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 onwards, the Isle of Wight's contribution to aviation history has been almost non-stop.
Before The Great War
The first plane to land on the island was Robert Loraine's Farman biplane, which had been forced to land near the Needles. Shortly after that, the island was making aircraft of its own.
In 1898, the company of Saunders had patented 'consuta', a material made by sewing together laminated sheets of plywood and interlayering waterproofed calico, a substance ideal for boat building. Saunders was a boat-building company based in Cowes on the Isle of Wight, but in 1909 it moved to larger premises across the Medina in East Cowes. SE 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, the HMA1 Mayfly. Consuta was found to be an ideal material for aircraft and so the company started to build planes. Among the first planes built was the Bat Boat1, a biplane flying boat built for Thomas Sopwith, which, in July 1913, 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, and in the period before the war it made aircraft hulls for other companies. It also continued with its boat-building services.
J Samuel White & Co
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 28 August, 1913, having been renamed Wight No 2 Navy Plane. Subsequently, White's built a modified version, the Wight Enlarged Navyplane in 1914. This was then one of the largest planes constructed, and was so successful that seven were built. Three of the Wight Enlarged Navyplanes were bought by the Royal Navy and used with the seaplane carrier HMS Argus, the other four being bought by the German Navy. However, after the first plane was delivered to the Germans, it appeared that war was likely to break out. At this point, White's refused to deliver the remaining planes to the Germans, not wanting to supply a potential enemy, and the remaining three planes saw service in anti-submarine patrols.
Before the war, White had also designed one more type of aircraft, the Wight Improved Navyplane, 11 of which 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 4 April, 1915. The others operated coastal patrol flights searching for submarines and airships.
During the Great War
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 duration of the war.
Saunders, at this time, was busy building other companies' planes under contract. They built three Curtiss H-4 Small America flying boats, 201 Avro 504 biplanes, and 80 Short 184 seaplanes. Short was, at this time, Britain's leading flying boat manufacturer.
At the same time, Saunders was busy building flying boat hulls. It also built 24 Norman Thompson flying boats. Saunders was also contracted to build 100 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 it designed itself. Called the T1, one was built before the creator, HH Thomas, died in the Influenza epidemic of 1918 - 1919. The project was then abandoned.
J Samuel White & Co
White's managed to build 20 destroyer ships in the four years of the war.
The first plane White's designed during this period was the Wight Twin Seaplane. It had twin fuselages and a range of 400 miles. It was designed to carry a Lewis gun, an 18" long-range torpedo and two 500lb bombs. Three were bought by the Admiralty. The next plane proved to be 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 was 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 2 April, 1916, destroyed a Zeppelin.
White's, meanwhile, had also been building the largest British aeroplane so far, 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, but 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 20 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 to be built. White's proposed changing the landplanes into seaplanes, an idea that 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 12 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 Distinguished Service Cross.
There were two other planes that White's designed during this period. The first was the Wight Quadraplane, two of which were built. One of these survives and can be found in the Southampton Hall of Aviation. The other was the Wight Triplane Flying Boat, White's only flying boat. Only one of these was ever made.