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Collections; Portraits, Porcelain and Pilcher

The Percy Pilcher Aviation Collection

The Pilcher Aviation display is situated in the Stable Courtyard. It’s principal exhibit is a working replica of ‘The Hawk’, the Flying Machine in which Lieutenant Percy Pilcher, RN, who is recognised as England’s Pioneer Aviator, was killed at Stanford in 1899. He flew successfully for four years before his death. The Hawk was his latest machine, its predecessors were The Bat, The Beetle and The Gull. Pilcher had built a tri-plane which was designed to be powered by an engine and there was also a design for a quadro-plane, never built, to be called The Duck. Pilcher had designed an engine which he had planned to fit into The Gull and The Hawk, as well as the tri-plane, but his early death prevented his official demonstration of powered flight.

On the fateful day in 1899, it is believed that Lord Braye and Pilcher had gathered a number of investors to witness the first powered flight in the world, three years ahead of the Wright Brothers. Unfortunately the engine had some problems and Pilcher felt compelled to at least demonstrate glided flight instead. The tow rope was heavy with dew having been laid out on the ground overnight. The glider was towed into the air by the estate’s coach horses, but the weight of the dew soaked tow rope pulled the glider’s nose down before it could be released. The tail plane also snapped and Pilcher crashed and sadly died two days later of his injuries. A monument to his memory was erected by the Royal Aeronautical Society on the other side of the river from the house, on the spot where he crashed.

Pilcher’s legacy lived on as his biplane drawings were sent to the Wright Brothers on which they based their Kitty Hawk biplane that successfully achieved powered flight in America in 1903. The replica at Stanford was built by the apprentices of Sir W.G. Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft Ltd. A figure representing Pilcher is suspended in the machine, in the position adopted by the aviator, who controlled the angle of the machine by the movement of his body, very similar to hang gliding today. He became airborne by means of a winch, using either man or horse power. This replica was very kindly presented to the 7th Lord Braye by the Royal Aeronautical Society so that it might be exhibited at Stanford. Pilcher was a great friend of his father, the 6th Lord Braye who worked with him, assisted in his early experiments and flew several of his machines.