Oban to see 70 year old floatplane fly 100 year old 1,450 mile challenge route to commemorate epic first attempt

Sopwith Circuit of Britain floatplane 1913

At 10.30 on Wednesday 21st August 1913, A Sopwith floatplane [above] built for the challenge lifted off from Southampton Water – as the only entrant to make it to the start of the Daily Mail sponsored Circuit of Britain Air Race.

There had been four entrants but one pilot was killed while testing the plane built to compete; a second plane was damaged during its trials; and the third was hit with mechanical problems which stopped it taking off within the 72 hour window allowed in the terms of the race.

So the Sopwith biplane, piloted by 24 year old Australian Harry Hawker, Sopwith’s Chief Test Pilot, with mechanic Harry Kauper aboard, was less in a race than taking on a unique challenge to be the first to fly around Britain in a floatplane.

The 1913 route started and finished at Southampton Water.

There were nine control points on the circuit. In order, these were:

  • the Royal Temple Yacht Club in Ramsgate
  • the Naval Air Station in Yarmouth
  • the Grand Hotel in Scarborough
  • Berwick on Tweed
  • the Palace Hotel in Aberdeen
  • the Naval Air Station in Cromarty
  • the Great Western Hotel in Oban
  • the Royal St George Yacht Club in Kingstown, Dublin
  • the Royal Cornwall Yacht Club in Falmouth.

Hawker had only been in Britain since May 1911, coming here specifically to get involved in the fast developing world of aviation. In just over a year, June 1912, he had moved into his fourth job in the sector – as a mechanic right at the start-up of the famed Sopwith Aviation Company at Kingston upon Thames.

Its founder was Thomas Sopwith, then 24, only a year older than Hawker. Aviation was a young man’s world – as the air conflict during World War I, not far away, was to demonstrate.

Hawker successfully pestered Sopwith to teach him to fly[at Brooklands] – and made his first solo flight after only three lessons. By September he had his pilots licence and a month later, on 24th October, witih an 8 hour 23 minute flight, he won the Michelin Trophy for flight endurance. He was obviously a natural – and went on to become Sopwith’s Chief Test Pilot, testing planes for duty in the skies in World War I.

The first Hawker/Kauper flight in the Circuit was aborted at Yarmouth where, after landing, Hawker collapsed. The reason is not known but is suspected to have been carbon monoxide poisoning because the exhaust pipe was lengthened before the second attempt, back in Southampton on 25th August.

On Day 1, the Sopwith got to Beadnell, just short of the control point at Berwick on Tweed and after an unscheduled stop at Seaham in County Durham for repairs and to top up radiator water. The stop for the night at Beadnell was made necessary by a burnt out radiator hose. Both of these incidents conjure shades of earlier motoring where radiators were a pain. We don’t think of them at all today.

On Day 2, they got to Oban by 18.00, after stopping at Montrose, Aberdeen and Cromarty.

On Day 3, they took off from Oban Bay at 05.42, making an unscheduled stop at Keills with engine problems, [we cannot confirm where 'Keills' was, but the coast of the Sound of Islay might be a possibility], reaching Larne on the east coast of Northern Ireland by 09.30 and taking off again for Dublin at 11.00.

Shortly before the Dublin Control Point, Hawker decided to make a quick landing to adjust the engine valves. Like many driver’s before and after him, his foot slipped on the rudder bar and the Sopwith went side-on into the water.

Having covered over 1,000 miles, two thirds of the length of the course, the plane was too damaged to have any hope of carrying on [and the impact had broken Kauper's arm].

In spite of having to abandon the attempt, what Hawker and Kauper had achieved was impressive. They were respectively awarded Royal Aeronautical Society Silver and Bronze medals, with hawker also given £1,000 in prize money.

The 2013 commemoration


On Wednesday 21st August, a 70 year old Catalina flying boat, G-PBYA [seen above at the Sunderland International Airshow in 2007], the oldest seaplane still flying, will take off from the Imperial War Museum at Duxford in Cambridgeshire, to try to fly the full 1913 challenge route for the Circuit of Britain – marking the centenary of Harry Hawker’s flight.

The Catalina will be piloted by another Australian-born [Brisbane] aviator, Jeff Boyling, a UK resident for nearly 30 years and with 15 years flying experience. The game plan is to complete the original route in the five days allotted.

