Lincolnshire has often been referred to as bomber county, in reference to the large number of airfields and airbases that have been built on its green and largely flat land. However, the associations this county has with flight are not purely military in character and help remind us that Lincolnshire is an innovative and forward-looking county with connections to the whole of the world.
Whilst the honour of first Briton in space goes to Helen Sharman, the second Briton to do so, Michael Foale, was born in Louth. Educated in Cambridgeshire, he travelled to Texas to join NASA, and I have no qualms about claiming him as a local boy.
Incidentally, Lincolnshire had significant connections to British and American rocketry during the cold war, playing host to both Thor and Bloodhound missiles. When rocketry began in Lincolnshire is something I have not yet been able to ascertain, but I cannot imagine that this county would have been left out of the heady optimism of the 1930s when the British Interplanetary Society was formed and the rallying cry was “Onward to Mars!”
Military aviation in two world wars is well documented, although I may have reason to revisit the perilous year of 1914 to 1918 to reveal the touching personal stories behind the drive to build more planes and defend the counties skies. Less well known is the pleasure flying boom that took place between the wars, with pilots taking holidaymakers and pleasure seekers on short adrenaline-fuelled jaunts at “five bob a flip!”
The arrival of flying men and machines in Lincolnshire actually came just before the first world war in the form of celebrity aviators such as Gustav Hamel and Bentfield Charles Huck. Hamel was the first man to fly over the Humber in 1912, landing at Grimsby where he spent the next two days celebrating. Mr B.C. Huck was another pioneer who was the first to perform a loop the loop in an aeroplane, and during his national tour of 1911 he has the honour of being the first aviator in Lincolnshire, bringing his 70hp Bleriot monoplane to Spalding, Lincoln and Boston, and possibly other localities as well.
So far we have concentrated on heavier than air aircraft, a species of vehicle that has only been around since the pioneering flight of the Wright brothers in 1903. But Lincolnshire knows lighter than air vessels just as well, with airship training undertaken at Cranwell from World War One and beyond.
The earliest reports of airships over Lincolnshire come from 1909, and are sadly fictitious in nature. In early 1909 the whole country was gripped by a mystery airship frenzy after two policemen reported to the Peterborough Gazette that they had seen a cigar-shaped object flying over the town. 1909 was, purely by coincidence the year that HG Wells “War in the Air” was serialised in the newspapers and the film “Airship destroyer” was shown in cinemas across the country.
Returning to the realms of the cult, the canny and the scrutable, airships may have been absent from Lincolnshire before the First World War, but balloons were very much in evidence. Spalding, in particular, is notable for the frequency of balloon flights in the latter part of the 19th century, but for the first balloon flights, we must look at the newspaper announcements of the 1820s and 30s and the activities of one Charles Green; Aeronaut.
Charles Green was a London fruiterer, who obviously decided he wanted something more from life. In 1821 he helped celebrate the coronation of George IV by ascending from Green Park in London, using a balloon filled with coal gas (the kind used to light the gas lamps). In 1823 the aeronaut had arrived in Lincolnshire and on the 2nd of July he ascended from the gasworks at Stamford in his balloon, now named Coronation. The Stamford Mercury proclaimed this “the first such event in Lincolnshire”.
And so we have the story of Lincolnshire’s first flights, a fruiterer flew the first balloon, and a car salesman flew the first aeroplane, proving that people from ordinary beginnings can live extraordinary lives.
So let me end with a challenge, let me say that there are more firsts for the people of Lincolnshire to achieve in the field of flight and even space travel, and let me hope that one day a flight may begin in this county that will carry humanity far from this oasis we call the earth… Onward to Mars?