he is actuated purely by patriotic motives. I have ascertained that the model tested in the valley of the Tilt will glide, drive, or hover, and that stability in a marvellous degree has been attained.”

The Marquis also spoke of the loyalty of his retainers, “the gillies have been without sleep night after night and have questioned everyone who lingered on the road. They are trained men, and even the shepherds can signal by semaphore.” The popular recounting of Dunne’s flying episode asserts that such great clandestineness was observed that “the [Duke’s] tenants were enrolled as a sort of bodyguard to prevent unauthorized persons from entering”.

John William Dunne was born at the Curragh Camp in County Kildare, Ireland, on 2 December 1875. He became a soldier at the outbreak of the Second Boer War. Dunne volunteered for the Imperial Yeomanry as an ordinary Trooper and fought in South Africa. In 1900 he was caught up in an epidemic of typhoid fever and was invalided home. He recovered and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Wiltshire’s. He went back to South Africa in March 1902, and he again fell ill, diagnosed with heart disease. He was invalided home.

It was then that Dunne instigated his study of the science of aerodynamics and flight in earnest, commencing with observations of avian flight and the Alsomitra macrocarpa, the seed of the Javan cucumber, also known as the Zanonia. A Zanonia seed is swept-winged and displays an inherent stability when dispersed by the wind. He became convinced that a safe aeroplane needed to have inherent aerodynamic stability.

John William Dunne was not only a pioneering aeronautical engineer, but he was also a philosopher and the author of, An Experiment with Time in 1927. A treatise on precognition, consciousness, and the concept of time. He also wrote The New Immortality (Serialism), another philosophy work on the theory of time, dreams, and telepathy. Dunne argued that past, present, and future were in fact simultaneous and only experienced sequentially because of our mental perception of them. Dunne also published a book on dry-fly fishing: Sunshine and the Dry Fly in 1924, discussing a new method of making realistic artificial flies.

Dunne growing up was inspired by a Jules Verne story at the age of 13, he envisaged a machine that could fly by itself, one that did not require steering, which would right itself irrespective of wind or weather. Fortified by the encouragement of a family friend, the writer of science fiction H. G. Wells, Dunne designed and built several prototypes based on a ‘tailless’ design. At that time when Dunne first took up the study of aviation, no one had yet flown in Europe, and he could therefore receive little benefit from the results achieved by other pilots and constructors.

The flight at Blair Atholl was only five years, almost to the day, since the Wright Brothers’ epic flight travelled almost the same distance at Kill Devil Hills, Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. In 1913 Dunne had his aircraft shown to Orville Wright after flying across the English Channel. In Perthshire, Preston Watson had also been attempting to get off the ground with his designs, since the summer of 1903 at Erroll, and later in 1909 at Forgandenny. Under the Wallace Monument at Stirling, Frank and Harold Barnwell were experimenting at Causeway Head. They managed to achieve a flight of just 80 yards on 28 July 1909, this was regarded as the first successful powered flight in Scotland. S. F. Cody’s flight of 16 October 1908 is recognised as the first official flight of a piloted heavier-than-air machine in Great Britain. In France, Santos Dumont, the Brazilian aviation innovator, had been astonishing the world in 1906 with his flying feats at the Château de Bagatelle near Paris and on 25 July 1909, Louis Charles Joseph Blériot crossed the English Channel, landing at Northfall Meadow, close to Dover Castle.

In the spring of 1909, the War Office’s support for Dunne’s airplane development was withdrawn. Dunne left the Balloon Factory, taking the D.4 with him. He continued his work under the aegis of the Blair Atholl Aeroplane Syndicate Ltd., formed in 1910 by the Marquis of Tullibardine.

In 1910 the Dunne designed aircraft D.5, built by Short Brothers, was demonstrated on a flying field at Eastchurch, Isle of Sheppey. The same airfield that five years later, 30 June 1915, Preston Watson took off from on his final flight. He crashed and died 20 miles from his destination at Eastbourne. Charles Richard Fairey became the General Manager of the Blair Atholl Syndicate at Eastchurch, working with Dunne on his tailless aircraft. A Fairey Gannet, carrier-bourne aircraft sat outside at Erroll airfield for many years. The Gannet featured a tricycle undercarriage, a feature pioneered by John William Dunne and others in that pioneer era of aviation.

Dunne vision of tailless aircraft design was finally realised with the construction of ‘flying wings’, such as the 1920s’ Westland Pterodactyl, which Dunne helped design, the 1929 Waldo Waterman Whatsit, the 1940s’ Northrup Flying Wing, and the modern stealth aircraft like the Northrop Grumman B-2. This aviation legend also pioneered many other aircraft features which were not destined to reappear for many years.

John William Dunne FRAeS (1875–1949) died at Banbury in England on 24 August 1949, aged 74.

