A Magnificent Man
Legendary flying machine in Steyning
The first ever passenger flight made an unscheduled stop in Steyning as Horatio Barber refuelled his Valkyrie and an excited crowd gathered.
The aeroplane in this Steyning field was Horatio Barber's Valkyrie
The year was 1911, when Steyning left its own small mark on the very early history of aviation.
Early on a sunny Monday afternoon, at the end of July, the people of Steyning had an unexpected and memorable experience. Many of them rushed off to a field at the back of Bayards, a property on the Horsham Road opposite the Grammar School playing fields.
Word had got around that an aeroplane had landed there - not that everyone knew what an aeroplane was. It was not just an aeroplane with its pilot, which would have been an extraordinary and rare event at that time. It was an aeroplane with a passenger. It was, in fact, unique - the very first successful cross country flight of an aeroplane with a passenger.
The plane had been designed and built by Horatio Barber and he flew it as well. It was a monoplane powered by a 50hp Gnome engine and he called it the Valkyrie. It is described as the most successful “tail first” plane ever produced. The pilot sat on the top of it in front of the wings, completely open to the elements.
Horatio Barber, with Violet Trehawke Davies sitting behind him, took off from Hendon aerodrome at 5.55 am that day. At 500 feet he set a course for Brighton but, by the time they reached Harrow the wind had got up. Eventually, after half an hour's flying, they reached Brooklands, in Surrey, where Barber decided to land to refuel.
Having set off once more, still with a head wind, Barber again became concerned about running short of fuel. Almost within sight of Shoreham, he decided to land to take on yet more petrol. The place he chose was a field just to the west of Steyning but the ground was a bit rough and one of the spindly wheels buckled on landing.
How long it took for the pilot to find a supply of petrol is not recorded. One of the bicycle repair shops in the town may have had some (to supply motor cars) and could have done some work on the wheel. It was certainly long enough, judging from photographs taken at the time, for a large crowd to have gathered.
To add to Barber’s problems, there were trees around the field. When the Valkyrie eventually took off again, it only cleared them with three feet to spare.
Horatio Barber’s triumph in making the first cross country trip with a passenger can be judged from a report in the Brighton Herald of May 1911, in which the trials and tribulations of another aeronaut are described. A Mr. Morrison had attempted to take off from Haywards Heath with a passenger but ended up in the branches of a large oak tree, from which they had to escape with the help of ladders.
The report adds: “The aeroplane generally was not injured, but so much was it mixed up among the branches that it was found that it had to be taken to pieces to be removed.”
The exceptional excitement generated by these aeronautical demonstrations can be judged by another newspaper report of an air race between the Brooklands airport (in Surrey) and Brighton, in the same year. A crowd of thousands all along the front at Brighton and Hove were given, “an amazing demonstration of man’s conquest of the air and were furnished with a spectacle of supreme fascination.”
Some Facts About
First Fatal Air Accident
The Illustrated London News of
3rd June 1911 recorded the death of Walter Benson, a pupil of Barber at the Hendon flying-ground. Flying a Valkyrie, Benson was attempting a difficult manoeuvre which was beyond the capability of someone with his limited experience.
First Plane to Carry
On 4th July 1911, Barber flew a box of Osram light bulbs from Shoreham airport to Hove, on behalf of the General Electric Company. He charged them £100, close to £7,500 in today’s money, but gave it to charity.
First Passenger Flight
Violet Trehawke Davies chartered Barber to fly her from Hendon to Brighton and back. With several stops for fuel and in high winds, the trip took two days. She later became the first passenger to fly from London to Paris.
When Horatio Barber wanted to insure himself against liability for his passengers, Lloyd's agreed to take it on but had never written such a policy before. Lloyds asked Barber to write the policy for himself. Barber later became a specialist in the aviation insurance industry.
Fantasy of Flight
See a modern replica of the Valkyrie and more of Horatio Barber's achievements
Early Birds of Aviation
A rare photograph of Horatio Barber and some interesting links relating to his history as an aviator
Horatio Barber 's biography, with links to another entry about the Valkyrie
Their Flying Machines
Many photographs of Valkyrie aeroplanes with rare historic details
Barber was one of the first trainers at the airport and made history there with his first cargo flight