Stirling in Flight 5 How history turned full circle.
The year is July 1916 and at this point, the history of flying in this area contrived to turn full circle.
In 1507, James IV’s courtier John Damian took off from Stirling Castle ramparts sporting feathered arms, en route for Turkey. Unsurprisingly, his flight was to be brief, no further than the Castle’s cesspit into which Damian fell and survived. Afterwards, there was no progress in flight until in the summer of 1784. The Scot James Tytler constructed a helium balloon to which he attached a basket and reached a height of some 350 feet whilst travelling for half a mile along the edge of Holyrood Park Edinburgh. The next year, the debonair Italian, Vincenzo Lunardi managed to best this, with a flight of over 100 miles, to great acclaim. Then a number of mishaps occurred, culminating in a fatality. Interest in ballooning subsided for some years.
By 1831 however, Charles Green, the United Kingdom’s most famous balloonist of that era, was in the skies near Stirling having taken off from Alloa. By 1836, he had set a major long distance record in a balloon, flying overnight from London to Weilburg in Germany, a distance of 480 miles. However, the balloon remained cumbersome and invariably the master of the aviator. Something was needed whereby the flyer controlled the means of flight.
In 1903, the American Wright Brothers were the first to fly a powered aeroplane from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Frank Barnwell, a gifted engineer from Balfron, was, between 1905 and 1907, working in America for the design office of a shipbuilder. He became acquainted with the Wrights’ work and, after returning to Scotland, set up a workshop at the top of Causewayhead, Stirling with his brother Harold. By 1910, Harold had managed to fly an aeroplane of their design at Blairdrummond. Both Harold and Frank would subsequently be employed by national aircraft manufacturers.
The Daily Mail Circuit of Britain Air Race that passed through Stirling in the following years proved that a well-designed aircraft in the hands of a competent pilot could cover long distances rapidly.
In August 1914, the First World War broke out. It was commonly thought that it would be over by that Christmas, and young men scrambled to the colours before it was too late for adventure. The Battle of Mons fought within weeks of the outbreak, proved otherwise. A decisive victory by either side was not achieved and would be the start of four or more years of stalemate. Mere yards of territory would be won at the cost of thousands of lives, only to be lost again. Military commanders began desperately to seek a means, any means, of gaining strategic advantage. Two ideas were pursued. The first was the tank, and the second the aeroplane. When the latter was introduced to the army in 1912, cavalry officers complained of their horses rearing at the noise overhead. The advantage of the plane as a means of plotting enemy strategy soon became apparent. When the aeroplane first appeared over enemy lines, the soldier’s rifle was largely futile in destroying it. The only means of defence, was to send another aircraft to intercept it. At that time, the only armament available was a hand-pistol fired by the pilot. Soon planes were fitted with guns mounted from the wings. When that gun could be fired through a spinning propeller, the aeroplane became an instrument of destruction in its own right.
Before the outbreak of war, aeroplanes were generally flown by enthusiastic amateurs. The need for more aviators was addressed by the founding of the Royal Flying Corps in 1912. Many pilots were recruited from serving soldiers, anxious to escape the monotony of the trenches. However, they had first to be trained, and, before that could happen, suitable sites for aerodromes had to be found. By 1916, the RFC had visited Stirling and requisitioned a site to the west of the Castle on land belonging to Falleninch Farm. The site became known as the “Raploch Aerodrome”.
Some preparations had to be made before it could be used. The occupants of the farmhouse were evicted before the building became the Officers Mess. Suitable sheds and hangers had then to be erected. The Forth and Clyde Junction Railway, who owned the railway to the north of the farm, was ordered to reduce the height of the telegraph poles on its land to facilitate safe landings.
On the 15th April 1916, the first planes arrived. For the next two years squadrons came and went. For some reason, the airfield never became established, and by September 1918 the land had been returned to agriculture. This is perhaps a mercy. Other Scottish aerodromes such as Turnhouse, soon became disfigured by development. As it is, the breath-taking view from the Castle ramparts over which John Damian jumped in 1507, remains unspoilt.
However, the relationship between Stirling and flight was not yet over.