In 1903, the world's first plane flew. Only seven years later in 1910 the first plane landed on the Isle of Wight. From that moment on, the Isle of Wight's contribution to aviation history has been almost non-stop.
The first plane to land on the Island was Robert Loraine's Farman biplane, which had been forced to land near the Needles. Yet shortly after that, the Island was making aircraft of its own.
In 1898, the company of Saunders had patented "consuta", which was a method of sewing laminated sheets of plywood and interlayers of waterproof calico together, and was ideal for boat building. Saunders was a boat-building company based in Cowes on the Isle of Wight, but soon moved to larger premises in 1909 across the Medina in East Cowes. S. E. Saunders Ltd. concentrated on making hydroplane racing craft, some of them record-breaking, yet in 1909 they were involved in their first aircraft project - they built the crew and engine gondolas out of consuta for Britain's first Airship, HMA1 Mayfly. Consuta was found to be an ideal material for aircraft engineering, and so started to build planes. Among the first planes built was the "Bat Boat", a biplane flying boat built for Thomas Sopwith1 and in July 1913 it won the Mortimer Singer Prize for the first all-British aeroplane capable of making six return flights over five miles within five hours. Saunders carried on in the period before the war making aircraft hulls for other
companies, and continuing its boat building services.
Another company on the Isle of Wight that started building planes before the war was J. Samuel White & Co., also based at Cowes. It had been a boat building firm on the Island since 1802, and was at this time a warship builder. In 1912, White's opened an Aircraft division, and in May 1913 their first plane, the "Wight No. 1 Seaplane" was finished. Sadly, though, its early flights proved disastrous, and after being rebuilt for the third time it successfully flew on 28th August 1913, having been renamed "Wight No. 2 Navy Plane". After which, White's built a modified version, the "Wight Enlarged Navyplane" in 1914, which was then one of the largest planes constructed, and was so successful that 7 were built. Three of which were bought by the Royal Navy and used with the seaplane carrier HMS Argus, the other four being bought by the German Navy. However, only one of which entered service in Germany, as when war seemed likely to break out, White refused to supply the potential adversary, and the remaining three planes saw service in anti-submarine patrols.
Also before the war White had designed one more type of aircraft, the "Wight Improved Navyplane", of which 11 were built. Four of these served aboard HMS Ark Royal during the war, and were used for the attack on the naval base at Smyrna on 4th April 1915. The others operated coastal patrol flights searching for submarines and airships.
When the First World War started in 1914, both Saunders Ltd and White's were still primarily boat builders, and continued to build boats for the war. White's, for example, managed to build 20 destroyers in the four years that the war lasted. The first plane White's designed during this period was the Wight Twin Seaplane. It had twin fuselages, and a range 400 miles. It was designed to carry a Lewis gun, a 18" long-range torpedo and two 500lb bombs. Three were bought by the Admiralty. The next plane proved more successful - the Wight 840 Seaplane, which was ideal as a torpedo-bomber or reconnaissance plane. After the first order for 30 had been completed, a further 50 were ordered, but sadly as White's were principally a boat builder, they were unable to complete this order, and so 52 of the planes were built by other companies to their designs. The planes operated a submarine patrol, and even, on the 2nd April 1916, destroyed a Zeppelin.
Saunders, at this time, were busy building other companies' planes under contract. They built 3 Curtiss H-4 Small America flying boats, 201 Avro 504 biplanes, and 80 Short 184 seaplanes. Short was, at this time, Britain's leading flyingboat manufacturer.
White's, meanwhile, had been building the largest British aeroplane up to that point, following an Admiralty order. Known as the "King Cormorant", they were similar to a much larger Twin Seaplane. Three were built, but they were not as successful as hoped. A landplane version of the 840 Seaplane was not a success. The next plane design was the "Baby" Seaplane,
and only three of them were built. A modification of it, the Trainer Seaplane, also was not a success, and only two were built.
In 1916 the Admiralty ordered White's to build twenty single-engined land bombers. In order to fill this order, White's built an airfield at Somerton, Cowes, and soon five Landplane Bombers were complete. In April 1917, the Admiralty policy changed, allowing only multi-engined bombers. White's proposed changing the landplanes into seaplanes, which the Admiralty accepted. Forty new Converted Seaplanes, as they were known, were built, and four of the original Landplanes were converted, one having
crashed. On the 12th August 1917, a Wight Converted Seaplane was the first aircraft ever to destroy a submarine when Sub-Lieutenant Mossop bombed the German U-boat UB32, for which he was awarded the DSC.
There were two other planes that White's designed during this period. The first was the Wight Quadraplane. Two of which were built, and one survives and can be found in the Southampton Hall of Aviation. The other was the Wight Triplane Flying Boat, White's only flying boat built, and only one was ever made.
Saunders, meanwhile, was busy building flying boat hulls. First of all was the building of 24 Norman Thompson flying boats. Saunders was also contracted to build one hundred Felixstowe F2A flying boat hulls, as well as the engine and crew gondolas for the R31 and R32 airships. Saunders also started building an aircraft designed themselves. Called the T1, one was built before the creator, H.H. Thomas, died in the Influenza epidemic of 1918-1919. The project was then abandoned.