Watson was a pioneer of flight in the early years of the century. This article gives some
details of his achievements, and at the head of the page is a picture of the second
aeroplane he built, which made use of a method of control he invented.
EVERY boy who is interested in aeronautics 'knows' that the first recognised flight of a heavier than air machine took place on 17th December, 1903, when the Wright brothers flew their powered glider over the sands at Kitty Hawk Bay in the United States of America. Yet not one in a million has heard of Preston Watson [*], a Scotsman, who came very near to sharing the achievement of Orville and Wilbur Wright.
[*] Nor of Richard Pearse of New Zealand - CJB.
Preston Watson was born in 1880 and at an early age declared that one day men would fly like birds. Preston and, his brother, James, were the sons of a Dundee merchant, and though Preston later became a fine athlete he never lost his interest in flight. Drawing on his observations on the flight of birds, he argued that a gliding bird turns in the air by dipping one wing by means of its muscles and allowing the opposite wing to lift.
All Preston's machines embodied this basic idea. A rigid monoplane was fitted with a second, smaller upper plane - sometimes called a "parasol plane" - which could be tilted or rocked independently to either side by the pilot and so cause the machine to bank to right or left. This structurally sound method of control was much simpler than that of the Wrights, who twisted, or warped, the wings on their plane, and later it earned for Watson a French award for improved stability in an aircraft. With his method, he was able to dispense with a movable rudder to correct side-slip. The tail of the plane was fashioned like a box kite, and this also helped to support the machine in the air.
Preston Watson began his experiments by building a full scale glider on the lines described above, and he attempted to fly it, first near Dundee, and later on the lonely banks of the river Tay near Errol, now appropriately enough the site of an R.A.F. aerodrome.
A very interesting point was that since he was attempting gliding flight from level ground, Watson had to provide some form of assisted take-off, and his device must have been the first to be used for this purpose. His glider sat in a wooden cradle or on skids, which could slide freely on planks lubricated with lard or graphite. A rope hooked under the glider led forward to a pulley, then back under the plane, round another pulley and finally up and over the branch of a tall tree. On the end of this rope hung two 56 lb. weights and an anvil borrowed from a nearby smithy.
On releasing a catch under his seat the pilot caused the weights to fall, and so propelled his machine for a short distance into the air. There are those still living who remember the crash of the falling weights as Preston Watson made his first hops around the year 1903!
Watson's next difficulty was that which confronted every would-be aeroplane builder of the day - to obtain an engine light enough yet powerful enough to drive his plane. And here lies the mystery of the date on which it can be said with certainty that Preston Watson first flew. The Wrights, it will be recalled, found it necessary to design and build their own motor to achieve this end. The photograph of their first flight still exists.
Now here is what is known of Preston Watson's efforts to apply power to his glider. We know that in 1906 he bought a 10-14 h.p. Duthill-Chalmers air cooled petrol engine from Santos Dumont, the French pioneer of the dirigible balloon. But did he achieve true flight before that date? Among those who believe that he did is Mr. Kerr B. Sturrock of Dundee, who vividly recalls making well over a dozen wooden propellers for Mr. Watson. These were all made before Mr. Sturrock married, that is before September, 1905.
Mr. Sturrock believes that the propellers were fitted to a small de Dion motor, and that later two such motors were coupled together on the plane. The first propellers were of oak or yellow pine. They were soon fractured, and then Mr. Sturrock tried shaping them from laminated sheets of 5/8in. Australian walnut, each sheet being laid with its grain at a different angle from that of the one before it. This was so successful that it remained the method of choice for propellers generally until wood was replaced by the special alloys that became available during the first world war.
Mr. Sturrock's information does not tell us exactly when Mr. Watson first flew, even for so short a time as the Wrights in their early flights. But there is also evidence from agricultural workers who are still living [in 1957 - CJB] that they heard and saw Mr. Watson's first plane making short flights over the fields near Errol in the years 1903-4. These were obtained with the aid of a single tractor type propeller and the catapult take-off I have already described. If this evidence can be relied upon in regard to dates, it is clear that Watson had flown about the time of the Wright's first powered flight, if not before.
Encouraged by the success of his early experiments, and by the news from France and America that others, too, were at last beginning to lift their machines into the air, Mr. Watson built two further planes, similar to his original design but with improvements. His second had a wheeled undercarriage and was powered with a three-cylinder 30 h.p. Humber engine. In his third plane a 60/70 h.p. Anzani engine was used. These planes were often seen in flight in the years immediately before the first world war. When this broke out Watson, now 34 years of age, volunteered for service with the newly formed Royal Naval Air Service, and it was said of him by his instructor that he never had a better pupil. Barely two months after obtaining his commission he lost his life when the service plane that he was piloting exploded in mid-air.
That Watson deserves to be recognised as a pioneer is certain, and whatever may have been the exact date of his first flight, he was the first "Flying Scot."
© The Meccano Magazine - Vol. XLII No. 6 - June 1957, pps. 284-5