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Harold Blackburn & the War of the Roses Air Race

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NickForder View Drop Down
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    Posted: 04 Jul 2011 at 13:22

There has been a long standing rivalry between Lancashire and Yorkshire, which dates back to the so-called War of the Roses when members of the House of Lancaster (represented by a red rose) fought members of the House of York (white rose) for control of Fifteenth century England. Since then, the rivalry has become confined, largely, to sporting events.


On September 20, 1913, the Manchester firm of A V Roe (Avro) made a great impact on the aviation world with a new design which secured fourth place in the Aerial Derby. The importance of this result, and an average recorded speed of 66.5 mph, was that the Avro 504 was an untried prototype.


The Yorkshire Evening News responded to the achievement of the Avro 504 by offering a trophy to the winner of an air race between the best Lancashire and best Yorkshire aeroplanes. This race was to be over a 100-mile course. Inevitably, the event was promoted as the War of the Roses Air Race.


The foremost Yorkshire aviation company at this time was the Leeds-based Blackburn Aeroplane and Motor Company Limited. Prompted by the Yorkshire Evening News, Blackburn issued an official challenge to the Manchester-based A V Roe Company. This was accepted and the race was on.


The Contenders : Avro 504

The basic layout, and some details, of the Avro 504 had been sketched out in a penny exercise book by A V Roe. Roe then gave the project to a team led by Roy Chadwick, who was later to become Chief Designer and be responsible for the Avro Lancaster. Chadwick and his assistant, C R Taylor, worked on the fuselage and undercarriage. Harry Broadsmith, a 23 year old former marine engineer, worked on the wings along with Frank Vernon. Vernon was a Whitworth Scholar who was employed primarily to undertake stress calculations; he had previously worked for the Locomotive Department of the Great Central Railway at Gorton in Manchester. There were clear similarities between this aircraft and the earlier Avro 500, particularly as regards the undercarriage and general shape, but the 504 featured wings with forward stagger and was powered by a new 80-hp Gnome rotary engine.


Blackburn Type I

Against this exciting new Avro, Robert Blackburn decided to race a new Type I two seat monoplane design. This was of a similar size to the Avro 504 (38 feet wing span as against 36 feet, and 28’ 6” long as against 29’ 5”), and was also powered by one of the new 80 hp Gnome engines. The Type I had been developed from the 1912 single-seater Blackburn Monoplane at the request of Dr M G Christie, a prominent member of the Yorkshire Aero Club. Christie had been very impressed by the 1912 Monoplane, an example of which is retained by the Shuttleworth Trust as the oldest surviving airworthy British aeroplane. However, he wanted a two-seater as, at that time, he  had not qualified for his flying certificate. Therefore he employed Harold Blackburn to pilot the aircraft for him. This aircraft had been delivered to the Yorkshire Aerodrome, on Moortown near the centre of Leeds, on August 14, 1918.



The Course

It was agreed that the 100-mile course would be circular and flown over Yorkshire. Initial take-off and final landing points would be at the Yorkshire Aerodrome, of which Christie was a director. The start and finish line was to be Holroyd’s Intake on the main Leeds-Harrogate road. From there the aircraft would fly back over Moortown and then towards York. The aircraft had to land at checkpoints at York, Doncaster, Sheffield and Barnsley. At each checkpoint the aircraft had to remain on the ground for twenty minutes, presumably so the spectators had something to view. A Special Aerial Issue numbered edition of the Yorkshire Evening News was to be published for the race. Each aircraft had to carry fifty copies, which were to be distributed at each checkpoint.


As both aircraft were two-seaters, it was decided that each would fly with a pilot and a passenger. The crew of the Blackburn consisted of Christie and Harold Blackburn. Fred Raynham, the Avro test pilot, was chosen to fly the Avro 504. A V Roe’s brother, Humphrey, elected to fly as Raynham’s passenger.


The Race

The day of the Race was October 2, and a large crowd gathered at the Yorkshire Aerodrome to see the start of the race. The French aviator, Henri Salmet, had been engaged to give exhibition and passenger flights to entertain the crowd while the two teams completed their preparations.


The Race was to start just after 2:00 pm, and both aircraft ascended together to pass the start line at 2:14 pm. The Avro and the Blackburn were evenly matched on the flight towards York, with Raynham landing 25 minutes later, just a minute in front of Blackburn. The newspapers were duly unloaded, but the restart was slightly delayed when a small dog escaped from the crowd. Both aircraft were airborne again by 3:01 pm.


Flying towards Doncaster, the pilots began to encounter patches of mist. They landed together at Doncaster, at 3:33 pm, and took off again eighteen minutes later. Once more mist was encountered, and visibility was seriously reduced. This caused more problems for Raynham because he was unfamiliar with the area over which he was flying. By the time he reached Sheffield, Blackburn was beginning to pull ahead and landed at 4:20 pm, four minutes before Raynham.


Blackburn took over again at 4:42 pm and landed at the Barnsley checkpoint thirteen minutes later. He took off again at 5:19 pm, by which time Raynham had still not arrived. In fact, the Avro had flown over Barnsley in the mist and landed by mistake at Dewsbury. Realising their mistake, Raynham and Roe decided not to double back and instead flew on to Leeds. The Avro landed at 5:30 pm. Blackburn, having waited at Barnsley for twenty-four minutes, arrived at 5:48 pm.


The Result

The Yorkshire Evening News Challenge Trophy was awarded to the Yorkshire team, as the Lancashire team was disqualified for missing one of the checkpoints. As often happens when the result is not clear-cut, Lancastrians claimed that Blackburn’s local knowledge gave him an unfair advantage when attempting to identify landmarks in poor visibility conditions. Possibly this was the reason that it was agreed to repeat the event the following year, but this time over Lancashire. A course from Manchester to Blackpool, Liverpool and then back to Manchester was agreed. However, the outbreak of the Great War intervened and the whole idea was dropped.


