New Forest Aviation School

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The early years of the 20th century were pioneering years in the field of aviation. In December 1903 Orville and Wilbur Wright made what is regarded as the first powered flight in an aircraft completing a distance of 852 feet and it was not long before Bleriot completed his record breaking flight across the English Channel in 1909.

William McCardle

William McCardle

These ground breaking new inventions attracted much attention and large crowds. However, the glamorous exploits of these early aviators must have seemed a million miles away from the sleepy settlement of East Boldre in the south east corner of the New Forest but things would shortly change and bring much attention to this tranquil rural area on the border of the Beaulieu Estate. There were two men responsible for this – William E. McArdle (1885-1935) and J. Armstrong Drexel (1891-1958).

J Armstrong Drexel

J Armstrong Drexel

McArdle had established a very early automobile business in Bournemouth which quickly grew to become one of the largest garages in the south of England. It was based in Holdenhurst Road and traded as Motor Mac’s Ltd. Drexel was a millionaire American playboy whose grandfather was Anthony Joseph Drexel, banker and founder Drexel, Morgan & Co (later to become J.P. Morgan & Co., one of the world’s largest banks).

Both men took a keen interest in aviation, no doubt fired by the exploits of Bleriot and the Wright Brothers and they met in France while attending a Flying School. In the early years of aviation, Britain lagged behind its continental neighbours in this embryonic new form of transport and McArdle obtained his Aviators Certificate (Certificate No.72) in April 1910 from the flying school in Pau in the south of France (France were the first country to award certificates in 1909). The school in Pau was run by Louis Bleriot who held Certificate No.1 and it was whilst at Pau that McArdle met Drexel. However, as a result of engine problems with his aircraft, Drexel failed to obtain his certificate in France and subsequently obtained it back in Britain in June 1910 under the auspices of the Royal Aero Club (Certificate No.14). In the same year he was awarded Certificate No.8 by the USA under their registration system – Orville and Wilbur Wright held certificates nos. 4 and 5.

Motor Mac's Garage, Bournemouth

Motor Mac’s Garage, Bournemouth

The main criteria for obtaining an aviator’s certificate at that time was undertaking three separate flights, each of three miles around a circular course without coming to the ground. These flights did not necessarily have to be made on the same day. On the completion of each flight the engine had to be stopped in the air, and a landing effected within 150 yards of a given spot previously designated by the candidate to the official observers.

Both McArdle and Drexel were in the vanguard of aviation history and regarded as pioneers as the above postcards of the time show. Indeed, a few years later in 1920, the Royal Aero Club held a prestigious dinner in London to commemorate “The First 100 British Aviators” for which both McArdle and Drexel received invitations. The guest of honour was HRH Duke of York (later King George VI) who, during his speech paid tribute to “the intrepid heroism of the early pilots who, in primitive machines, tended by the then unskilled mechanics with no past experience to guide them, sowed the ground for the great harvest of progress”.

Once back in Britain on their return from France the two men decided to set up their own flying school on Bagshot Moor, East Boldre in May 1910 – only the second such school in Britain at the time and the fifth in the world. It is thought that it was largely financed by Drexel whose family were one of the wealthiest in the USA (and the world).

The the pair were assisted in their plans by John Douglas-Scott-Montagu, 2nd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu. Although he had no active role in the school, he would no doubt have known McArdle through their automobile interests and East Boldre adjoined his large New Forest estate. He was a key figure in the Royal Automobile Club and was involved with Brooklands and Rolls-Royce. Indeed, his own Silver Ghost was the first to sport the Rolls-Royce mascot, the Spirit of Ecstasy, for which his mistress, Eleanor Thornton, is reputed to have been the model. He was a Conservative MP (1892-1905), and moved into the House of Lords when he inherited his title on the death of his father. Montagu’s other main transportation passion was aeroplanes. As early as November 1906, he offered a prize of £1000 to the first aviator to fly from London to Manchester in addition to his friend, Lord Northcliffe’s £10000 prize – Northcliffe was a newspaper and publishing magnate and founder of the Daily Mail.