Boyling is routing his flight over Kingston, where the Sopwith Factory was based; Hook in Chessington, where Harry Hawker is buried; and Brooklands Aerodrome [now Brooklands Museum], where Hawker learned to fly and where he tested Sopwiths designed for duty in the first World War.

The Catalinas and a maritime link to World War II

Catalinas were one of the most widely used World War II seaplanes.

In fact, a Catalina of RAF Coastal Command, with a US Navy pilot and flying out of Castle Archdale on Lough Erne in Northern Ireland, spotted the fabled German battleship Bismarck, 790 miles northwest of Bismarck was trying not to be found by the group of British warships hunting for her – on Winston Churchill’s famous instruction, ‘Sink the Bismarck.

This hunt to the death ws triggered by the fact that Bismarck had recently sunk the pride of the Royal Navy, the elderly but renowned British battlecruiser, HMS Hood – in under 10 minutes.

The Catalina’s spotting sealed the Bismarck’s fate, at the guns of the British battleships, King George V and Rodney, the heavy cruisers Dorsetshire and Norfolk and the cruiser, Sheffield, on 27th May 1941.

Boyling is taking on the flight to raise funds for the Imperial War MUseum – and you can donate here to this doubly worthy cause.

The reverberations from this event will be complex. It will commemorate the point in aviation history marked by Hawker’s achievement in the 1913 Circuit of Britain – wiht his attempt brought to a stop the day after his Sopwitwh landed in Oban Bay.

Then, because Boyling is flying the 2013 centenary attenpt in a Catalina, the event will also echo to the memory of the Catalina in its World War II heyday, flying from Lough Erne, spotting the  Bismarck and triggering the chase that led to the end of one of the most reverberant naval battles.

Argyll, Oban and an experience not to be missed

As an area with a maritime history of renown itself, Argyll is a fitting place for this double historic connection to be made.

Be in Oban on Friday 23rd August. You can see Boyling’s Catalina on display off Oban Airport between 12.30 and 17.30. This will be a once in a lifetime experience.

Today’s technology also gives you the chance to track the Catalina’s progress on the Imperial War Museum Duxford’s facebook page and also get further information via its twitter feed here.

The top photograph of Hawker’s Sopwith floatplane built for the 1913 Circuit of Britain is in the public domain. The photograph above of Catalina G-PBYA preparing to land on the water at the Sunderland International Airshow in 200u is reproduced under the Creative Commons licence.

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14 Responses to Oban to see 70 year old floatplane fly 100 year old 1,450 mile challenge route to commemorate epic first attempt

  1. There is a wartime film, ‘Coastal Command’, which is loosely based on the sinking of the Bismark. The airfield supposedly on Iceland is actually Glenegedale on Islay. The highlight of the film is a Sunderland flying boat flying over the round church in Bowmore and then down over the line of the main sgtreet.

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  2. Many years ago I had a customer who claimed a part in the sinking of the Bismark .She operated the cinema near to the coastal command base. She was asked one afternoon to put a message on the screen to ask the pilots in the audience to return to there base. If she had delayed this duty the aircraft might have missed the ship hence her claim

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  3. I’m surprised no mention was made of the Catalina’s even closer link to Argyll in that they were based in Oban (along with Sunderlands) during WW2.


    P J Macguire

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  4. Further to my earlier comment, the Catalinas which shadowed the Bismarck actually operated from Oban, not Northern Ireland. Yes, it was Kerrera (Ardentrive Bay) but the base was known as RAF Oban. There were also facilities (A large hangar, slipways and Nissen huts at Ganavan Bay. I can do no better than refer you to an excellent book, “The Hebrides at War” by Mike Hughes. (ISBN 1 84158 143 7 ) which will tell you all you might want to know! My own cousin, Bert McCue, was an air gunner on 210 Squadron, flying Catalinas from Oban. A Catalina from Oban crashed on the island of Vatersay, Story here:


    Pat Macguire

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    • This is hugely interesting. Thank you.
      So what do we do to get the record put right that it was an Oban Catalina that spotted the Bismarck and not one from Castle Archdale?
      And Amazon’s ‘one click’ has Mike Hughes’ The Hebrides at War on the way.

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