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Harry George Hawker (1889–1921)

by Thomas Sheehy

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Harry Hawker, 1919

Harry Hawker, 1919

Bain Photo Collection

Harry George Hawker (1889-1921), aviator, was born on 22 January 1889 at South Brighton, Melbourne, son of George Hawker, blacksmith, and his wife Mary Ann, née Anderson, both Victorian-born. He attended schools to the age of 12 at Moorabbin, East Malvern, St Kilda and Prahran.

As a young boy Hawker studied the flight of birds and announced his intention of becoming an aviator. In 1901 he became a trainee mechanic at the Melbourne branch of Hall & Warden bicycle depot, where in 1903 he road-tested Oldsmobile cars. In 1905 he joined the Tarrant Motor and Engineering Co. as a qualified mechanic, gaining a reputation as an expert trouble-shooter. He also became an enthusiastic and skilful motor cyclist. About 1907 he set up his own workshop at Caramut, western Victoria, where he serviced a small fleet of cars owned by the de Little family. He saved most of his earnings and in 1911 left for England where he hoped to become an aviator. Of slight build and only 5 ft (153 cm) tall, he looked much younger than his 22 years; shy and quietly spoken, usually forgetting to carry references, Hawker was often brushed aside as an over-ambitious child.

He was about to return home when in July he gained a position with the Commer Car Co. which allowed him to show his all-round ability as a tradesman. In early 1912 he worked for the Mercedes Co. and then the Austro-Daimler Co. In June Australian friends introduced him to Fred Sigrist, foreman of the Sopwith Aviation Co. Ltd, who engaged him to work on the Sopwith-Wright biplane. He again showed outstanding ability as a tradesman and spent his first wages in enrolling in a flying school where his new employer, (Sir Thomas) Sopwith, gave him personal tuition. Hawker proved to be a natural pilot, and after only three lessons flew solo for 50 minutes. In September he gained his Royal Aero Club licence, No.297.

After logging only 24 hours flying time he took part in competitions with the Sopwith-Wright. His first major win was the Michelin Cup No.1 for 1912 when he remained aloft for 8 hours, 23 minutes, and created a new British duration record. Sopwith appointed him as test pilot, gave him free rein as a designer, and in 1913 was rewarded with several ideas destined to improve world aviation standards. Among these was a move by Hawker to eliminate roof-top crashes by encouraging airmen to fly at higher altitudes; he set an example by taking part in high altitude competitions. In June he created a new British height record for a solo flight at 11,450 ft (3490 m), then another with one passenger at 13,400 ft (4084 m). In August, with Harry Kauper as his mechanic, he made two attempts for the Daily Mail Round Great Britain prize of £5000, in a seaplane. The second attempt ended near Dublin after they had flown 1043 miles (1678 km) in 21 hours, 44 minutes flying time. Acknowledging that this was the first time that 1000 miles (1609 km) had been flown over an outwards course, the Daily Mail management presented Hawker with a special prize of £1000.

During November Hawker produced the Sopwith Tabloid, a revolutionary short-winged biplane which emerged as the fastest and most manoeuvrable aeroplane in the world and led to biplanes gaining preference over monoplanes as combat aircraft during World War I. Following test flights at Brooklands, Hawker shipped the plane to Australia and gave Australians their first practical flying exhibitions when between January and April 1914 he flew at Melbourne, Sydney, Albury and Ballarat. During the tour he carried many notable citizens as passengers, including the governor-general and minister of defence. Dubbed the country's 'first real apostle of flight', he greatly boosted Australia's confidence in the aeroplane.

Back in England in June, Hawker found aviation set back because of the number of airmen being killed in tail-spin crashes. He developed a method of recovering from a tail-spin which became standard training practice. In June he also completed a record twelve loops in succession in a Tabloid. At the beginning of World War I he enlisted with the Royal Naval Air Service but was withheld from active service to continue his design work at Sopwith's and to serve as a general test pilot. In the first two years of the war he tested 295 planes over 199 flying days and advised various aircraft manufacturers, checking for inherent structural faults and recommending modifications where necessary. Later in the war he visited aerodromes in England and France on trouble-shooting missions. On 14 November 1917 at St Peter's Anglican Church, Ealing, he married Muriel Alice Peaty.

After the war Hawker renewed his interest in long-distance flying and in May 1919, with Commander Kenneth MacKenzie-Grieve, attempted to fly the Atlantic Ocean from Newfoundland to England. They took off on 18 May but an icy storm caused the plane to drift off course with its engine developing radiator trouble, and eventually Hawker had to ditch in the mid-Atlantic. They were picked up by a Danish tramp steamer which did not carry wireless. The men were posted missing, presumed dead. King George V sent a message of condolence to Hawker's wife, but after learning of the rescue announced that both men would be presented with the first Air Force Crosses ever to be awarded. The Daily Mail acknowledged Hawker as the first pilot to fly over 1000 miles (1609 km) of water without touching down, and awarded him a prize of £5000.

With a lull in aircraft production, in 1919 Hawker participated in speedboat and motor racing events and tried to revive the Sopwith Aviation Co. which had closed down. In November 1920, with the aid of Sopwith and Sigrist, he formed the H. G. Hawker Engineering Co. which built the H. G. Hawker two-stroke motor cycle. He also bought and modified a sports car prototype from the A.C. Co. which he drove at over 100 miles (161 km) an hour. In 1921 he again turned his ambitions towards winning the Aerial Derby. He was killed while flying a French Goshawk on a trial run near Hendon, England, on 12 July 1921. Survived by his wife and two daughters, he was buried in Hook cemetery. An inquest revealed that he had lost control of the plane through paralysis caused by a sudden haemorrhage of an abscess on the spine. He had also been suffering from tuberculosis, and his licence had expired at the end of June.

Select Bibliography

  • Department of Civil Aviation, Harry George Hawker (no date)
  • M. Hawker, H. G. Hawker, Airman (Lond, 1922)
  • C. Kingston, It Don't Seem a Day too Much (Adel, 1971)
  • Flight (London), 30 Aug 1913
  • Aircraft (Melbourne), Jan, Feb 1962
  • Argus (Melbourne), 28 Jan 1914
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 23 Feb 1914
  • Albury Daily News, 9 Mar 1914
  • Punch (Melbourne), 26 Mar 1914
  • Ballarat Courier, 6 Apr 1914
  • Manchester Guardian, 13 July 1921
  • private information.

Citation details

Thomas Sheehy, 'Hawker, Harry George (1889–1921)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 19 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Harry Hawker, 1919

Harry Hawker, 1919

Bain Photo Collection