John Crampton, who knew Sir
Thomas well, has contributed the following anecdotes about the great
man to whom we all owe so much...
Early in 1968 I was detailed off by the management to comply with a
request from the Institute of Mechanical Engineers for someone from our
Company to prepare and read a Paper on the history of both the Sopwith
and Hawker Aircraft Companies. I expressed astonishment at the request
and felt sure that I was not really the right bloke; I knew little or
nothing about the histories. "Just the very man we want", said the
Management, "no preconceived ideas!"
A few weeks before this, Bill Bedford and I had been asked to go to
Dunsfold on a day that Sir Thomas Sopwith would be visiting. He wanted
a run down on the P.1127. Bill and I did our stuff. I remember Sopwith
on that occasion very clearly. He leant forward in his chair to catch
every word we said - especially when Bill described flying the
by this meeting I wrote a very carefully worded letter to Sir Thomas
telling him of the daunting task I had been given and would he kindly
guide my hand in drafting my Paper? And perhaps even more kindly read
the Paper before I presented it to the Institute's audience to ensure I
had not made too many howlers; hopefully no howlers at all? The day
after posting this letter my telephone rang at midmorning. "Sopwith
here. Got your letter. You'd better come to lunch. When?" The only day
I could accept such an invitation during that period was the following
day. "Thank you, sir," I said. "Tomorrow?" "Oooooh hang on,
tomorrow..." Then followed whisperings to, I presumed, Lady Sopwith,
about this immediate acceptance. "Yers, all right. Know where we are?"
"Yes, sir" "A quarter to one then." "Thank you, Sir." What follows are
his answers to a few of my questions.
John Crampton. "Starting at the end of 1910 you had a couple of sheds
in which you kept your aircraft at Brooklands and I assume you flew
from that aerodrome as frequently as possible?" Thomas Sopwith. "Yers."
were also flying from there at the time?" This resulted in a
period of deep thought; a characteristic when Sopwith was asked such a
wide ranging question. Then TS: "Werl, there was a feller almost next
to me who had a shed. He used to fly every now and then and whenever he
turned up we all stopped what we were doing to watch the crash. The man
could get off the ground and fly around but he had no idea how to land.
He'd either stop the thing thirty feet up and so fall with a sickening
crash before us all, or he'd fly it straight into the ground, in which
case the accident took longer. We'd have to disentangle him from his
wreckage and someone took him to Weybridge Hospital. Trouble was he
always lost something in the crash: an arm, leg, hand, eye. In fact
when the poor little bugger died he had only one of everything left."
JC. "In 1911 you went to America and took part very successfully in a
number of flying competitions. While there you bought a Wright
Flyer..." TS. "Yers." JC. "How would you sum up Wilbur and Orville
Wright? TS. "Two very quiet and serious Americans. Not given to any
small talk and not given to suffering fools gladly, either. Bit like
Camm - who came later."
JC. "Having studied pictures of your Howard Wright biplane the position
of the undercarriage indicates that you flew with the Centre of Gravity
rather far aft." TS. "Yers, and the longer you had the aeroplane the
further aft the CG would go." JC. "Why?" TS. "Stands to reason." JC.
"Not to me, sir." TS. "Werl, look where the engine is." JC. "Trailing
edge of the wing centre section." TS. "Yers. Well those things threw
out a gallon of oil an hour. And that went all over the tailplane." JC.
"I see. Did you just renew the fabric or the whole structure?" TS. "The
lot. The wood got soaked too."
I once asked Sir Thomas who gave the unusual names to his aircraft:
Baby, Pup, Camel, Cuckoo, Dolphin, Snipe, Bulldog, Salamander, Gnu, and
so on. "I have no idea." he said. This struck me as strange. Sir Thomas
must have known, but he gave a direct answer to a straight question. It
would have been very impertinent of me to say "Oh come on sir, you must
know." So I didn't. I asked him again several years later and he
snapped back at me "I've already told you. I do not know." It was the
only time he spoke severely. Clearly something rankled him. I have
since re-read that wonderful book by Harald Penrose, "British Aviation
- The Great War and Armistice, 1915 - 1919". The answer is given in
Appendix 5, page 605. Worth looking up.
[Editor's note. For those of you without this classic book, I have
looked it up for you. Name types were specified in an official
Government publication: TDI 538, later to become AP.547. Single seat,
land or carrier based aircraft were to be named after reptiles (except
snakes) or land birds (except birds of prey); multi-seaters after
mammals (except felidae - the cat tribe); seaplanes after waterfowl or
fishes. However, these rules do not appear to have been applied
rigorously eg the Baby, Pup, Camel and Dolphin were all
single seat land planes. I understand that the first three were
unofficial nick-names derived from size and appearance, but a Dolphin
is certainly not a reptile or land bird!]
The Paper on Sopwiths and Hawkers was passed by Sopwith and given to
the Kingston upon Thames Branch of the IMechE on november 28th 1968.
And that, I thought, would bring my association with Sopwith to an end.
But no! On a number of occasions he would ask me to perform tasks for
him. Nothing demanding. Rather along the lines of what follows - a
brilliant account of a lunch party in 1977 that Sopwith gave to Robert
Parke, editor of the American aircraft magazine "Flying".
continued in the next Newsletter (so, pay your subscriptions, please!)