Today marks the 110th anniversary of Charles Rolls’ world-first flight across the English Channel.
At 6.30 pm on June 2, 1910, the aviator and one half of the Rolls-Royce partnership, took off alone in a flimsy biplane from Swingate aerodrome, near Dover — to achieve the world’s first, non-stop, double-crossing of the English Channel by aeroplane.
A month later, at the age of just 32, he was dead.
Rolls had been waiting, frustrated for more than a week, his departure repeatedly prevented by high winds, fog or mechanical problems.
Finally, conditions were perfect, calm and clear, with his parents, Lord and Lady Llangattock, among the spectators, along with his sister and brother-in-law, Sir John and Lady Shelley.
The Daily Telegraph reports Rolls reached an altitude of 900 feet and a speed of “quite forty miles an hour” as he approached the coast of France.
By 7.15 pm, he was flying over the small French town of Sangatte, where the present-day Channel Tunnel emerges.
Leaning out of his aeroplane, he dropped three weighted envelopes, each containing the message:
“Greetings to the Auto Club of France . . . Dropped from a Wright aeroplane crossing from England to France. C. S. Rolls, June 1910. P.S. Vive l’Entente’’
Rolls then turned north and set a course for the English coast.
At 8.00 pm, he was back in Dover where, the Daily Telegraph reports, “the sea front, cliffs and piers were thronged with people, all in the most intense state of excitement.”
Rolls rewarded them in typically flamboyant style, by flying in circles around the outer towers of the town’s medieval castle.
“I decided that, as I had plenty of petrol and my engines were working splendidly, I would encircle the Castle, although it would lengthen my flight considerably,” he told the Telegraph.
The crowd loved it. They knew they were part of a moment of history.
In an adventure that lasted 95 minutes, Rolls had achieved two landmarks.
He had become both the first Englishman to fly an aeroplane across the English Channel, and the first aviator to ever fly non-stop from England to France and back again.
The flight caused a sensation and made Rolls an instant celebrity.
The recently-crowned King George V sent a personal telegram – “The Queen and I heartily congratulate you on your splendid Cross-Channel flight. George R.I.”
The Aero Clubs of both England and France presented him with special awards.
London’s famous Madame Tussauds even began making a waxwork of him.
Flight Magazine, meanwhile, lauded his Corinthian spirit, loftily assuring its readers that Rolls had made the crossing not in the name of “merely winning souvenirs” and “without the smallest monetary inducement”.
It was claim that may have rankled somewhat with Rolls, who had spent almost 330,000 pounds in today’s money on flying, in the first half of 1910 alone.
It was perhaps with this in mind that he remarked wryly: “It is the only time I have succeeded in taking 10 gallons of fuel in and out of France without paying duty.”
Rolls’ record-breaking flight came less than a year after Louis Blériot had stunned the world with the first powered flight from France to England in July, 1909.
Rolls made his double crossing in a Wright Flyer, designed by Wilbur and Orville Wright, who had recorded the world’s very first flight in a heavier-than-air machine just seven years earlier in 1903.
His aeroplane, built from wood and fabric braced with spars and wires, had a wingspan of just 12 metres and weighed only 457kg which included the engine – about the same weight as a grand piano.
The physical dangers of crossing the sea in such a primitive a machine are obvious; it seems Rolls decided to attempt the return trip only when he was actually over Sangatte and confident everything was working well.
His sole concessions to safety were a lifejacket, and four large buoyancy bags filled with compressed air that were lashed to the machine’s undercarriage.
But Rolls was as experienced as he was daring, with a flying career that spanned what was then virtually the entire history of aviation.
Born in 1877, he had been fascinated by engines since his schooldays and earned a degree in Mechanical & Applied Science from Trinity College, Cambridge.
He was captivated by flying and became a founding member of the Royal Aero Club, initially as a balloonist, making over 170 flights and winning the Gordon Bennett Gold Medal in 1903 for the longest sustained time aloft.
In the spring of 1909, when the Wright brothers came to England from America as guests of the Royal Aero Club, Rolls acted as their official host.
A year later, he became only the second person in Britain to be awarded a pilot’s licence.
After their historic first meeting in 1904, Rolls tried to persuade Henry Royce to build an aeroplane.
He failed but undeterred, bought a Wright Flyer in which he made more than 200 flights.
Tragically, it was in one that he met his death just a month after the Channel crossing.
On 12 July 1910, during a competition at Bournemouth, the tail broke off Rolls’ aircraft and it plunged to the ground, crashing close to a crowded grandstand in a tangle of spars and canvas.
He sustained a fractured skull and was pronounced dead at the scene; he was only the 12th person in history to be killed in a flying accident, and the first Briton to lose his life in a powered aircraft.
He was just a few weeks short of his 33rd birthday.
Although Rolls is more famous for his automotive achievements, his contribution to aviation was immense.
In April, 1912, a statue commemorating his double Channel crossing was erected in Guilford Gardens on Dover’s seafront.
It now stands in Marine Parade Gardens, where it was rededicated on June 2, 1995 by the then Chairman of the Rolls-Royce Heritage Trust.
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