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Page last updated at 11:15 GMT, Tuesday, 9 June 2009 12:15 UK
Was it a hop or not for A V Roe?
A. V. Roe and his plane in 1908 (c) Manchester Libraries
A. V. Roe and his plane in 1908

On Monday 13 July 2009, it will be exactly 100 years since the Salfordian aviator Alliot Verdon Roe became the first Briton to take flight.

Yet some people have already celebrated the anniversary of Roe's first flight back in June 2008.

It's all down to what you believe happened in 1908 - and that splits aviation experts down the middle.

A year before Roe flew into history on board his triplane, some argue he made his debut flight in a simpler biplane.

What isn't up for debate is that Alliot designed and built his Roe I Biplane in 1908 in an attempt to win a prize being offered by the Brooklands Automobile Racing Club (based at Brooklands racing track in Weybridge, Surrey).

A. V. Roe and a model of his Triplane (c) Manchester Libraries
born in Patricroft, Eccles on April 26, 1877
apprenticed with the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway
began writing to Wright brothers after their first flight in 1903
first attempts at flight in June 1908 at Brooklands
first flight in an all British aircraft at Walthamstow marshes in July 1909
founded the A.V. Roe Aircraft Co. in 1910
knighted in 1929
died January 4, 1958

Roe had won a £75 prize offered by the Daily Mail for his design of a triplane the previous year, but the Brooklands stake was somewhat larger - the club committee were offering £2,500 for the first person to fly a circuit of their race track by the end of 1907.

Although he missed the deadline to win the prize, Roe was so far on with his design by the turn of the year that he decided to complete it and make an attempt anyway.

On 8 June 1908, Roe strapped himself into the biplane, started up the motor - a French Antoinette engine which had replaced his original British one, as that had proved not to be able to generate enough power - and made the first of a series of short hops around the track.

Quite how successful those hops were is where the debate lies - did the aircraft truly leave the ground or not?

While it has been widely accepted for many years that it did, recently in his book 'Trials, Troubles and Triplanes', Philip Jarrett argued that it didn't, based on a letter written by Roe a month after his attempt in which he writes that the biplane 'nearly left the ground'.

It seems like conclusive evidence, but it's not as black and white as it seems.

Other aviation experts and Roe's own descendants point out that he doesn't actually say in the letter which version of the plane he is referring to - the one with the original small British engine or the one with the more powerful French replacement - and that he did, in fact, briefly take to the air.

From biplane to triplane

Had Roe continued to try in his biplane, the debate may have been halted there and then, as he probably would have succeeded eventually, but before anything further could be achieved, the biplane was damaged beyond repair when Brooklands attendants dropped it while they were lifting it over a fence.

Roe I Triplane flying at Wembley Park in 1909 (c) Manchester Libraries
Roe I Triplane flying in 1909

This led Roe back to his original award-winning design for the triplane and on 5 June 1909, he took his finished aircraft to Walthamstow marshes and began making initially unsuccessful attempts.

His luck changed a month later - on 13 July, he became the first Briton to make a powered flight in an all British built aircraft.

As no-one else had managed to make a flight in the interim period between Roe's attempts, it means that whatever happened in 1908 was immaterial - A.V. Roe was and is indisputably the first Briton to successfully pilot an aircraft and more than deserving of a whole year of anniversary celebrations.



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