© Wonders of World Aviation 2015-23  |  contents  |  site map  | contact us  |  cookie policy

Wonders of World Aviation

Mobile Site

An English aviator whose career was brief but significant


the Hon. Charles Stewart Rolls

AT A FLYING MEETING IN 1910, at Bournemouth, Hampshire, the Hon. Charles Stewart Rolls was killed. When he was making landing tests, he brought his biplane down at a steep angle; a rear stabilizing plane broke away and became entangled in one of the propellers. This caused the aeroplane to crash from a height of 70 feet, and thus a brilliant career was brought to an untimely end. This photograph was taken shortly before the fatal flight.

THE first Englishman to fly over the English Channel and the first aviator to make a non-stop return flight between Great Britain and France was the Hon. Charles Stewart Rolls.

The third son of Lord Llangattock, Rolls was educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he took his MA degree in mechanical engineering. Before his active interest in aviation, Rolls joined F. H. Royce (later Sir Henry Royce), who had designed a 10 horse-power motor car. The partnership of Rolls and Royce was the beginning of the famous firm of Rolls-Royce Ltd, and the 10 horse-power car was the forerunner of the equally famous Rolls-Royce car. C. S. Rolls was interested in ballooning, and he made one hundred and fifty ascents, many with Lieut.-Colonel J. T. C. Moore-Brabazon, who became the first aviator to hold a Royal Aero Club pilot’s certificate.

In 1909 Rolls went to France to study the progress made in aviation by the Wright brothers and by the French pioneers. He returned to England with a Wright biplane and made several short flights from the aerodrome created by Noel Pemberton-Billing at Eastchurch, in the island of Sheppey, Kent. In March 1910 Rolls qualified for the Royal Aero Club’s pilot’s certificate No. 2.

He then moved his headquarters to Dover, in Kent, with the specific object of improving on Louis Bleriot’s achievement of having been the first man to cross the English Channel in an aeroplane. Rolls planned to fly to France and back to England in a non-stop flight.

On July 25, 1909, Bleriot had won the £1,000 prize which the late Lord Northcliffe had offered for the first aviator to fly across the English Channel. Bleriot crossed the Channel from the French coast and landed at Dover, having flown a distance of thirty-one miles in less than forty minutes at a speed of over forty-five miles an hour.

After numerous experiments and short practice flights Rolls began his attempt from Dover on the evening of June 2, 1910. He flew a Wright biplane, but for the Channel flight this machine was without wheels and was launched into the air after a run along rails.

Rolls reached Calais and dropped a message of greeting from the Royal Aero Club, London, to the Aero Club of France. He then turned and flew back to Dover, the record trip having taken one and a half hours. He was awarded the Royal Aero Club gold medal for this achievement.

In these days it is perhaps as difficult to appreciate the intense excitement which Rolls’s successful flight aroused as it is to realize its epic nature. The idea of a double crossing impressed people with the value of the achievement. A single flight had been something of an experiment, but a double crossing had shown the practical possibilities of aerial transport. Rolls’s flight was undoubtedly the forerunner of the regular cross-Channel transport services which began after the war of 1914-18.

Rolls’s triumph was to be a short-lived one. Five weeks later, on July 12, 1910, he was killed at a flying meeting at Bournemouth, Hampshire. While attempting the landing tests he was bringing his machine down at a steep angle when a rear stabilizing plane broke away from its support on one side. This plane became entangled in one of the propellers, the biplane tilted and dived to the ground from a height of 70 feet. Rolls was killed. His death created another record, if a melancholy one; he was the first British aviator to be killed in a crash from a power-driven flight.

He was only thirty-four when he died, and although his contributions to aviation were few they were progressive and of outstanding importance.

You can read more on “The Designer of the Avro”, “The First British Pilot”  and “Showman Who Turned Aviator” on this website.

The Hon. C. S. Rolls