In 1896-97 seven years before the Wright
Brothers' first manned flight in a powered aircraft at Kitty Hawk,
North Carolina in 1903. British aviation pioneer Percy Sinclair
Pilcher was experimenting with his Gull and Hawk gliders here at
Upper Austin Lodge near Eynsford.
Originally the site was used as a range for
testing automatic and quick firing guns by the Maxim Nordenfeld
Guns and Ammunition Co. Ltd. The purpose built hangar that housed
Maxim's massive biplane had been relocated to this site in 1894,
after the Local Authority insisted on its removal from Baldwyn's
Park in Bexley.
In the late summer of 1896, using Hiram
Maxim's hangar as a base, Pilcher regularly flew his Hawk
glider from both sides of the hill known as the 'knob' achieving
glides of up to 300 yards, see Map and
photos. On June 20th 1897 Pilcher gave his first public
demonstration at this site to a large party of Scientists and others.
A thin 600-yard fishing line was passed through a fall of tackle
on the opposite side of the West valley. Towed by three boys, the
man and machine rose to a height of about 70 ft, when the line broke.
Pilcher decended gracefully into the valley, having achieved a glide
of between 150 and 250 yards.
On this same date occurred what is believed
to be the first recorded instance of a woman flying in a heavier-
than- air aircraft. Dorothy Rose Pilcher, Percy's Cousin, made a
short towed glide in the Hawk. She flew down the hill and collided
with a gentleman operating a cinematograph camera! Fortunately both
camera and operator escaped serious damage. Pilcher later designed
and built a triplane
fitted with an engine, but his trailblazing work was unfortunately
terminated when, during a demonstration at Stanford
Hall near Rugby on September 30th 1899, his Hawk glider
crashed. Percy was fatally injured, and died on October 2, aged
32. The triplane was never flown. Had Pilcher survived this tragic
accident, he might have become the first person to fly a powered
aeroplane. Nevertheless, he made a valuable contribution to aviation's