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IT WAS like having the Wright Brothers’ Kitty Hawk nestled in the infield of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Brooklands, 25 miles southwest of central London, 12 miles south of Heathrow Airport, was the birthplace of Britain’s automobile racing and aviation.
Michael Goodall’s Flying Start has lots of tidbits about this historic locale, now a museum dedicated to cars and airplanes. Here’s a sample of the aero side of Brooklands, its fledgling flying schools and the people hanging out there. It was more than just “the right crowd, and no crowding.” These were a bunch of madcaps intent on going aloft.
It was in June 1908 that Alliott Verdon Roe made a “hop flight” of his biplane at Brooklands. Gliding tests included volunteer motorists giving the aircraft a tow.
The original Clerk of the Course of Brooklands Circuit was hostile to aeroplanes, but by 1910 a manager more sympathetic to flying was appointed. Before long, Brooklands had an aviation village with 17 hangars, plus a Blue Bird Restaurant and Cafe.
The Hewlett & Blondeau School operated at Brooklands from 1910 into 1912. Hewlett was Hilda, wife of Victorian novelist Maurice Hewlett. Hiding her unladylike enthusiasms from friends (and, notes author Goodall, “perhaps her husband”), she adopted the pseudonym of Miss Grace Bird.
By the publication of Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, 1913, Hilda was out of the closet and listed as having Royal Aero Club Certificate No. 122, the first English woman to earn this recognition. A year later, she and Maurice split, the separation attributed to her love of flying. Maurice is reported to have said, “Women will never be as successful in aviation as men. They have not the right kind of nerve.”
Talk about nerve.
Appendix A of Flying Start is a memoir of Hilda’s Brooklands aero adventures. I share two tales here concerning acetylene: one, its welding aspects and the flying school’s finances; the other, an outrageous occurrence involving acetylene illumination.
A bit of background: Acetylene gas lamps appeared on bicycles around 1896. Lots of early automobiles, including early Model T Fords, depended on headlamps of this sort, which burned acetylene formed by the reaction of calcium carbide and water. Also known as carbide lamps, they were used to illuminate buildings and as lighthouse beacons.
French engineers Edmond Fouché and Charles Picard developed oxygen-acetylene welding in 1903. By increasing the rate of oxidation, oxi-acetylene produces a hotter flame than the earlier air-acetylene type.
Hewlett describes their Brooklands environment as an informal place, with impecunious flying enthusiasts sleeping in packing crates outside the hangar. “We lived a curious communal life,” Hewlett writes, “with aviation shop talked day and night, in season and out of season.”
The school’s principal instructor (and co-owner) was Gustave Blondeau. [Thanks to Catherine Evans (see below) for correcting my initial confusion with Gustav Hamel, another Brooklands pioneer.] He was also a talented fabricator, an essential role in repairing the inevitable prangs of student flyers.
Writes Hilda, “We bought an acetylene welding plant, with which Gustave did wonders. That paid for itself in no time, it was the first of its kind in England.”
Aviators, aeroplane constructors and even motorists came to the workshop. “They seemed to think anything could be mended, even the most impossible things, by this new invention.”
The outrageousness took place during evidently alcohol-fueled celebrations of King George V’s Coronation Holiday, June 1911. Hilda recalls, “A tiny house called ‘the Bird-cage’ was just then occupied by unpopular people. They were also unwise. The male occupier undressed himself before the window without drawing the blind.
“A huge acetylene headlight was directed on him from the garden. He got out a pistol and shot at it. From all sides came answering shots until not a pane of glass was left whole. The big light was not affected, it burned steadily on.
“The lady inside had hysterics and very wisely left the house where she had no moral right to be and did not wish to be found.”
Hilda was blamed for encouraging the mayhem. She writes, “I told them I was as ‘an elder sister to the aviators,’ an example of good behavior and preacher of reform.”
Yes, Hilda. Now I’ll tell one. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015