East Boldre Aviation School

McArdle and Drexel rented three large shed type buildings adjacent to the area of heath that would serve as their grass runway. However, the use of part of the Crown Land of the New Forest as their runway required the permission of the Office of Woods (predecessor of the Forestry Commission) and this was refused. Despite this McArdle and Drexel encouraged locals to clear vegetation from the area they intended to use and on Sunday 1 May 1910 the first flights took place.The locals must have wondered in amazement as first Drexel completed a few circuits at low level in his Bleriot monoplane and then McArdle managed to sore to heights of 150 feet. These inaugural flights from East Boldre became the talk of the local area and the flying school began advertising its services despite the lack of any consent from the Office of Woods who doubtless had no precedent to deal with such a situation.

By late June of that year, in his Bleriot machine, Drexel succeeded in beating the British altitude record, taking it to 1,070 feet in the skies above East Boldre but only two days later this was bettered by Cecil Grace at Eastchurch on the Isle of Sheppey. Nevertheless, East Boldre was now firmly established in the annals of aviation history.

Im19100104Aero-McArdle

McArdle and Drexel then set off on a round of eight air competitions in four countries to demonstrate their skill and advertise their new flying school. The first of these took place in nearby Bournemouth to celebrate the founding of the town a hundred years earlier in 1810. The event was attended by most leading aviators of the day and took place from July 10th to 16th. Flight Magazine at the time reported that on Sunday before the event officially started some 2000 spectators were “rewarded for their exertions by many an interesting sight, with one very fine one in particular, Mr. McArdle arriving with his luggage on Mr. Armstrong Drexel’s Bleriot monoplane. The luggage may not have represented a great part of the load, but it was there, and in any case the flight from the flying school in the New Forest round the Needles was a splendid effort in itself“.

It was during this Bournemouth event on 12 July that Charles Rolls (co-founder of Rolls Royce), at the age of 32, was killed when the tail of his Wright Flyer broke off during a flying display. He was the first Briton to be killed in an aeronautical accident with a powered aircraft and it highlighted the dangers that these early pioneers faced whenever they took to the air in their fragile machines.

The Bournemouth event took place over six days with Drexel taking second in General Merit plus various other results which earned him £1150 in prize money for the week. However, one of the features of the last day’s flying was a fine performance by McArdle in Drexel’s Bleriot monoplane when it was reported that he ascended to a great altitude and made a safe descent and landing. A report at the time concluded that “he impressed with his ability and calm confidence and, moreover, he has a manner of referring to matters relating to flight in a way that suggests he will make an admirable master of the art that it is his object to teach”. Whilst McArdle had flown the machine to Bournemouth from the flying school, Drexel had been the entrant of the machine for the week’s competition.

Unfortunately, McArdle was not as successful on his return flight back to East Boldre after the Bournemouth event. With gusting wind and misty conditions, Drexel set off first for the 25 mile flight in his newly acquired twin seater Bleriot accompanied by Harry Delacombe (Manager of the New Forest Aviation School) and McArdle took off minutes later. Whilst Drexel arrived safely, McArdle missed his landmarks. After circling the New Forest several times and running out of fuel he had no option but land on some open ground damaging his aircraft, having covered 70 miles. A group of people soon appeared and when he asked where he was, one of the locals replied “thee be about a mile from Fordingbridge” – just over 20 miles by road from his intended destination!

News of these intrepid aviators’ flights back from Bournemouth obviously travelled fast as a three page account appeared in the 30 July 1910 edition of Flight Magazine.

Drexel leaving Bournemouth

During the subsequent “Scottish International Aviation Meeting” at Lanark on 12th August 1910, Drexel suffered a similar fate when he set a world altitude record of 6,750 feet flying a Bleriot monoplane fitted with a 7 cylinder 50 hp Gnome engine. This altitude was confirmed by the carefully tested barograph carried in Drexel’s monoplane. He was forced to land at Cobbinshaw some distance from Lanark when he lost his bearings in fast failing light as he descended from the clouds (pictured below). According to a newspaper report of the time, “Drexel borrowed a bicycle and rode to the nearest station, where he wired to the course asking for mechanics to be sent to bring in the machine, which stood in the long grass locking for all the world like a dead bird.”

At about 1.30am the following morning Drexel arrived back at the course, having been picked up by his partner, McArdle, none the worse for his adventure in the clouds. Later that morning it was McArdle’s turn for an adrenalin rush. The morning was bright but the wind was gusty. By midday five machines came out for the starting competition. As the wind was westerly, the ascents were made towards the hangars. As McArdle was on the point of alighting a gust caught the machine and, for a moment it seemed as if he would have to lift the monoplane right over the hangars. In counteracting the lift of the wind, however, McArdle brought the machine down on its head right at the entrance to the building.

