Baldwyns Park - UK Airfield Guide

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A Guide to the history of British Flying Sites within the United Kingdom
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Baldwyns Park


Note: It would appear that BALDWYNS PARK no longer exists, and therefore this map only gives a rough location within the UK. If anybody can kindly provide a more exact position, this advice will be most welcome. In October 2018 I was kindly contacted by Chris Eley and the map has now been amended.



BALDWYNS PARK: Temporary experimental flying machine venue

Operated by: Sir Hiram Maxim

A drawing of the final design
A drawing of the final design
Ready for engine tests
Ready for engine tests
Ready for ground run flight tests
Ready for ground run flight tests
A detail view
A detail view

Note: All these pictures were scanned from the excellent book, British Aviation - The Pioneer Years, by Harald Penrose, first published in 1967.

The first picture of a drawing by P Trevor, is captioned, "Structure and general arrangement of Maxim's ambitious, tubular metal structured biplane."
 

The early history of aeroplane development is, the more you look into it, always increasing in interest and the picture keeps expanding. For a very simplistic comparison of ideas, most of the earliest aeroplanes were constructed of wood with metal fittings, and yet here in 1884, Maxim was designing an experimental aeroplane rig using tubular metal, some thirty years before other designers caught on to the idea, mostly for fuselage construction initially. 

 

Location: S of the A2018, less than 1nm SE of Old Bexley, roughly 4nm SW of Dartford town centre

Period of operation: 1893-4
 

Runway: 1800ft steel track-way

 

NOTES: Typically the various accounts of exactly where Sir Hiram Maxim constructed his test rig vary. Some experts state that BALDWYNS PARK was in/near Sydenham (SURREY) and indeed, believing these accounts to be correct this was where I put my first listing. However, as the years passed I came across the occasional reference to this ‘test rig’ and noticed that others were stating that it was constructed at a site near Bexley in KENT. Today, and without too much doubt, and after further research, I think it can be claimed with confidence that the site was actually near Bexley. But, even then, some spell it as - Baldwins Park!



AN INCREDIBLE MACHINE
Although contained by it’s specially designed track-way the Maxim ‘Giant’ did in fact become airborne at around 40 knots and ‘flew’ along at about 2ft being restrained by an upper set of Georgia pine rails. It was immense by the standards of the day with a wingspan of nearly 106ft and weighing 7800lb.

On the last and fastest attempt, (on the 31st July 1894), the lift generated proved too much for the restraining rails and the ‘Giant’ tore free. But, it was damaged by the splintering rails. With the power cut it crash landed some distance away from the track, thus becoming probably the first powered “flight”, (although unintentional and uncontrollable), in the world of a man carrying machine, (with four men on board – some say three).

As mentioned elsewhere, I would argue that this was not a 'flight', in much the same way that the first so called 'flight' by the Wright Brothers in the USA was most definitely not a 'flight', but rather a 'hop' in ground effect. Airborne yes, of course, but most certainly not a flight.



COMMITTED TO WAR MACHINES
From Henry Dale in his book Early Flying Machines: “Maxim seems to have been imbued with a desire to turn his inventiveness to destructive uses as he referred to his craft as his First kite of war. It had many wings which in total had a lifting area of 6,000 square feet (540 sq m), though they were removable and he never used more than 4,000 square feet (360 sq m) during his trials.

With hindsight I think it is very interesting that Maxim referred to his machine as a kite, and, as it turns out, the kite concept had at least as much influence on early aeroplane design as the glider, perhaps more? Today of course we tend to regard the two as being entirely different, but when these early aircraft designs are compared, as often as not, they are so similar as to be in most respects essentially the same. The main difference being that the glider was launched in free-flight whereas the kite was attached to the ground or towed.



A CLAIM TO FAME
Sir Hiram Maxim made his fortune mainly by designing the machine gun and, I was astonished to discover, whilst attending a family funeral, that despite being an American he is buried in West Norwood cemetary in SE London.



BEING PEDANTIC?
As will become clear later, I would say this ‘machine’ was certainly capable of flying, or should I say, becoming airborne. A large amount of people bore witness to it leaving the ground whlist constrained by its guide rails on several test runs, but it didn’t make a flight as such.

It might at first seem overly pedantic to make such a distinction, but I honestly believe it soon becomes the key issue when discussing, (especially if not solely regarding powered flight), who was the first to fly, and, as a separate issue, who made the first powered flight?

Regarding the former it seems to appear that the first attempts to successfully actually fly were made in Cordoba in Spain, on two separate occasions, using a primitive kind of hang-glider in the 9th century. (See CHRONOLOGY)

 

In his book Flying and Balloning John Fabb has a photograph captioned, “Members of the Aeronautical Society of Britain alongside Hiram S. Maxim’s 8,000lb flying machine, 1894.

The aeroplane, (more of a test rig actually), which was powered by two 181-lb steam engines, remained airborne for a distance of 600 feet on a flight in 1894.” Mr Fabb has certainly made one very serious error in captioning this picture in his book as a “flight”, but, the machine was certainly flying.

It is also now recognised that if you position a barn door at the correct angle and given enough speed, it will develop a considerable amount of lift!