Extra notes:

Dunne returned to the Balloon Factory from Blair Atholl in 1908 during the time of a government inquiry into military aeronautics. As a result of its findings the War Office stopped all work on powered aircraft and in the spring of 1909, Dunne left the Balloon Factory. The Duke of Atholl set up the Blair Atholl syndicate to support J. W. Dunne’s activities in building tailless aeroplanes. In 1911, The Duke of Atholl was the Chairman, Dunne became Chief Engineer and Charles Richard Fairey (Fairey Aviation) became General Manager of the syndicate, registered in London and operating from Eastchurch, Isle of Sheppey. In 1914 the great engineering company Armstrong Whitworth decided to move into aeronautics and bought the struggling syndicate’s assets.

Preston Watson from Dundee who experimented with flying machines in the summer of 1903, was killed when the aircraft he was flying from Eastchurch to Eastbourne crashed on 30 June 1915. A Fairey Gannet T.5, XG882 sat outside one of the hangers at Errol airfield for many years. XG882 served at RNAS Culrose, HMS SeaHawk (Heston Cornwall) and RNAS Lossiemouth. It was retired in 1976 but returned to service in 1982 using parts from other aircraft, before being finally retired to Errol.

Samuel Franklin Cody’s real name was Samuel Cowdery. he was born 6 March 1867 at Birdville, Texas. He took adopted in 1899 the name of Cody in honour of his hero, Buffalo Bill Cody, and dressed in a similar cowboy fashion, Stetson hat, buckskins, and cowboy boots. He even grew a similar beard and moustache and had shoulder length hair. Cody was a popular hero in the US and Britain, first as a vaudeville entertainer then as a pioneer aviator and inventor. Cody took his own wild west show to France in 1892.

Cody was killed on 7 August 1913 when his new aircraft Cathedral VI that he was testing came apart near Farnborough. Cody was buried with full military honours in the Aldershot Military Cemetery, the first civilian and only cowboy to lie alongside the greatest British heroes. Cody was much admired by the British public and his mile long cortege of his funeral procession, escorted by Black Watch pipers attracted a crowd of over 100,000 with 50,000 attending the funeral. Cody’s son who is commemorated on a plaque beside his grave, fell in action flying during WW1 in1917 whilst fighting four enemy machines. He is buried at Perth Cemetery (China Wall) in Ypres, West Flanders, Belgium. In 1902 Cody’s wife, Lela (Leila) Marie, became the first woman to fly, using his ‘Man-lifting War Kite’

Cody’s first appearances in Scotland were on 5-13 August 1910 at Springbank Farm Aviation Ground, the Lanark Scottish International Aviation Meeting. Twenty-two competitors took part in competition around a circuit of 1¾ miles. Over 250,000 people came to Lanark to observe the spectacle. A railway terminus was constructed for the event at the racecourse. Fourteen special trains a day helped move around 50,000 people a day who were attending. First Class passengers were unsurprisingly given preference. Some £8,060 was awarded in prizes to the competitors – a value today of about £900,000. Cody, it appears, did not take part in the competition, preferring to remain on terra firma. His huge 1¼-ton biplane was severely underpowered. Cody explicated that he wanted to get used to the single engine before fitting a twin-engine configuration. Cody’s ‘Flying Cathedral’ having failed to take off at Lanark received a new name, ‘The Hedge Trimmer’

During the event, when fire broke out in an adjoining hangar, Cody bravely rushed in with a fire extinguisher, just in time to prevent any serious damage and save the day. (Hangars in those days were known as garages.) It was after Lanark that the British military establishment put in an order for 60 planes that went on to form the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), which in 1918 became the Royal Air Force (RAF).

Experimental Aircraft Designed by John William Dunne:

D.1-A Glider. Built in 1907 – limited success in a single flight.

D.1-B Powered Airplane (modified D.1-A). Built in 1907 – crashed during its first flight.

D.2 Training Glider. Designed in 1907 – never constructed.

Dunne-Huntington. Gas Powered Triplane.

Designed in 1907/8 – flown successfully in 1911.

D.3 Person-carrying Glider. Flown successfully in 1908.

D.4 Powered Airplane. Flown in 1908 – partially successful

(in Dunne’s words, “more a hopper than a flyer”).

D.5 Powered tailless biplane. Flown successfully in 1910.

D.6 Monoplane. Built in 1911 – never flown.

D.7 Monoplane. Built in 1911 – flown successfully.

D.8 Biplane. Several built and flown in 1912-13.

D.9 Sesquiplane. Begun in 1913 – never fully constructed.

D.10 Biplane. Built in 1913 – a complete failure.

John William Dunne, D.5, Eastchurch 14 June 1910

Dunne  D.1-A/ D.1-B, 1907 Glen Tilt
Dunne D.5, published in Flight magazine June 1910