Drexel's airplane at Cobbinshaw awaiting recovery

Drexel’s airplane at Cobbinshaw awaiting recovery

During the Lanark event it was reported that McArdle did some very fine cross country flights but there was a noticeable contrast between his mode of handling the Bleriot monoplane and that of Drexel. Apparently McArdle was the “jerkiest” flyer among those competing at Lanark and when he rose in the air it was as though he were hopping upstairs rather than rising smoothly! Whilst there was no doubt that he was a fine flyer, it was considered that he would run considerably less risk if he exercised a little more finesse in his methods. As for Drexel, he is said to have given some of the finest exhibitions of riding the wind at times when others would not go out on account of the force of it. Certainly, throughout the course of their flying careers, it appears that Drexel proved to be the more competent pilot in various competitions.

In between events, the pair could be found back at their flying school and by September their fleet of aircraft had increased to ten and their first pupils had arrived, including several nationalities and military personnel. Drexel made full use of his new twin seater Bleriot with their pupils giving them instruction in take off, control in the air and landing. During that month, he also took up twenty people for demonstrations, exclusive of pupils, and amongst them was Mrs. McArdle, who had a long trip, ascending to over 600 feet and was “delighted with her experience”. The school was a source of great curiosity in those early days of aviation and quite a large crowd of spectators, turned up from all parts of the countryside regularly every evening to watch anything that took place. Lord Montagu was a regular visitor and HSH Princess Louis of Battenberg motored to the airfield on three successive days to witness the aerial exploits of these early pilots.

Their last events the two aviators undertook that year involved a voyage across the Atlantic to compete in New York and Philadelphia during November. Drexel was a member of the three man USA team and McArdle was first reserve for the British team. By the time they arrived back at East Boldre later that month, permission had eventually been granted by the Office of Woods  for the take off and landing strips after lobbying by Lord Montagu and Harry Delacombe (Flying School Manager). The fact that Delacombe also knew Sir Stafford Howard, Senior Commissioner of HM’s Woods and Forests, also doubtless helped their cause!

For the remainder of 1910 and most of 1911 they dedicated their time in training would be aviators, including Army officers, in a variety of aircraft they had assembled. Meanwhile, developments in aviation were moving at a rapid pace which helped foster a proliferation of flying schools and by January 1912 demand for the facilities at East Boldre was in decline. Against this background, Drexel and McArdle closed the school and sold off the aircraft. Whilst the flying school only lasted a relatively short time, it firmly established the New Forest’s role in aviation history.

The map below shows the location and layout of the flying school’s grass airstrips


View East Boldre Flying School 1910 – 1912 in a larger map

After closure of the flying school, McArdle remained in the Bournemouth area where he continued to be involved in flying activities and by 1916 he was Official Observer at the newly formed Bournemouth Flying School. He died in Bournemouth in February 1935, aged 60. During World War I, Drexel flew with the Lafayette Flying Corps, a Fighter Squadron formed as a volunteer American air unit fighting for France. He subsequently became a commissioned Major in the Aviation Section of the United States Signal Corps, serving until the end of the war in 1918 with the United States Army Air Service. He died in 1958, aged 67, having survived many of the early pioneer aviators, a significant number of whom were killed in aviation accidents during those precarious early pioneering years.

THE BEAULIEU LETTERS

As a postscript to the above story, sometime between 1910 and 1916, the word ‘BEAULIEU’ was carved into the heath at East Boldre and filled with chalk. The letters are 4.5 metres (15 feet) high and the whole word spreads over 33.5 metres (110 feet). Some local historians think that it dates from around 1916 and the WW1 Royal Flying Corps flying school whilst others think that it was excavated for the 1910 flying school as a marker point for the early aviators when the Office of Woods refused permission to erect a directional pylon. However, the letters are quite unique as it is believed that no other Royal Flying Corps or RAF training school had or has similar letters which suggests that they pre-date the WW1 airfield.

Beaulieu-Letters

During 2012 a group of villagers managed to find the location of the letters which had been covered up during WW2 for obvious reasons. The group of volunteers excavated the original letters down to their chalk base and they are once again proudly displayed across the heath and clearly visible from the air. This restoration process was filmed by the BBC and was televised on the BBC1 programme, ‘A Great British Story’.