Lost Deeside - ‘punk’, or lost hero of British aviation?

George Davidson, fourth son of the laird of Inchmarlo, set up an aviation workshop at Inchmarlo Cottage in 1897.

The following year, he predicted the use of aerial bombing in war, and that it would someday be possible to fly from Chicago to New York in three hours.

Five years before the Wright brothers’ experiment succeeded at Kitty Hawk, Davidson built a ‘flapping wing’ aircraft at Inchmarlo, the maiden flight of which attracted large crowds to Burnett Park. Less a flight than a hop, the unnamed craft did not survive, though fortunately the pilot did.

Obviously this incident has not been credited as the first heavier-than-air powered flight; but it still spurred development, by showing Davidson and his rivals that the ‘flapping wing’ principle was a dead end. And Davidson’s Air-Car Construction Syndicate immediately attracted investments of £20,000.

The Air-Car was a high-wing monoplane with fully enclosed cabin seating twenty. A.V. Roe, later the founder of the Avro company which built the iconic Lancaster bomber (and ultimately became British Aerospace), was hired by Davidson as a draughtsman in 1906: Roe’s first job in the industry. They moved to Colorado where they built a primitive, very large helicopter, weighing three tonnes, sixty-seven feet wide and powered by two 50hp Stanley steam engines. This did fly properly, if briefly. ‘The experiments’, concluded Scientific American, ‘demonstrate that a machine could be constructed capable of lifting itself bodily from the ground in a vertical direction’.

This machine was also wrecked on its maiden flight, when one of the boilers exploded. It was nevertheless awarded a British patent the following year and floated at $1 million. When rebuilt, Californian sequoia wood largely replaced the original steel, but this version ran into financial difficulties by 1911 and was never completed.

Despite the respectable journal Flight’s finding that only Davidson had achieved flight on ‘the helicopter principle’ as of 1910, credit for it is now, absurdly, assigned to the French Breguet brothers and to the year 1907.

Now almost utterly forgotten, Davidson lacks an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography, or even a mention within A.V. Roe’s entry, which in turn fails to mention Roe’s first job in aviation. For the early encouragement of Roe alone, George Davidson ought to be remembered as one of British aviation’s pivotal figures, whose revolutionary ideas were vindicated by the later emergence of both helicopters and commercial air passenger services.

Next week: Lost lumberjacks: the Canadian Forestry Corps on Deeside in World War Two.

Lost Deeside published by Birlinn Ltd is available from Yeadons of Banchory at 20 Dee Street (01330) 822221.