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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 December, 2003, 08:28 GMT
Welsh aviator's world firsts
Pioneering Welsh aviator, Ernest Willows
Ernest Willows was the first to cross the Channel from England
The celebrations to mark the 100th anniversary since man's first powered flight have highlighted the now almost forgotten contribution of a Welsh aviator.

In 1910, just seven years after the Wright brothers' pioneering work, Cardiff balloonist Ernest Willows achieved the first of several world records.

He had developed a way of powering a hot air balloon using movable propellers. The idea meant balloons with a rigid frame - known as dirigibles - could be steered.

The breakthrough saw him undertake the first crossing of the Bristol Channel by air on his way to London.

Ernest Willows' steerable balloon
Pioneer: Willows invented steering for dirigibles

That journey took 10 hours and was the longest anyone had stayed in the air until then.

Willows was born in Cardiff in 1896. His father was a wealthy dentist.

Despite starting to train to be a dentist himself, his father backed him when, aged only 18, he started to develop his own craft.

His innovation was to develop an airship with two propellers - to help direction and more accurate steering.

Willows' biographer, retired journalist Alec McKinty, said it was a great achievement.

"It's amazing that he made it because they had no directional aids in those days, no hi-tech computers or compasses.

"He had to come down close to the ground about 12 times and shout to people through a megaphone."

Alec McKinty
Biographer: Alex McKinty wrote about book on Willows

However, Ernest Willows' finest moment, came when he became the first person to cross the English Channel from London to Paris.

Willows' exploits never earned him any money, despite opening a balloon factory in East Moors and Westgate Street in Cardiff.

And his life was cut short in 1926 in a ballooning accident in Bedford.

He died aged only 40, but he had already done enough to earn himself a place in aviation history.

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