A remarkable collection of records and documents held in West Sussex Record Office has revealed that West Sussex had its own ‘Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines’ just as daring and dashing as those portrayed in the film of the same name.
The collection relates to the Pashley brothers, Cecil and Eric, pioneer aviators who before the First World War were instrumental in the development of Shoreham as one of the first half dozen airfields in the country.
Born in the 1890s, they were fascinated with flying and were both in their teens when they taught themselves to fly.
In July, 1911, Cecil took his official flying test for his Royal Aero Club certificate and was issued with licence No. 106.His brother Eric obtained his licence two months later, No. 139.
The Pashleys were among the youngest of the first generation of British pilots.
They were contemporaries of such legendary figures as Tommy Sopwith.
Flying was then a hazardous experience and the heroics of these pioneer aviators made them celebrity figures.
Harold Piffard, a former pupil of Lancing College, was the first to fly from Shoreham in July, 1910, and George Wingfield, a Brighton solicitor, was the inspiration behind the opening of Shoreham Aerodrome in June, 1911.
The Pashley brothers were using Shoreham in 1911 and when Piffard returned back to London later that year, it was the Pashleys who were at the forefront of the development of the airfield.
Ten wooden hangars plus a grandstand were built at Shoreham for the ‘Circuit of Europe’ and ‘Round Britain’ Air Races in 1911.
Shoreham was a refuelling and staging post for the races.
The Avro Company, one of the world’s first aircraft builders, moved to Shoreham in 1912 followed by the Farman Flying School – other companies soon occupied the rest of the hangars
Being close to the sea and with the South Downs as a backdrop, Shoreham became a favoured place to show off flying skills.
The Pashleys also saw the opportunity of expanding their pleasure flight business by drawing on the larger population of the Brighton/Worthing area.
Joy riding became very popular especially with the show-biz stars, some of them connected to Shoreham’s film studios at Bungalow Town.
The aviators and stars of the silver screen would meet at the Crown and Anchor public house in the Shoreham High Street.
The Pashleys’ joy riding business took them all along the West Sussex coastline and on Monday, May 26, 1913, the brothers were the first aviators to pilot a land plane to visit Bognor.
It was a great event for the town.
The local newspaper reported that “It seemed as though all Bognor was there” when, at 7pm, the flying machine, piloted by Eric, was seen approaching and landed on the sands opposite the Beach Hotel.
The aviators were treated to a civic reception at the hotel, whose proprietor, Mr Taylor, made the return flight to Shoreham on the following day – the first Bognorian to take to the skies in a flying machine.
Eric Pashley returned to Bognor on Saturday, June 14, landing in the same spot in front of thousands.
This time, the weather permitted a number of people to be taken up for joy rides.
It wasn’t a cheap experience at two guineas per head.
All went well until the penultimate flight when, according to the local reporter, “Mr Pashley came to earth at a faster pace than usual and it looked as he would hit the pier.”
Fortunately, the pilot executed a sharp turn to the right but scattered the crowds in the process of landing safely.
Such hair-raising incidents were by no means uncommon in those early days of flying.
These first visits were captured in a series of photographs, and fortunately several are now preserved in the Pashley archives.
In May, 1913, the brothers opened a Flying School at Shoreham under the name Pashley Brothers and went on to train many pilots who would later join the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War.
Both men served in the First World War.
Eric, the first man to pilot a land plane to Bognor, joined the Royal Flying Corps and shot down eight enemy aircraft, losing his life in a flying accident in 1917.
His brother Cecil, who had accompanied Eric on that historic flight to Bognor, had been a flying instructor and eventually returned to Shoreham.
In 1925, Cecil jointly formed, with Frederick Miles, the Gnat Aero Company, which operated just west of the original airfield.
The company was soon split into two, Southern Aircraft Ltd and the Southern Aero Club.
The latter was a flying school and joy-riding concern, while the former was an aircraft overhaul reconstruction and repair business.
While the construction business moved to Reading in 1932, Cecil remained with the Aero Club and initially he acted as chief instructor, ground engineer and labourer.
His wife, Vera, attended to the social side of things.
Cecil was always keen to promote and apart from Shoreham, displays were given in his favourite Avro 504 biplane at landing sites all over Sussex.
An agent would go on ahead and sell tickets for joyrides at 5 shillings each (25 pence).
At Chichester in May, 1930, Cecil dropped leaflets over the city announcing his visit, some of which offered a free flight.
Cecil continued to fly from Shoreham until just before his death in 1969, completing more than 50 years as a flying instructor.