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John Moore-Brabazon takes off at Eastchurch in 1909.  This flight won the Daily Mail Prize for the first circular flight of one mile.  The aircraft was built by the Short and Wright Brothers specially to claim the prize.
The who’s who of early aviation.  Standing, left to right:  T D F Andrews, Oswald, Horace, and Eustace Short, Frank McClean, Griffith Brewer, Frank Hedges Butler, Dr Lockyer and Warwick Wright.  Seated, left to right:  J T C Moore-Brabazon, Wilbur and Orville Wright and the Hon Charles Rolls.Photograph taken on the Isle of Sheppey on 4th May 1909.

Isle of Sheppey

The Isle of Sheppey in north Kent was the birthplace of aviation in the UK.  Its flat, open land and predictable weather made it the perfect place for the early pioneers to experiment with their fragile machines. 

Those who gathered on the low-lying ground near the small coastal town of Leysdown from 1908 onwards were at the very forefront of early aviation, and included the Wright brothers and Charles Rolls (of Rolls-Royce fame).

These early pioneers progressed quickly from their first experimental flights, and by the end of 1909 Charles Rolls had won the Saloman Trophy for staying airborne for one and a half miles.  In the same year the Short Brothers established the first British aircraft factory, building aircraft designed by the Wright brothers.  Progress was so fast that it was only the following year, in 1910, that Thomas Sopwith won the Baron de Forest’s Prize for the longest flight from England to the continent, flying 169 miles in 3 hours 40 minutes.

RNAS Eastchurch

In 1911, the first four Naval Aviators began their flying training at Eastchurch, a couple of miles west of Leysdown on higher ground in the middle of the island.  The airfield, aircraft, ground instruction, and flying instruction were provided largely free of charge by some of the leading names of early aviation, and RNAS Eastchurch became the first Royal Naval Air Station.

Prospective students were told they would have to forego any chance of commanding a ship, would have to pay for any damage to their machines, and had to be unmarried.  Such disincentives seemed only to add to their spirit of adventure; over two hundred Naval and Royal Marines officers volunteered for four places on the first Royal Navy flying training course.

The men of what came to be known as the Eastchurch Squadron proved to be enthusiastic innovators themselves, their numerous exploits including the first bomb dropping experiments, the first machine gun mounted in an aeroplane and fired whilst the machine was in the air, and the first wireless air to ground transmissions.  Their Commanding Officer, Commander Charles Samson, was not only the first pilot to take off from a ship at anchor but later also became the first to do so from a ship underway.

When war broke out in 1914, Samson campaigned hard for the Eastchurch Squadron to deploy to the front lines.  In combat over Belgium, the squadron served with distinction, acquiring a fearsome reputation in air-to-air combat and carrying out the first ever strategic bombing raid.