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Magnificent men in their flying machines

By This is Kent  |  Posted: May 14, 2010

CONTACT: Bystanders hear Frank Gooden call the order to start the engine of the plane he and Richard Johnson landed at Cage Green Fields on Christmas Eve 1913

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It is about 100 years since early aeroplanes were seen in the sky over our part of Kent. The late George Paine, whose family had a farm and bakery in Southborough, recalled a farm worker's cry in 1910: "Georgie, Georgie, come and see the flying man."

Seated in the open at the controls of a strange machine apparently constructed mainly of wire and canvas was Francis (Frank) Kennedy McLean, a pioneer aviator who lived at Rusthall House, Langton Green, and flew regularly from one of the country's first airfields at Leysdown on the Isle of Sheppey.

His flying friends included Geoffrey de Havilland, Charles Rolls, Gordon Bennett and Moore Brabazon.

McLean caught the flying bug after being taken up by the American pioneer Wilbur Wright at Le Mans in 1908. Within a few weeks he ordered his first Wright-designed plane from Shorts of Rochester, whose airfield at Eastchurch, Sheppey, was one of Britain's first operational aerodromes.

McLean's purchase of 16 planes between 1910 and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 helped to establish Short's business.

His name soon became familiar in the aviation story: he flew 6,000 miles, often with passengers, and owned the first plane with twin-engines driving three "pusher" propellers. He also had a Short four-seater seaplane powered by a 160hp Gnome engine.

McLean was often in the news as one of most intrepid early pilots, notably in 1912 for flying up the Thames between the twin towers of Tower Bridge and under London Bridge. Police stopped a return flight and McLean had to take a taxi back. Later he flew up the Nile from Alexandria to Khartoum.

He was a pioneer of aerial photography, helped to found the Aero Club of Great Britain and was twice its president. He is credited with taking aviation to the Royal Navy by lending a plane for officers to learn to fly.

In 1914-18 he flew with the Dover Patrol and became chief instructor at Eastchurch, where his name is on the memorial to pioneer fliers.

McLean, married with two daughters, was knighted in 1926 and died aged 89 in 1955.

Another local pioneer pilot, Richard Johnson, whose family farmed in Brook Street, Tonbridge, joined a leading aviator Frank Gooden in an attempt to open an airfield and flying school on Cage Green Fields between Shipbourne Road and Hadlow Road, where the Ridgeway is now.

The pair came to grief but were not hurt while taking off to return to Hendon after giving a demonstration flight on Christmas Eve, 1913.

The wheels stuck in the mud, and the plane tipped on its nose damaging the propellor, which became an object of interest in a later Tonbridge museum.

A Tonbridge doctor, HJ Manning Watts, was in a group whose plan to set up the Tonbridge Aerodrome Company foundered with the outbreak of war in 1914. The idea was to buy or lease land for building workshops and hangars using Johnson's engineering skills derived from his family's garage business at the foot of Quarry Hill.

Gooden, who was to be chief instructor of a Tonbridge flying school using a dual-control biplane, became a test pilot at Farnborough and was killed in a crash there. Johnson saw action in France with the Royal Flying Corps. He died aged 27 when his plane crashed on take-off.

Before powered flight was developed, balloons provided the aerial thrills, notably at the Hon Francis Molyneux's famous Belgrave summer fetes in the grounds of his home, Earls Court in Tunbridge Wells.

In 1870 he engaged the celebrated aeronaut Youens and his partner Orton to give a demonstration with their balloon Stanley.

Filled with ordinary household gas from the Varney Street works behind Camden Road, the balloon crossed the town at about 600ft, cheered by a large crowd, and came down near Lamberhurst, returning to Earls Court by horse and wagon.

Ten years earlier Francis Molyneux, who died aged 81 in 1886, had been given a gift of money in appreciation of all he had done for the town and its people, but gave it to a hospital, declaring: "I owe far more to Tunbridge Wells than Tunbridge Wells owes to me."

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