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H.G. Hawker Engineering Company

Hawker Siddeley, one of the largest and best-known companies in British aviation, got its start through a bankruptcy. The failed firm, Sopwith Aviation, had been very active during World War I and had built the famous Sopwith Camel fighter plane. Orders from the government dried up following the end of the war, in 1918, and Sopwith found itself struggling. Then the British treasury presented a very large bill for excess profits during the war. Unable to pay it, Sopwith responded by declaring that it was bankrupt. Its assets were taken over by a group of investors led by the test pilot Harry Hawker. His new firm, H. G. Hawker Engineering Company, opened for business late in 1920.

Major Harry Hawker was an Australian, just 31 in 1919, at which time he was the highest paid flier in the world. He was a bicycle mechanic in Australia when he went to England in 1912 and became an aeroplane mechanic. In 1912 he joined the T. 0. M. Sopwith Company, and a year later he came to the United States and flew in "Tim" Woodruff's Nassau Boulevard meet. Hawker returned to England, and about a year later entered the famous "round England flight."

On October 24, 1912, in a Sopwith biplane, designed after the pattern of the American Wright, and driven by a 40 horse-power ABC engine, he put up the British duration record to 8 hours and 23 minutes, thus winning the Michelin Cup for that year. On May 31, 1913, in a Sopwith tractor biplane, with an 80 horse-power Gnome engine, he put up the British altitude record for a pilot alone to 11,450 feet, and on June 16 of the same year, in the same machine, he hung up a record, with one passenger, of 12,900 feet. On the same day he took up two passengers to 10,600 feet, and on July 27 took up three passengers to 8,400 feet, all of which were British records.

In 1913 and 1914, in a Sopwith seaplane, Hawker made two attempts to win the Daily Mail's $25,000 prize for a flight on a seaplane around Great Britain. The first time he was knocked out by illness at Yarmouth, and the second time he met with an accident near Dublin. During the three years from 1916 to 1919 Hawker was test pilot for the Sopwiths, receiving $125 for each flight, and sometimes making a dozen in a single day. His annual earnings in this period were estimated at $100,000.

The great event of 1919, the crossing of the Atlantic by air, was gradually ripening to performance. In addition to the rigid airship, R.34, eight machines entered for this flight, these being a Short seaplane, Handley-Page, Martinsyde, VickersVimy, and Sopwith aeroplanes, and three American flying boats. H. G. Hawker, pilot of the Sopwith biplane, together with Commander Mackenzie Grieve, R.N., his navigator, found the weather sufficiently auspicious to set out at 6.48 p.m. on Sunday, May 18th, in the hope of completing the trip by the direct route before N.C.4 could reach Plymouth. They set out from Mount Pearl aerodrome, St John's, Newfoundland, and vanished into space, being given up as lost, as Hamel was lost immediately before the War in attempting to fly the North Sea. There was a week of dead silence regarding their fate, but on the following Sunday morning there was world-wide relief at the news that the plucky attempt had not ended in disaster, but both aviators had been picked up by the steamer Mary at 9-30 a.m. on the morning of the 19th, while still about 750 miles short of the conclusion of their journey. Engine failure brought them down, and they planed down to the sea close to the Mary to be picked up; as the vessel was not fitted with wireless, the news of their rescue could not be communicated until land was reached. An equivalent of half the 10,000 prize offered by the Daily Mail for the non-stop flight was presented by the paper in recognition of the very gallant attempt, and the King conferred the Air Force Cross on both pilot and navigator.

Hawker found work initially by building motorcycles and motorcars and by rebuilding used aircraft. However, company officials wanted to return to being full-time planebuilders. The Royal Air Force was placing orders for small numbers of new aircraft from a variety of British companies, which gave Hawker Engineering its opportunity. A brilliant chief designer, Sydney Camm, helped as well.

Under his leadership, Hawker scored a substantial success with a single-engine bomber, the Hart. Camm introduced a steel framework for light weight. The finished aircraft had an empty weight of only 2,530 pounds (1,148 kilograms), which gave it great speed. When the first Harts entered service in 1930, they had a top speed of 184 miles per hour (296 kilometers per hour), which was 30 miles per hour (48 kilometers per hour) faster than biplane fighters that tried to intercept.

The Hart remained in production through much of the 1930s, and gave rise to 17 variants. Because of its high speed, it was adapted for use as a fighter. Another version, fitted with pontoons, flew with aircraft carriers of the Royal Navy. More than 3,000 Harts were built, making this the most produced British airplane in the years before World War II.

Few other companies approached this success. Indeed, after 1930, the Great Depression placed many plane builders under considerable financial stress. Officials of the British government responded by encouraging aviation leaders to reorganize their industry into fewer but stronger companies. Thomas Sopwith, chairman of Hawker, took the initiative by drawing on profits from sales of Harts as he raised capital of 2 million, some $10 million. He then bought up other firms: Gloster Aircraft, Armstrong Siddeley Motors, Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft, Air Service Training, and A. V. Roe. In 1935 he reorganized these holdings as the Hawker Siddeley Aircraft Company. These mergers placed those firms on a good financial footing, at a time when war was only a few years away.

The fine hand of Sir Sydney Camm, chief designer of the Hawker Hurricane of Battle of Britain fame, was apparent in the distinct family resemblance is evident in the long line of famous Hawker fighter designs, extending through the graceful Hunter, the Tempest, Typhoon, and Hurricane of World War II, all the way back to the elegant Fury of the 1930s, the fastest operational biplane fighter ever built.

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Page last modified: 09-05-2013 17:37:46 ZULU