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Percival, Edgar Wikner (1897–1984)

by John McCarthy

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Edgar Wikner Percival (1897-1984), pilot and aircraft designer, was born on 23 February 1897 at Albury, New South Wales, second son of William Percival, a Sydney-born butter-manufacturer, and his wife Blanche Hilda Leontina, née Wikner, from Goulburn. Educated at Richmond Grammar School, he left at 15 to begin an engineering apprenticeship. He later studied at Sydney Technical College and the University of Sydney which from 1915 offered a short course in aviation engineering.

As early as 1914 Percival was experimenting with the flight properties of gliders. In December 1915 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force and embarked in April 1916 with the 17th Reinforcements for the 7th Light Horse Regiment in Palestine. He joined the 2nd Light Horse Regiment in June and was soon appointed temporary sergeant. In November Percival was one of the nineteen successful A.I.F. volunteers for service with the Royal Flying Corps from the Middle East. After a short flying course he was discharged from the A.I.F. in February 1917, and was commissioned second lieutenant in the British air service, serving as a pilot with No.111 Squadron in Palestine, flying Nieuports and the SE 5a. Air combats were few and the squadron's most significant actions were the attacks mounted against the Turkish 7th and 8th armies at Nablus and Wadi el Fara. Percival was promoted flying officer in the newly formed Royal Air Force and from 21 April to 7 May 1917 flew almost nightly with No.60 Squadron over France.

On return to Australia, he bought two Avro 504Ks and a hangar at Richmond aerodrome, New South Wales. He ran a successful general aviation business carrying out charter work, providing joy-rides and flying instruction. In 1923 the local branch of the Australian Aero Club announced a competition for design of light aircraft in Australia. Percival found a financial backer in (Sir) Denzil Macarthur Onslow and from drawings supplied by H. E. Broadsmith built the successful entry. With a top speed of 74 miles (119 km) per hour, the aircraft was still flying in 1938. He acted as the Australian representative for A. V. Roe Ltd, then in 1929 accepted a position as a test pilot for the Bristol Aeroplane Co. in England. While with Bristol, he designed and manufactured the Percival 'Gull', a three-seater, low-wing cantilever monoplane, whose success was immediate. Entered in the King's Cup Air Race, it covered the 1200-mile (1931 km) course at an average speed of 142 miles (229 km) per hour. Thereafter it was flown in competitions by most leading aviators and continued to set records in both endurance and speed. Sir Charles Kingsford Smith flew a Gull in his record-breaking London to Wyndham (Western Australia) flight in 1933. In 1935 Percival himself became the first person to fly from England to Africa and back in one day.

In order to foster the Gull and other designs, Percival and a partner formed the Percival Aircraft Co. in 1932. In 1937 the company was renamed Percival Aircraft Ltd with a powerful board including an ex-secretary of state for air, Lord Londonderry, and his son Viscount Castlereagh. Percival remained managing director. Before the outbreak of World War II the Percival Vega Gull was chosen by the British Air Ministry for conversion to service use. Renamed the Proctor, it was produced in seven service versions and remained in use by both the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy as a trainer until well into the 1950s. But Percival had been ousted as managing director during the war and by 1947 had ceased to be a director of the company. He continued, however, to be active in other companies connected with aviation including his own Percival Power Units Ltd.

Percival has strong claims to be recognized as the most widely respected Australian aircraft designer. He was a fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society, the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, the Institute of Marine Engineers and the Royal Society of the Arts, and was a founder-member of the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators. He never married and lived in Curzon Street, London, until his death on 21 January 1984.

Select Bibliography

  • Reveille (Sydney), 1 Dec 1932
  • Jane's all the World's Aircraft (Lond), 1932-47
  • Aeroplane (London), 28 Sept 1938
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 24 Jan 1984, p 12
  • Officers' Record Book, 60 Squadron, R.A.F., AIR 1, 1553/204/79/56 (National Archives of the United Kingdom).

Citation details

John McCarthy, 'Percival, Edgar Wikner (1897–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/percival-edgar-wikner-8018/text13975, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 29 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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