The Real Winner ?

As far as the relative merits of the aircraft are concerned, it must be recognised that the Type I was one of the last of Robert Blackburn’s monoplane designs. The 504 established Avro as a successful aircraft manufacturer, saw extensive use both during the Great War and afterwards, and was still in production fifteen years later with a total of over 10 000 built.  Final proof of the ultimate superiority of the Avro 504 came in July 1914 when one was purchased by Harold Blackburn !  

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Ian Burns View Drop Down
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Ian Burns Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 04 Jul 2011 at 22:51
Hi Nick,
Nice post.
Just wondering about the "sketched in a penny exercise book" story.  I have heard it before but tended to discard it as a fable.  R J Parrot, AV's assistant since 1909, in a paper to the RAeS in 1925 "The History and Evolution of the Avro Training Machine' describes the "evolution" as follows.
"...April 1913, when the construction of our new type to supersede the Type 500 was commenced.  In the new machine, the principlal differences from the Type 500 were, heavy staggering of the wings to give increased wing efficiency and also to improve the downward and forward view; an increase in span and wing chord; a better wing section; improvement in treamline form of the fuselage; the fitting of a unique undercarriage."
No mention of a penny exercise book.  To compare the 500 and 504 is to see that although the new machine was similar in appearance, it was really a completely new design.  But it followed a now well established format - two bay biplane, tractor engine with tandem cockpits behind, and the evolving classic Avro "comma" rudder.
For Roe, like most designers of the period, the progress in design was often one of small steps, an evolution as Parrot describes, rather than a huge leap forward.  I'm sure a penny exercise book was used in the early days, but by 1913 design was becoming more formal.  Series production, rather than one off pioneering designs, required proper drawings.  I well remember, from my time on the boards at Avro in the late 1960's, that the underlying paper on which the drawing sheet was laid would be covered in small sketches, doodles and fierce crossing outs.  Perhaps this was our version of the penny exercise book! 
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NickForder View Drop Down
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote NickForder Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 05 Jul 2011 at 09:16

Hi Ian

Such a sketch did exist (i.e. I'm not sure where it is now : perhaps Brooklands ?) of the 504, and appears in Penrose's book 'British Aviation : The Pioneer Years' (Putnams/ Cassell).


It is pretty much what we would regard as 'back of a fag packet', with the detailed design work to be carried out by others.


This seems to have been the process for the 1912 Avro Type F (I have seen a document in the possession of the Verdon-Roe family that has a sketch of a detail of the Type F on the back of it), with ‘students’ at Brooklands carrying out drawing work in exchange for flying lessons. In the case of the Type F wings, this was Sippe and Setti/Setty, working at Brooklands and sending drawings to Ancoats for production.


Unfortunately, the unreliability of AV’s “The World of Wings and Things” and the seeming lack of contemporary documentation has led to the propagation of claims that the role of such as Setti & Duigan, for instance, in the design process were much greater than was probably the case.


There is a Penrose anecdote that Chadwick’s first ‘real job’ (he seems to have been some sort of PA to AV initially, though I’m not sure how that worked as AV was based at Brooklands and Chadwick in Manchester) was drawing a GA of the Type F, after the aircraft was completed. This doesn’t really fit the timeline at all, and it seems more reasonable to accept that Chadwick’s first design job was the mounting for the 50 hp Gnome in the first War Office Avro 500 (Type E in RFC service); though it may be that he produced Avro 500 drawings 'after the fact' in response to a War Office request ?  


(Incidentally, was the Avro 500/Type E the first series production British military aeroplane ?)


There was a revolution in the way that ‘Avros’ were designed between the Avro-Curtiss (a GA on a piece of A3 tracing paper, no more detailed than those which appeared in Flight at the time) and the 501. Reg Parrott was the draughtsman for both.


I understand that the 504 was the first Avro to be 'stressed', with the claim that AV wasn't comfortable with maths - a strange suggestion, given his engineering background - and the more mathematical, less empirical, method of design arrived with Chadwick (or, perhaps, developed along with Chadwick might be more accurate ?).


This notion that AV & maths didn't mix seems to be behind the anecdote that he used to walk around the factory (which factory ?) talking to the workers about bicycles as he did not grasp aircraft design developments.  Conversely, period for which the 504 was in production does suggest a limited need for radical new designs. One can understand why AV may wish to distance himself from the Bison and Ava !! AV last personal design was the simple, lightweight Avro 560 for the Lympne Trials.


I think that the idea of ‘evolution not revolution’ becomes almost an Avro mantra, with distinct ‘families of aircraft’ (e.g. Manchester/Lancaster/York/Lincoln/Shackleton/Tudor/Ashton), though I don’t think that this can be applied to pre-504 aircraft. For instance, there is the ‘great technological leap’ in design from the Type D to the Type E/500; in itself the basis for claims of the design input of Duigan and the fanciful stories surrounding Setti; the dabbling in seaplanes (albeit, to an extent, in response to external orders) and the Types F & G : respectively the world’s first successful cabin monoplane and biplane designs. All this happens in 1911-13.


In his unpublished ‘Two Pioneer Brothers’, HV Roe laments AV’s tendency to incorporate too many innovations in his designs (in the pre-504 period); a policy that led to the Type G being entered for the Military Trials whereas a larger, more powerful Type E/500 (i.e. a 504) would have been more in keeping with what the Army were looking for.


A quite fascinating period, though so difficult to draw any conclusions when there are so few ‘facts’ to work with.


Anyone notice the typo in para 6 ?


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