WHAT WAS ACHIEVED?
As per normal accounts vary, sometimes wildly, of what these tests involved and what was achieved. The machine itself was fundamentally a test rig to measure lift and thrust and not intended to be a ‘free flying’ aircraft. But, the rig was expected to, and indeed did, fly within the constraints of its rails.

However, when you look at what Clément Ader did in France in 1890 with his Éole, achieving a ‘hop’ of 165ft or 50m, in ground effect with no means of positive aerodynamic control this definitely muddies the waters. I now think these ‘hops’ or ‘flights’ by Maxim could be regarded historically as the first powered machine actually flying in a deliberate and designed manner? In the sense that if a machine leaves the ground, even by the smallest amount, whether or not constrained, it is indeed flying, and, if constrained as this machine was, the experiment really should be regarded as being successful.

But, as said before, having a machine airborne does not constitute a flight. You can rush at hump-backed bridge in your car and become airborne! Having stidied the subject for a great many years, it appears that only one conclusion can be made. A 'flight' is when a machine becomes airborne and flies free of ground effect whilst exercising its controls through all three axis - climbing, turning and descending. In other words performing a circuit. 



OTHERS AGREE
Many others agree. Let’s face it the Wright Brothers first ‘hop’ in 1903 surely cannot be regarded as a first flight? For a start their aeroplane was ‘flying’ in ground effect and the degree of ‘control’ was minimal to say the least. There are some highly respected historians who claim that the proof of a first flight requires, (more or less) three things:

1) Photographic proof

2) Accredited observers

3) The flight was under full control

The Wrights at Kittyhawk only had the first of these. The third being a subject even today of heated debate!

 

Speaking as a Private Pilot my opinion is that none of these early hops count as a flight. Oddly enough Samuel Cody back in 1909 held the same opinion. “It was just a jump” he is recorded as saying. Once again, I would say a flight is when you depart from ground effect and exercise the aircraft in all three axis in free flight.

Oddly it now seems, something the Wright brothers might well have achieved first. But they decided to conduct their further flight trials in as secretive a manner as possible, apparently hoping to patent the concept of an aeroplane, which is of course a ridiculous notion. 
 

To make the point clear I could accelerate along a runway, lift the wheels just off the ground, fly for a short period then cut the power and land. Without any doubt I would have been briefly flying…but I certainly hadn’t gone on a flight. It seems to me most aviation historians cannot understand this essential difference?



A NOTABLE TEST RUN
On one of the test runs the Duke of York, later King George V, actually rode on this ‘machine’ during one test run saying, “It did lift off the ground part of the time”.

Nothing like the enormity of this ‘flying machine’ or ‘test rig’was being built or even considered elsewhere at that time. It was truly the 747 or A.380 of its era. It is sometimes said it is highly unlikely that freed from it’s rails it would have been possible to control this machine in free flight.

This I now learn seems to be contradicted to some degree. It appears that not only did Maxim build in front and rear elevators, he also “planned” a “gyrostat”, (a “gyroscopic wheel” connected to the elevators to control pitch. In effect then, the very first if rather primitive, attempt at having an autopilot to aid the crew? Lateral stability was built in by having the top wings fixed with considerable dihedral and ‘control’ in yaw, apparently, could be controlled by using asymetric thrust from the two propellers.

 

It appears there is some debate about whether Maxim gave up after this first “free flight” in which the “rig” was fairly badly damaged. If asked for an opinion today I’d say he probably did give up at that point. But who knows what I might discover tomorrow?



A SERIOUS POINT
But, and this is a very important point, (and witnessed by thousands), it had 'flown' for a distance of about six hundred feet at an altitude of about two feet. When Orville Wright came along nine years later some say Maxim already held two World Records for flight:

Duration, eight seconds, and altitude, about two feet.



A CONTROVERSIAL ISSUE
For some reason, still to be explained, the Wright brothers then claimed their short hop was the first flight. And of course, they had that damned photograph taken! It obviously was not a 'flight'; and many others refute this claim. It seems the photograph has sealed their claim to be publicly the first and for some very odd reason, nearly everybody, (who knows nothing about flying of course) now appears to agree - this was the first flight.

But, have I managed to convince you, it wasn’t!



MORE TO BE FOUND OUT
In fact, recently, even the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, USA (once firmly backing the Wright brothers claim) are now back-tracking furiously and have recognised a previous ‘flight’ in the USA. Others also claim that, if a photographer was present, similar pictures of powered hops could have been taken in Brest, France, in 1874 and in Russia in 1884. Later still, also in France, at Armainvilliers in 1890 (mentioned above) and in 1894 in Kent, England. Regarding the latter see EYNSFORD (KENT).



MORE ABOUT SIR HIRAM
Perhaps it should be mentioned that Sir Hiram Maxim also designed the fairground rides in ‘aeroplanes’ which extend upwards and outwards with centrifugal force. The first was for an exhibition in Earls Court in 1904 and he did intend that the ‘cars’ could be equipped with aerodynamic controls to vary the ‘flight path’, but this was deemed too dangerous.

In 1904 these rides appeared at fairgrounds in New Brighton on the Wirral in Cheshire and both Blackpool and Southport in Lancashire. And indeed, it is claimed that the Blackpool ride is still in operation within the ‘Pleasure Beach’ complex, over 100 years later. Presumably like the street sweepers ‘original’ broom, having had five replacement handles and eight brushes!


 

 

 

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