Pilot and aircraft designer, Edgar Wikner Percival, was born on 23 February 1897 at Albury, New South Wales. He was the second son of William Percival, a butter manufacturer and Blanche Hilda Leontina Percival, née Wikner.
His early years were on the family farm on the flats of the Hawkesbury River near Richmond, west of Sydney. He saw his first aircraft in 1911 when pioneer aviator and local dentist, William Hart, landed his aircraft on a field near the farm. Percival offered to help Hart maintain the aircraft and, as a reward, Hart took Percival on a flight.
That was the start of his life time involvement in aviation. By 1912, when he was just 14 years old, Percival had designed, constructed and flown a number of gliders.
Educated at Richmond Grammar School, Percival left school at 15 years and commenced an engineering apprenticeship. He enrolled at Sydney Technical College studying engineering and this was followed by a short course in aeronautical engineering at Sydney University.
In December 1915 Percival enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) and trained for active service in the 7th Light Horse Regiment. Promoted to Temporary Sergeant in the 2nd Light Horse Regiment, he embarked in April 1916 for Palestine.
In November of that year Percival was one of a small number of volunteers who were accepted to train as pilots in the Royal Flying Corps. He was subsequently discharged from the AIF in February 1917 and commissioned a second lieutenant in the British Air Service No. 111 Squadron, Palestine, flying Nieuports and the SE5a. Most of the action involved air to ground strikes against the Turkish 7th and 8th armies.
Percival’s outstanding skills as a pilot were soon recognised and he transferred to the newly established Royal Air Force, flying missions over France during 1917 with No. 60 Squadron and subsequently No. 11 Squadron in the Middle East. During his time in Egypt he designed his first powered aircraft, a special purpose machine based on the Bristol F.2B.
After the war, Percival returned to Australia with three war surplus aircraft – two Avro 504s and a de Havilland DH-6 and set up his own charter company doing film work, barnstorming and route surveying. He surveyed the Melbourne – Brisbane air route in 1921 and won the Melbourne to Geelong Air Race in 1923.
Percival became more interested in aircraft design and in 1924 built the winning entry in the Australian Aero Club’s competition for the design of a light aircraft. He was involved in a landmark series of tests in 1926 to establish aircraft operations from ships. This culminated in him being catapulted off the USS Idaho battleship in a converted Sopwith Pup aircraft.
In 1929, Percival accepted a position as test pilot for the Bristol Aeroplane Company in England and did test flying work for the Air Ministry specialising in amphibians and seaplanes.
During this time he set about designing a fast touring aircraft. The result was the historic Percival Gull, a three-seat, low wing cantilever monoplane. The Gull was an immediate success with its cabin comfort and fast speeds. It won the King’s Cup Air Race with an average speed of 142 mph (229 kph) and was sought after by many air racers and long distance aviators.
Sir Charles Kingsford Smith flew a Gull named Miss Southern Cross on his record breaking flight from London to Wyndham WA in just over seven days in 1933. By then, more than 24 Gulls had been produced by a number of different manufacturers under Percival’s guidance. A more refined version called the Mew Gull was sought after by air racers around the world.
Percival continued to refine the design and competed in the air race circuit in the Mew Gull. Percival was often referred to as “The Hat” which he always wore with a lounge suit when he flew. Throughout this period, he continued in the Air Force Reserve as a pilot.
In 1933, Percival established the Percival Aircraft Company with a plant at Gravesend Airport in Kent to manufacture the Gull. He won the Oswald Watt Gold Medal for a flight from England to Morocco and back in 1935 and flew from England to Africa and back in one day, noting on his return “… day trips in the future will be as commonplace as trips to Margate”.
New Zealand aviatrix Jean Batten also flew a Gull from England to Australia and on to New Zealand in October 1936.
That same year, the Percival factory moved to Luton Airport with production focused on the Vega Gull, which was later renamed the Percival “Proctor”. The military version was used successfully as a communications platform and other roles during World War II and in to the 1950s. A twin engine design called the “Q6” was also manufactured at Luton.
The war years saw Percival manufacturing aircraft of other designs including the Airspeed Oxford and de Havilland Mosquito.
Following the war, Percival sold his interests in the Company and moved to the United States to work on engine technology and then to New Zealand in 1951. Three years later, he formed a new company, Edgar Percival Aircraft Limited, based at Stapleford Aerodrome in England and manufactured the Edgar Percival EP.9 utility aircraft suitable for aerial agriculture operations. A total of 21 EP.9s were constructed before the company was sold to the Lancashire Aircraft Company in 1960.
Percival is recognised as a widely respected aircraft designer and manufacturer whose designs were well-advanced for their time.
He was a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society, the Institute of Mechanical Engineers and the Institute of Marine Engineers. He was also a founding member of the Guild of Air Plots and Navigators.
Percival never married. He died in London in January 1984.