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Sir Alliott Verdon-Roe, whose biplane of 1908 was followed by many famous designs


TRACTOR TRIPLANE, in which A V Roe made successful flights in London in 1909

TRACTOR TRIPLANE, in which A V Roe made successful flights at Lea Marshes, London, in 1909. This machine was fitted with a nine horse-power J.A.P. motor-cycle engine, and had a wing span of twenty feet. The tail of the machine was also a triplane assembly. It had a span of ten feet and an area equal to half that of the main planes. The angle of the main planes was made adjustable to give the aircraft a wide speed range in level flight.

TO Lieutenant-Colonel Moore-Brabazon goes the credit of having been the first Englishman to make a controlled flight in Great Britain. This honour might have been awarded to Alliott Verdon-Roe, a young marine engineer and the son of a London doctor, who was attracted by the new and exciting science of aviation. On June 8, 1908, he flew his first machine for 75-150 feet, at a height of a few feet above the ground, but the Royal Aero Club disallowed his claim for the first controlled flight in Great Britain because the distance was not considered to be long enough to constitute a controlled flight.

It was a year later that Moore-Brabazon was awarded this honour.

There is, however, no dispute that A. V. Roe’s biplane did fly those few feet from the ground. He is, therefore, probably the first man to have made a flight in an aeroplane in the British Isles. Alongside Brooklands race track, in Surrey, Roe built his historic biplane from his own model, which had received the highest award at a model competition held at the Alexandra Palace, London, in 1907. The biplane itself was fitted with a very large front elevator, which, controlled with a single steering column, could be warped or tilted. Roe took out a patent for this control in 1906. This was the first patent application in the world combining the dual movement in one control column.

Roe’s first biplane was mounted on four small wheels. The front wheels could be steered with the legs - a particularly interesting feature in view of the modern tricycle undercarriage. A 9 horse-power J.A.P. engine first fitted to the aeroplane was not powerful enough to lift it, and in 1908 a 24 horse-power Antoinette was fitted; with this engine Roe made his historic flight. Some of the methods used in the building of this machine were the forerunners of those we know today. Roe combined lightness and rigidity by using thin metal sheet and curving the free edge. He used tubular hollow rivets, made of copper. Unable to obtain suitable strainers because they were too expensive, Roe characteristically made his own; these were the beginning of the famous Avro strainer. These early strainers were made of cycle spokes cut down and rescrewed, the nipples and forks being cut from sheet metal. Roe tried to persuade the War Office and the Admiralty - there was no Air Ministry in those days - to adopt his strainer, but they rejected it. During the war of 1914-18 this situation was ironically reversed.

Having flown his first machine, Roe decided that the front-elevator aeroplane was wrong. Here he found himself theoretically opposed to the Wright brothers and to “Colonel” Cody, who were building this type of aeroplane. But Roe had an original mind, and he was convinced that he must begin again.


A. V. ROE WITH HIS PIONEER MACHINE OF 1909. At that time, the comfort of the pilot, including protection from the wind, had not received any consideration. The small size of the tubular petrol tank indicates that, at this stage of development there were no possibilities of flights of several hours’ duration.

He was concerned at this time by shortage of money, and in 1908 he received notice to quit the Brooklands race track, alongside which he had built his first biplane. He moved across to Lea Marshes, in east London, where he made his tractor - a small triplane. He made several flights in this machine, which had a main span of 20 feet and which carried a 10 feet span triplane tail of half the area of the main planes. Roe had been obliged to return the Antoinette engine and he used a 2-cylinder 9 horse-power J.A.P. motorcycle engine.

In the design of this triplane we see again A. V. Roe’s attempts to solve a problem which, in later years, was still to some extent only in the theoretical stage. So that the triplane could be flown horizontally at the fastest and slowest speed and could be kept horizontal for the take off and landing, it was first designed to have the angle of the main planes and the tail adjustable; the main planes were warped for lateral control. In practice, however, Roe fixed the tail plane and varied the angle of the main planes only. Although this idea did not make much practical headway, it was revived many years later in the Flying Flea. At a later date men were still considering Roe’s theory in an attempt to find a compromise between the “Autogiro” aircraft, with its slow landing and take off, and the fast-flying aeroplane. It was in 1909 that Roe worked out this idea; at the time of writing, Sir W. G. Armstrong Whitworth & Co., Ltd - who took over control of A. V. Roe & Co., Ltd, in 1928 - hold a patent for the operation of the main planes of large machines.

