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Ernest Willows, Welsh aviation pioneer

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 11:51 UK time, Tuesday, 16 November 2010

There is a pub named after him at the bottom end of City Road and even a High School in the Splott area of the capital. But how many of us know anything else about Ernest Thompson Willows?

He was an amazing man but these days has been rather overlooked in the pantheon of early aviation heroes.

Ernest Willows was born on 11 July 1886 in Cardiff. Educated at Clifton College he left school at 15 in order to train as a dentist. But he had a fascination with aviation - in particular with ballooning - and this was the area where he proposed to make his name.

It was not just Willows. In the early years of the 20th century it seemed as if the whole world was obsessed with flight. In an age of experimentation and invention, almost every red-blooded young man with a yen for science and adventure wanting to get into the air and fly.

Ernest Willows built his first rigid balloon - Willows 1 as he soon named it - in 1905. He was just 19 years old at the time and flew the machine from East Moors to the east of Cardiff.

The balloon, its envelope or gas bag made out of silk, was powered by a motorbike engine and, on its first flight, was in the air for over 80 minutes.

Willows piloted the machine from a gondola suspended below the bag and, in all, made six dramatic flights, the longest of them lasting for over two hours.

He quickly designed and built a new, improved version of his balloon called, appropriately enough, Willows 2.

Bristol Channel

In this craft he made flights to places like Cheltenham and London and even became the first man to make a powered flight across the Bristol Channel. On 4 June, 1910 he landed Willows 2 on the open field in front of Cardiff's City Hall where he received an enthusiastic welcome from the people of his home town.

When Willows came up with another new airship, Willows 3, he decided to fly it to France. This was a hazardous undertaking and, although he duly became the first man to make an airship crossing of the English Channel at night, the flight was not without adventure.

Firstly Willows lost his maps over the side of the gondola, and then there were problems with the craft's envelope. He was forced to land at Douai in order to make repairs to the silk bag before taking once more to the air and arriving in Paris on 28 December 1910.

After this experience Willows decided to stay on in Paris for a few weeks. He celebrated the New Year by making several circuits around the Eiffel Tower in his miraculous machine, much to the delight of the spectators on the ground.

When, in 1912, the intrepid Welsh aviator sold his next balloon, Willows 4, to the Royal Navy it brought him the huge sum of £1,000. Willows used this to build a spherical gas balloon and, then, Willows 5, in which he was soon offering joy rides to the public over the city of London.

However, with the outbreak of World War One, the age of the air balloon as a commercial and military machine was rapidly coming to an end. Rigid wing aeroplanes began to assume a position of dominance in the minds of military planners.

After some initial success, the eventual failure of the giant German Zeppelin airships - billed, initially, by the German High Command and by the British press as the new "terror weapons" - seemed to underline this fact. Ernest Willows had a relatively quiet time in the war, designing and building early versions of the barrage balloon - something that only really came into its own during World War Two - in his home town of Cardiff.

None of this diminished the enthusiasm of Willows for ballooning and for airships. However, on 23 August 1926 he was tragically killed when his new balloon crashed at Hoo Park in Bedford. Two passengers who were with him in the gondola died at the same time.

Willows was a man of great enterprise and skill. He was, perhaps, a man out of his time.

Had he been born 20 years before he could have enjoyed far more fame and success in the field of ballooning. If he had been born 20 years later he might have become one of the great aircraft designers of all time.

As it is he remains a largely forgotten figure, his name living on in the shape of a public house and a large high school in the city that he called home.


  • Comment number 1.

    Reading your blog about Ernest Willows, it seems incredible that people would ever take to the air underneath a bag full of gas. One spark could set it alight, surely? At least balloons these days are powered by hot air, not gas. I should imagine there were lots of disasters in those early days of flight.

  • Comment number 2.

    You're right, there were many disasters - Willows himself died in an air crash. It happened to many of the early pioneers of flight, men like Cody and Wright. As far as balloons were concerned the "writing was on the wall" from as early as WW1. Most zeppelin losses came from bad weather rather than British and French aircraft. For some reason the powers that be continued to have faith in balloons and it took huge disasters like the crash of the R101 and the Hindenberg to really end the day of the airship.

  • Comment number 3.

    I just wanted to say thank you so much for your post! Absolutely fascinating. My family have always told me about Ernest who was 'a keen baloonist'. I was also told that someone had died during a flight but I had no idea of the whole story. I always thought this muat be a made up story until I saw the pub in Cardiff and decided to look him up myself! Thank you.


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