Harry George Hawker was a pioneer aviator whose passion for aeroplanes and flying took him from working as a trainee mechanic in suburban Melbourne to being one of the most famous aviators of his era. The second son of Moorabbin blacksmith, George Hawker and his wife Mary, Harry was born on 22 January 1889. At age 11, he finished school and trained as a motor mechanic, working at several Melbourne firms before running his own car servicing workshop in western Victoria from 1907.
In 1910, he witnessed the first public demonstrations of powered flight in Australia and began saving to travel to England. In May of the following year, the 22-year-old, with £100, arrived in England with Eric Harrison and two fellow mechanics, Harry Kauper and Harry Busteed.
He worked for two motoring firms before securing a job in July 1912 with the Sopwith Aviation Company, formed by aviator and designer Thomas Sopwith. Within a few weeks of starting work he began flying lessons and after just three sessions he gained Royal Aero Club Licence (No. 297) on 17 September 1912. Sopwith appointed Hawker as test pilot and gave him free rein as a designer.
On 24 October, with just 24 hours in his logbook, he won first prize in the British Empire Michelin Cup No.1 for endurance flying, staying aloft for 8 hours and 23 minutes in an American Burgess-Wright biplane rebuilt by the Sopwith team.
On 31 May 1913, he set a new altitude record of 11,450 feet (3816 metres) and in June set another with one passenger at 13,400 ft (4084 m). In August of that year, with fellow Australian Harry Kauper as his mechanic, he entered a contest run by the Daily Mail to fly a circuit of Britain in a seaplane. Of the four pilots who entered the race, Hawker in his Sopwith seaplane was the most successful, flying more than 1000 miles of the 1540 mile (2,480 km) course before crashing just north of Dublin. He was given a prize of £1,000 for his effort and was also awarded the Royal Aeronautical Society’s silver medal; Kauper was awarded a bronze medal.
In November that year, Sopwith produced the ‘Tabloid’, a revolutionary short-winged biplane of Hawker’s design, which could fly at 90 miles per hour. Hawker shipped the plane to Australia and, between January and April 1914, gave flying exhibitions at Melbourne, Sydney, Albury and Ballarat. Among the dignitaries he took for joy flights were the Governor-General, Lord Denman and Minister of Defence, Mr Millen. Through the visit, he greatly boosted Australia’s confidence in the aeroplane as an effective and safe mode of travel.
Harry Hawker is claimed by many to be the first pilot to perform an intentional spin and recovery. In June 1914, he demonstrated a technique which involved forcing the aircraft into a dive to increase the airflow over the control surface, helping the pilot to regain control. This technique was to save the lives of many aviators.
At the outbreak 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 and to serve as a general test pilot. In the first two years of the war, he test flew 295 planes and through his understanding of design and flight, helped improve their safety. Later in the war he visited aerodromes in England and France on trouble-shooting missions.
On 14 November 1917 he married Muriel Alice Peaty at St Peters Anglican Church, Ealing.In 1919, the London Daily Mail sponsored a competition to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. On 18 May, Hawker and Commander Kenneth MacKenzie-Grieve set off from Newfoundland in a single engine biplane. It drifted off course in an icy storm and began to develop radiator trouble and eventually they ditched in the mid-Atlantic. The two men were picked up by a Danish tramp steamer. While they failed to complete the crossing, the newspaper awarded them £5000 and King George V personally presented them with the Air Force Cross (AFC).
In 1919, the London Daily Mail sponsored a competition to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. On 18 May, Hawker and Commander Kenneth MacKenzie-Grieve set off from Newfoundland in a single engine biplane. It drifted off course in an icy storm and began to develop radiator trouble and eventually they ditched in the mid-Atlantic. The two men were picked up by a Danish tramp steamer. While they failed to complete the crossing, the newspaper awarded them £5000 and King George V personally presented them with the Air Force Cross (AFC).
In November 1920, with the aid of his former Sopwith colleagues, Thomas Sopwith, Fred Sigrist and Bill Eyre, he formed the H.G. Hawker Engineering Company. It initially built two-stroke motor cycles, but also turned to designing aircraft and cars. The company was renamed Hawker Aircraft in 1933.
Harry Hawker was killed on 12 July 1921 when his French designed Nieuport Goshawk caught fire and crashed on a trial run near Hendon, England. He was 32. Hawker was buried at St Pauls Church, Chessington. Upon his death, George V wrote that “the nation has lost one of its most distinguished airmen, who by his skill and daring, has contributed so much to the success of British aviation”.