World's Most Famous Type

Another unusual feature of the triplane was that it had a tractor airscrew instead of what was then the more general practice, a pusher propeller.

Later Roe and his triplane moved to Wembley Park, Middlesex (on which site was built the British Empire Exhibition, 1924-25, and where the Wembley Stadium now stands). Here he made further flights, but with a 14 horse-power engine. Undiscouraged, Roe learnt something from every setback and mishap. While he was at Wembley Park he crashed in the triplane. He warped the wing hard over to counteract a tilt, but the triplane fell over on its side. He soon discovered that the cause of the accident was his failure to use the rudder for increasing the speed of the falling wing-tip. Until then Roe says that he had failed to appreciate the real value of the rudder for this particular purpose.

At this stage in his career he urgently needed more money, and his brother, Humphrey Verdon Roe, joined him. Together the brothers founded the firm of A. V. Roe & Co., Ltd., on January 11, 1913. Triplanes were first built at H. V. Roe’s mills at Manchester.

The firm then began to build biplanes, forerunners of the famous Avro 504 - which was to become the world’s most famous aeroplane type. The first of these biplanes made and flown was fitted with a 50 horse-power Gnome rotary engine. The company built many tractor biplanes and in the summer of 1912 several were ordered for the newly-formed Royal Flying Corps. At the military aeroplane trials at Larkhill, Salisbury Plain, in August of that year, the first machine to go up was the Avro biplane.

THE FIRST AVRO 504 making a landing at Hendon in May 1913

THE FIRST AVRO 504 making a landing at Hendon, Middlesex, in May 1913. The most impressive feature of this machine was its wide speed range of 90 to 35 miles an hour. It had an 80 horse-power Gnome engine, rubber-cord shock absorbers for the wheels, and a fuselage that was closed in completely. This aeroplane was immediately recognized by critics as being greatly in advance of its time.

In May 1913 the famous 504 first appeared. This was at Hendon, one of the cradles of British aeronautical history. The Hendon critics soon recognized that this new design was greatly in advance of anything yet attained: its most impressive feature was its speed range of 90-35 miles an hour. A natural successor to the earlier biplane, the 504 had many important improvements. An 80 horse-power Gnome had succeeded the 50 horsepower Gnome. The streamline of the fuselage was more pronounced, and curved side-fairings and decking were added to the rectangular-section main fuselage structure. The central skid was retained, but the 504 had telescopic struts with rubber-cord shock absorbers enclosed in streamlined fairings instead of a leaf-spring axle.

Before the success of the 504, A. V. Roe had experimented with a totally-enclosed monoplane. This was in 1912, and thus he can be said to have built the first enclosed machine more than twenty years before it was again considered seriously and before the open cockpit became less common.

Roe and his associates were the pioneers of much in British aviation - or for that matter in world aviation. Many of his schemes came to nothing and some were laughed at, only to be accepted many years later. Others made fairly reasonable headway in a world that did not always take aviation as seriously as it might have done had it had some of Roe’s vision.

Some of the first experiments of flight off water in Great Britain in 1911-12 were made by an Avro standard biplane fitted with floats and driven by a 35 horse-power Green engine. The Avro was successfully flown at Barrow-in-Furness by S. V. Sippe, after its owner, Commander Schwann, R.N. (now Air Vice-Marshal Sir Oliver Swann, K.C.B., C.B.E.), had failed to make it fly. The first seaplane to fly from Germany to Heligoland was an Avro: the Germans built and used in the war of 1914-18 many seaplanes of the same design.

The 504 in Action

Roe at this time saw great possibilities for seaplanes, and an Avro seaplane was flown by F. P. Raynham at many South Coast resorts during the holiday season. Meanwhile, having taken the public a step farther in the progress of aviation, Roe built another seaplane for the Daily Mail seaplane race round Britain. The war broke out on the day that Roe arrived at Calshot, near Southampton, and his seaplane was commandeered for service; he was handed a cheque for the seaplane while he was at Calshot.

Many people maintain that the war had a retrograde effect on aviation. This is possibly true of aviation in general, but it is indisputable that A. V. Roe & Co., Ltd, made a tremendous advance both in quality and quantity. The famous 504 was soon in action and took part in the bombing of the Zeppelin sheds at Friedrichshafen. Later in the war the 504 type underwent many modifications. It was adopted as the standard training type and fitted with a 100 horse-power Gnome Monosoupape. Later still, the 504 became known as the 504 K and was fitted with a 110 horse-power Le Rhone and then with a 130 horse-power Clerget.

