The first aeroplane in Sheffield

Photograph by Getty Images

Sheffield has never been an aviation city, one of the biggest urban areas in Britain that failed to grasp the importance (or intrusion) of an airport.

However, within a decade of the first flight by the Wright Brothers in 1903, the first aeroplane arrived in Sheffield.

The pioneering aviator was Robert Bertram Slack (1886-1913), a native of Nottingham, who had previously worked in the cycle and motor trade.

He was the 157th person to be granted an aviator’s certificate by the Royal Aero Club in 1911, qualifying at the Bleriot School at Hendon Aerodrome.

In 1912, he competed in the Irish Aero Club’s Dublin-Belfast Race and shortly afterwards was commissioned by the International Correspondence Schools (ICS) to tour around the country giving exhibition flights. The Bleriot monoplane was capable of speeds of 60m.p.h., its pilot’s seat presented to Slack by the aviator Henri Salmet as a mascot, the one in which Salmet sat while making a record high-flight of 9,500ft. Afterwards, the plane was to be bought for £850 by the ICS and presented to the War Office.

This was the reason for Slack’s visit to Sheffield in August 1912, although matters weren’t as simple as might have been expected and tells us that the weather played an important part in early aviation.

Slack started his 1,100 mile tour from Hendon Aerodrome seven weeks before, and had already visited Leicester, Nottingham, Birmingham, Manchester, Carlisle, Edinburgh , Newcastle and Harrogate.

It was from Harrogate that Slack was due to fly on Friday 2nd August 1912 eventually arriving at a makeshift aerodrome at the former Redmires Racecourse, the weekend camping ground of the Sheffield Artillery, and generously donated by Colonel Charles Clifford. (More about Redmires Racecourse in a future post).

Due to arrive at seven o’clock in the evening, a small crowd waited for over an hour anxious to see this new and exciting mode of transport. By 8.30pm, the crowd was getting restless and it was only after a telephone call that it was discovered a strong wind had made it impossible to take off from Harrogate.

Robert Slack at Redmires by The British Newspaper Archive

Instead, Slack took off at 5.20am the following day, running into a succession of fog-banks, and, unable to see his way, was several times in imminent peril. After some exciting adventures amongst factory chimneys, trees, and hill sides in the neighbourhoods of Leeds, he wisely decided to land. Later, he had a touch of air-sickness, and again descended and landed at Norton Priory between Pontefract and Doncaster.

When he was airborne again, Slack flew over Doncaster, before eventually arriving at Redmires about five o’clock. Broad white sheets had been stretched across the grass as a guide to him in his descent.

“The shrill cry of a lynx-eyed small boy announced the approach of the overdue flying man. There was just a little speck in the sky above the range of hills overlooking the Rivelin Valley. It was travelling at terrific speed, and soon became distinguishable from the crows. It was at least three thousand feet up, but gradually descended a thousand feet or so. As he neared the landing-place, Mr Slack took a wide sweep round to face the wind for his descent. Then suddenly the machine seemed to rest a moment in the air, and in a graceful vol-plane came hovering down to earth. The aviator had cut off his petrol at two thousand feet. He alighted on the ground as gently as a bird.”

Slack had been in close touch with his mechanics, who followed a set course in a motor-car, so that at each descent he was able to summon them by telephone.

He had an enthusiastic reception from a large crowd who had gathered on the racecourse and in the roadway and had been awaiting the delayed aviator with remarkable patience for several hours. The crowd came swarming into the ground and loudly cheered the descent, which was admirably neat and precise.

“Mr Slack, a well-set, broad-shouldered man, with a bronzed, good-humoured face, took the plaudits of the enthusiastic crowd who pressed round him with smiling ease, and genially obeyed the behests of the members of the photographic clan. After seeing to the housing of his monoplane, he went by motor-car to the city, being again warmly cheered as he left the ground.”

Slack described his adventurous flight in a chat with a Sheffield Telegraph reporter: –

“It was a beautiful morning when I left Harrogate,” he said, “although somewhat misty. Just after passing Leeds, however, I entered one of the thickest fogs I have ever experienced. I could see nothing; the ground was quite invisible at 300  feet. Hoping it would clear, I went on for five or six miles, steering entirely by compass, for it was impossible to follow my map, as I could not see the landmarks. Instead of clearing, however, the fog got worse, so I was determined to come down to look for landmarks.

“But you do know what you strike in a fog like that, and I had several narrow escapes. It was the fright of my life. I just missed some factory chimneys and some trees, and then right in front of me rose a steep hill. I had to point my machine upwards very smartly in order to get over it. I thought it best to turn around, so I made my way northwards and succeeded in alighting without damage at Seacroft, although I did not find a very good landing place.

“I soon got in touch with my mechanic and stayed at Seacroft till half-past eleven. My mechanic advised me to go more east if I encountered any more fog, and I followed his advice, for I had no sooner got away than I ran into a lot more very thick fog. By turning in an easterly direction, however, I soon got out of it. I was feeling very rocky, however, for my breakfast was not agreeing with me, and the air was bad; there was scarcely a breath of wind, and the machine was doing all sorts of things. The engine, however, was running well.

“I thought it best to come down again and found a very good landing place at Norton Priory, between Doncaster and Pontefract. I left Norton at 4.26, so the run thence to Sheffield took me 21 minutes, a rate of about 70 miles an hour. I travelled from Norton to Sheffield at an altitude of 3,000 feet. It was alright until I got to the hills, when it became very foggy again. However, I got through alright.

Fog,” added Slack, “is the worst thing the aviator has to meet, although rain is bad enough.”

There was to be no exhibition flying, but people could see the strange flying-machine at a small charge. The aeroplane was overhauled and set to rest in a tent organised by Colonel Clifford, while Slack headed to London to plan for a trip to the south-west.

Back in Sheffield, Slack and his Bleriot was due for an early morning take-off on Wednesday 7th August, but this was prevented due to heavy rain.

He had hoped to take off for Rugby on Thursday at 4am but Slack suffered a bilious attack, missing his opportunity, and a slight mist and strong wind meant he had to wait all day, even indulging  in a game of skittles.

A large crowd gathered at Redmires but at about five o’clock when conditions were favourable a message was received that there was a thunderstorm at Rugby.

On Friday, the weather was once again hindered by strong winds, and just when it was thought that the flight would have to be cancelled again, the wind dropped, and Slack quickly jumped into the Bleriot and made a sudden take-off.

He quickly reached an altitude of 600ft and flew due west for half a mile before turning towards Dore and flying onwards to Chesterfield. With this, Slack disappeared into the distance and the crowds quickly dispersed.

The drama didn’t end here though, Slack got lost in a storm near Coventry and his onward flight to Rugby was interrupted when he was forced to land at Nuneaton.

Robert Slack finally ended his tour at Hendon Aerodrome, but he went on to grab victory in an air race with French aviator Eugene Gilbert from Paris to London, as well as being a competitor in an ‘Aerial Derby’ round London in September 1913.

Considering the dangers that Slack faced every time he flew his aeroplane; it was tragic that he met an untimely death in a car accident on Watling Street between St. Albans and London in December 1913.