Historian looks to highlight Capital pilot’s achievement

WH Ewen clutches the monoplane's propeller before his flight
WH Ewen clutches the monoplane's propeller before his flight
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THE Wright brothers might be known the world over for making the first piloted flight in history, but unbeknown to most, Edinburgh has its very own claim to fame when it comes to early aviation.

Just eight years after the American brothers made their historic flight in North Carolina on December 17, 1903, the first flight was made across the Firth of Forth.

WH Ewen

WH Ewen

William H Ewen bravely entered into the unknown as he took off from Portobello’s Marine Gardens – now home to a string of car showrooms in Seafield Road – and made his way across the Forth to Fife.

Mr Ewen’s exploits opened up a whole new world to residents of the Capital who turned out to watch the spectacle as it was the first time they had seen a plane in flight.

But despite this, not much is known about the intrepid aviator and the momentous occasion seems to have largely escaped the history books.

To mark the centenary of the flight, a Portobello historian has put together as much detail on Mr Ewen’s flight as she could find, and hopes that by telling the story of Mr Ewen’s monoplane flight, more information and interest in the historic occasion will come to light.

It is also hoped something more could be done to commemorate Portobello’s piece of aviation history.

Margaret Munro, chair of the Portobello Heritage Trust, said: “It seems to be a little-known Portobello event and not many people are aware of it. I thought it was a particularly interesting story.

“You hear about people swimming across the Forth, but it’s never been highlighted that anyone flew across in the early days of aviation.

“It was still quite a precarious occupation back in 1911 and the fact that he actually managed to achieve it is impressive.

“Aviation was still in the early stages and planes were still very fragile so it was quite an exciting event.

Ms Munro added: “I think the centenary was quite a significant date.

“We don’t really have any local aviation clubs, but somewhere like [the National Museum of Flight] at East Fortune might feel it’s appropriate to have future commemorations.”

Mr Ewen’s Deperdussin monoplane, which was powered by a three cylinder Anzani engine, took off from Portobello at 7pm on August 30, 1911.

Strong winds caused the pilot problems, prompting him to fly to 1000 ft to try and improve his flight path.

He flew over Inchkeith Island, then headed back across the Forth to Portobello after he reached Kinghorn.

Halfway across the water, cross winds again caused him problems, making the plane rock and dip.

On beginning his descent to land back in Portobello’s Marine Gardens, Mr Ewen changed course at the last minute and instead landed in a field west of the former sports ground as the wind was too strong and he did not want to damage his plane.

The aircraft was then wheeled back to Marine Gardens, where the pilot received “an enthusiastic reception” according to newspaper reports of the time.

Mr Ewen, who had only taken up flying earlier that year, was the only Scot to hold a pilot’s licence at that time.

A spokesman for National Museums Scotland said that the Forth crossing was “a really interesting part of the early story of flight in Scotland”, but added that the National Museum of Flight had no material connected with the crossing.