Harry Hawker

A Great Australian Aviator


Harry was born in Moorabbin, Melbourne, Victoria on January 22 1889. After school he trained as a mechanic, initially at a bicycle depot before becoming a car mechanic. As a boy he had been interested in the flight of birds and in aviation. In 1910 he witnessed the first controlled powered flight in Australia by Ehrich Weiss (often known as Harry Houdini, the escapologist) flying a French Voisin biplane.

With all his savings, an extraordinary £100 in those days, he left in May 1911 with fellow mechanics, Harry Kauper and Harry Busteed for the United Kingdom. He worked for Commer Car Co., Mercedes Co. and Austro Daimler as a mechanic while seeking to get into the world of aviation. In June 1912 the Sopwith Aviation Company had been formed and after meeting Fred Sigrist (Sopwith Head of Works) the next month Harry secured a job with Sopwith. A month later he had sufficiently impressed Tommy Sopwith for him to begin personal tuition to fly solo and after only 3 lessons. He gained Royal Aero Club Licence No. 297 on 17 September 1912. With only 24 hours in his logbook, Harry secured his first prize on October 24. That was the British Empire Michelin Cup No.1 for flight endurance, staying aloft for 8 hours and 23 minutes, a memorable achievement for the time.

The following year many more records were set at Brooklands. These included British Altitude Records with varying passenger numbers and, on July 8, the Mortimer Singer Prize of £500 for a flight in an amphibian aircraft, the Sopwith Bat Boat, Britain’s first flying boat and the world’s first practical amphibian. The biggest challenge took place during August 100 years ago: the Circuit of Britain Race.

Designer, Engineer and Test Pilot

In 1913, Harry was active in the design and development of the Sopwith Tabloid, the fastest, most manoeuvrable aircraft of the time. He displayed it in Australia in 1914. Another production model was also fitted with floats, winning the 1914 Schneider Trophy Race with Sidney Pixton flying. In June 1914 Harry developed a tail spin recovery technique and looped the loop in a Tabloid 12 times.

When War broke out in 1914, Harry’s skill as a test pilot was recognised and he tested 295 aircraft in 199 flying days prior to their delivery to squadrons. The 1916 Sopwith Camel, of which 5,497 were built, was largely a Harry Hawker design and it was fitted with the Kauper interrupter gear to allow machine guns to fire through the propeller arc. He married Muriel Peart on14 November 1917, but throughout the remaining war years continued with test flying many types of aircraft including the Sopwith Triplane, Dolphin, Dragon, Snail and Salamander.

After World War 1, one of the big aviation challenges was crossing the Atlantic. Harry attempted this with his navigator, Commander Kenneth McKenzie Grieve, on 18 May 1919. The Sopwith aircraft was full of innovations with a detachable landing gear and advanced safety features. Alas, after 1,000 miles radiator failure forced them to ditch and after a week with no news Britain feared the worst for its hero. But their lives were saved by their immersion suits and detachable life raft and they were rescued by the SS MARY. Harry became the first civilian to be recognized with the AFC which was immediately awarded to Harry by King George V. The Daily Mail magnanimously awarded Harry £5,000 which was half the prize money on offer for a successful trans Atlantic crossing.

By 1920 the Sopwith Aircraft Company was in trouble. With war contracts a thing of the past the company was reduced to making bicycles and saucepans and it was wound up in September. But 15 November saw the phoenix like birth of the H G Hawker Engineering Co with Tommy Sopwith, Fred Sigrist, Bill Eyre, F Bennett and, of course, Harry himself, the key players. Yet his time with the new company was to be short lived as he was killed on 21 July 1921, testing a French Nieuport Gosport at Hendon. He was buried at St Pauls Church, Chessington.

The Hawker name lived on, however with the Company becoming Hawker Aircraft (1933), then Hawker Siddley Aircraft Group (1935). That company merged with the British Aircraft Corporation in 1977 as British Aerospace and subsequently as BAe Systems following the merger with GEC Marconi in 1999.

In 1978 Australia Post issued a special Harry Hawker stamp and in 1989 Moorabbin Airport was renamed “Moorabbin (Harry Hawker) Airport”. Many aircraft have borne the Hawker name and continue to do so. This 100th Anniversary Circuit of Britain Commemorative flight aims to remind people of Harry Hawker’s contribution to aviation.