Tuesday, 24 November 2015

The Plane Landing Feat on Helvellyn

Most visitors to Helvellyn's summit will at one time view the plaques on that summit and if the weather allows, they will take the time to read the inscriptions. Most are amazed at the feat of adventure they read which gives the account of the landing of a plane by the pilot.

The inscription reads:

'THE FIRST AEROPLANE TO
LAND ON A MOUNTAIN
IN GREAT BRITAIN
DID SO ON THIS SPOT
ON DECEMBER 22ND 1926
JOHN LEEMING AND
BERT HINKLER
IN AN AVRO 585 GOSPORT
LANDED HERE
AND AFTER A SHORT STAY
FLEW BACK TO WOODFORD'

John Leeming was the chairman of the Lancashire Aero Club and Hinkler was a famous flyer who had himself flown in the Schneider Cup, in 1925, which was won by United States.



Above is a better reflection of the terrain they had to land there craft on.


What is not generally known by the walker is that this was their 3rd attempt to land the aircraft, the first being on 15th, however the weather conditions of mist up to a level of 4,000 feet meant that the attempt had to be abandoned, as they stated they would have had to rise to 6,000 ft; Helvellyn is 3,118 feet. They had understandably been very disappointed and had wished they had set off earlier in the morning when the weather had been better. During the flight from Woodford, made in separate planes, the weather had got progressively worse and they were battered by hail and shower. They hoped to make a further attempt on 16th. On their return to Woodford, snow was beginning to fall, which says something of the conditions these brave man pitted themselves against.
The second attempt could not be made until 21st, which was made this time together, but the wind proved to be too strong and again was abandoned. They landed at Lancaster and had developed an engine fault which was then repaired.
On the third and successful attempt they took off from Lancaster around 1 pm, both together in the plane, which they reported had behaved splendidly. They passed over Scafell with a wonderful panorama,  though they did run into some cloud banks,  but reached Helvellyn shortly after. They reported hitting air pockets, one in which they reported falling 500 feet and were pleased to be harnessed in as they could have been thrown out and were 'tossed like corks'; they later described this as the most difficult part of the feat. During this turbulent fall they lost a letter which had been intended to be posted at Thirlmere; they also lost a cushion, so it would have been a bumpy ride back for one.
They made a splendid landing but it was not one of the two locations they had reconnoitred. They had decided to 'go for it' and put it down, at 1.35 pm and within 10 yards of the summit cairn, by their reckoning.  Hinkler had to keep the engine running at full power to prevent the plane rolling down the hill as Leeming hurried out to chock the wheels with stones. The landing had not been without incident as any walker knows it is one of the flatter fell tops but not actually flat when close on it. They came in at approximately 80 miles/hour descending in a spiral of three circles, landing and striking boulders described as 18 inches in size. 
Leeming approached a flabbergasted Professor E. R. Dodds of Birmingham University, who by chance was partaking in his interest of hill walking, and requested a piece of paper from him. After much fumbling  the Professor produced a bill for minor university articles, which Leeming accepted and certificated it with cold hands scrawling that the said landing had been obtained. Photographs taken of the event and the certificate, proved to any doubters that the feat had been achieved.
It had  been commented on at the time that with dogged spirit and despite the lack of preparation, i.e. someone to indicate the best landing and put out smoke trails to show wind speed and direction, they still pulled it off. 
The bravery of the feat was commented on yet it was also recognised that this was hoped to be a rare event due to the desire of others to enjoy the tranquillity of these open mountainous spaces. The whole purpose of the daring event was to show the worth of modern aircraft and their ability to land safely in the most inaccessible of places. Personally, I think they proved that!

Mr Leeming went on to co-found Northern Airlines Ltd. and started a campaign for Manchester to commence the first municipal airfield, which was based at Barton Aerodrome in 1928. In 1931 he organised an appeal for Manchester girls to be the passengers in air races around Manchester which was part of a pageant organised by Northern Airlines. Sixteen girls from sixteen districts were required, they had 500 applications and the matter had to be settled by ballot.
In December of 1931 he was called as an expert witness to a 21 year old male motorcyclist's inquest where the rider was seen by witnesses to develop a wobble and crash. Mr Leeming gave the expert opinion that leaning over a handlebar at 60 - 75mph could cause temporary blackness; he referred to it as brain amnesia, comparing it to what pilots can also suffer. The coroner accepted it as a reasonable hypothesis and it was recorded as the cause of the riders accidental death.

As for Hinkler, he attempted to break the flying record to Australia (he has himself set such a record in 1928), in January 1933 but went missing. A search was conducted for him by a Captain Hope who himself went missing but was thankfully found. He had to give up the search around 22.01.1933 as he began to realise the enormity of the search area. Hinkler's body was discovered near the end of April by peasant charcoal burners in the Tuscan mountains of Italy, only identified by damaged documentation and the plane markings. The body was approximately seventy feet from the wreckage, the helmet was thrown off and he had very serious head injuries leading to the assumption that death was instantaneous. He was honoured by Mussolini, his body lay In State in the little village of Castle San Niccolo, no Union Jack could be found so he was wrapped in the Italian flag and buried with full Military Honours at Florence.

Returning to Leeming, the Barton Aerodrome proved unsuitable for larger aircraft and he was asked to find another site. Despite initial objections, Ringway was chosen and opened in 1938, now Manchester airport. 
He was also an accomplished author including children's books, the more famous one being Claudius the Bee for which Walt Disney bought the film rights. 
At the start of the Second World War he joined the RAF and was forced down over Sicily in 1940, destroying confidential papers and reportedly over £200,000. He was held in prisoner of war camps and  managed to write home explaining how well and kindly they were treated. He regained his freedom by eventually convincing his captors of his mental illness and was released in 1943.  He later wrote a book on the subject. The mental illness had been a ruse to escape and he returned to duty. 
It was then reported that in June 1943 he was involved as an instructor pilot in an incident where two Hurricanes were circling at tree top height. The other plane crashed into Downside School at Chilcompton, near Bath; here the boys were engaged in a cricket match. Nine of the boy spectators and the other pilot, Sub Lt. A. C. McCracken (the trainee pilot being 'tail chased' by Leeming in the exercise) were killed. A Mr A. Myddleton Welshere (or Wilshere) who appeared at the inquest for Sub. Lieutenant. J. F. Leeming stated that he had only circled the ground once.
After the war he continued to write; he died in 1965.
John Fishwick Leeming (8 January 1895 – 3 July 1965) was an English entrepreneur, businessman, early aviator, co-founder of the Lancashire Aero Club, gardener and author. One could also describe him as a man who lived a full life - but he is best known and honoured for landing a little plane on Helvellyn.

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