The aviation race to cross the Irish Sea

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Sunday 22 April, marks the 100th anniversary of the first manned flight across the Irish Sea from Wales to Ireland.

In April 1912, three intrepid aviation pioneers - Vivien Hewitt, Denys Corbett Wilson and Damer Leslie Allen - each aimed to be the first man to fly across the Irish Sea in an aeroplane.

The race to cross the sea would eventually leave one man missing presumed dead, another successful in the endeavour, and the third man, who landed four days after the record had been completed, hailed as a triumphant hero.

The challenge had previously been attempted by actor-aviator Robert Loraine. On 11 September 1910 he had narrowly failed to cross the Irish Sea. Leaving from Holyhead, he was tantalisingly close to the Irish coast when his plane suffered engine trouble and he was forced to land in the sea and swim ashore.

Two years later, Hewitt, Corbett Wilson and Allen all chose to attempt the challenge using single seater Bleriot XI monoplanes.

The Bleriot XI was constructed with wood and fabric and had a compass but few other navigational aids. It had a maximum speed of around 65 miles per hour but was vulnerable in strong winds.

Two of the aviators, Denys Corbett Wilson and Damer Leslie Allen, who had both relatively recently attained their Aviator's Certificate, met at Hendon in north London and had become friends.

On Wednesday 17 April 1912, both men arrived early in the morning at Hendon to begin their journey. There were very strong winds that morning, which showed no signs of easing.

Eventually taking off, Allen reached Chester, but Corbett Wilson, having lost his compass in the strong winds, was forced to land at Hereford. He bought castor oil locally but it was the wrong grade and engine trouble meant to had to land again, this time at Colva. There he chose to wait for his mechanic to arrive.

Meanwhile, Damer Leslie Allen set off to Holyhead to attempt the record flight. The next day he left for Ireland but tragically was never seen again. He was later reported missing but his body was never found.

In the meantime, Corbett Wilson had decided to cross the Irish Sea from Fishguard. His original plan, to fly north to Chester and Holyhead, was abandoned.

Corbett Wilson chose to begin his journey from Harbour Village in Goodwick, Pembrokeshire. Weather conditions were reasonably good on the morning of Monday 22 April, and at 5.47am Corbett Wilson took off from Goodwick and headed west towards Ireland.

In spite of deteriorating weather conditions, he reached Crane in Enniscorthy in county Wexford in a flight time of 100 minutes.

He sent a telegram saying: "I have flown successfully St. George's Channel, starting from Fishguard at six o'clock and landing near Enniscorthy, Wexford County, in pouring rain and fog."

Newspaper reports suggested the that tragic race between Allen and Corbett Wilson was the result of a wager, but this was later denied.

In the meantime Captain Vivian Hewitt was too preparing to cross the Irish Sea. His attempt began in Rhyl, north Wales, on 26 April 1912.

Hewitt flew through a foggy Irish Sea before with few navigational aids and landed, some 75 minutes later, dramatically at Phoenix Park in Dublin. When he attempted to land, turbulence nearly flipped his plane upside down. He landed and was greeted as a hero by a jubilant crowd.

A modest man, Hewitt later wrote in his logbook: "Passage very rough and the wind strong and the machine took some handling".

Although Corbett Wilson had completed the first flight from Wales to Ireland a few days earlier, contemporary reports judged Hewitt's longer journey from north Wales to the Irish capital to be the more difficult and dangerous feat, and he was heralded accordingly.

The daring aviation attempts took place just a week or so after the sinking of the Titanic. The naval tragedy consumed the British press in April 2012 meaning that the achievements of Denys Corbett Wilson and Vivien Hewitt neither of the men were to achieve the level of fame that they truly merited.

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