It was during the early days of the war, when aircraft production was at its height, that the vexed question of the Avro strainer was revived. At this time aircraft production in Great Britain was held up by the shortage of the more expensive standard type of strainer. Roe helped the authorities who had scorned him, and he provided his own strainers. The Avro Company made millions of strainers during the war at a much cheaper rate than was possible with the standard type.

Alliott Verdon-Roe

THE AVRO TRIPLANE which was taken to the flying meeting at Blackpool, Lancashire, in 1909. Although A V Roe - shown in the pilot’s seat - discarded triplanes in favour of biplanes shortly afterwards, other designers did not give up the triplane method of construction for several years. A number of triplane fighters were used in the war of 1914-18.

DURING THE WAR of 1914-18 and for several years afterwards, the Avro 504 was used by the RAF as a training machine. Although different engines were fitted, and slight modifications were made during this period, the design remained unaltered in all its essential aerodynamic features and main dimensions. The machine in this picture was known as a 504K.

For many years the Avro company made a profit of over £40,000 a year out of a strainer which had its beginnings in the makeshift cycle spokes in the early days at Brooklands. During the war, while his organization was manufacturing thousands of 504s, Roe had an indirect interest in the pioneering of metal construction. So many 504s were being made and so quickly were they being produced that these machines alone were absorbing one-third of the total supply of timber for aircraft. There was no alternative but to use metal construction - and if the war and, indirectly, Roe did anything for aviation they certainly pointed the way to metal construction.

While A. V. Roe & Co. were making thousands of 504s, Roe himself was not content that aviation should stand still. He produced many outstanding designs, including the Pike, in 1916, which was the first twin-engined aeroplane produced by the company. It was fitted with two Sunbeam engines of 160 horse-power, which operated pusher propellers.

When the war ended, Roe employed many demobilized pilots and mechanics. As Raynham had gone to capture the public imagination with the Avro seaplane, so these ex-R.A.F. men went to the seaside towns and tried to revive an interest in peace-time aviation by giving joy-rides to holiday makers. That this was successful is shown by the figures - over 30,000 people having been taken up in the 504 type.

Meanwhile Roe and his designers were not idle. They produced the first light aeroplane, the Avro Baby (first known as the Avro Popular). An interesting point about the Baby was that it flew with the same 35 horsepower Green engine as Roe had used in one of his triplanes.

This machine was flown by the late Bert Hinkler non-stop from England to Turin, Italy, in 9½ hours.

An England to Australia Record

Soon after the war Roe’s claim to have patented the single control column was challenged by Robert Esnault-Pelterie, a French-man. Esnault-Pelterie, apparently unaware of Roe’s patent, claimed £1,000,000 from Roe personally for the use of the joystick control on Avro machines during the war. According to Esnault-Pelterie’s reckoning, the sum of £1,000,000 was a reasonable total if he were rewarded on a royalty basis. Roe handed the affair over to the Air Ministry, with a copy of his 1906 patent.

Between the years of the war and the present time many Avro types have been introduced, some for military purposes and others for civil use. Among the civil machines, the Avro Avian, a light two-seater, proved particularly popular. On the original model of the Avian, Bert Hinkler set up in 1928 a record by flying solo from England to Australia in 15½ days, a record which stood for about two and a half years.

The Avro 626 is a modern training biplane, and can be said to take the place today of the Avro 504. One of the most recent Avro types is the Anson, a twin-engined trainer used considerably in the R.A.F.

A. V. Roe & Co., Ltd, celebrated its silver jubilee on January 11, 1938. It is the company’s proud and undisputed claim that more British pilots have learnt to fly on Avro biplanes than on any other make. Sir Alliott Verdon-Roe, knighted in 1929, is no longer actively connected with the company. In 1928 he sold his interest to Sir W. G. Armstrong Whitworth, & Co., Ltd, and founded the firm of Saunders-Roe, of Cowes, Isle of Wight. But he has seen his name and his machines grow from the smallest beginnings to a position of world-wide importance, and he has provided aviation with one of its most romantic stories.


ONE OF THE EARLIEST FLOATPLANES TO FLY OVER BRITISH WATERS. This was the biplane that preceded the famous Avro 504. In its original form it was a landplane. It had a 35 horse-power water-cooled Green engine, and was bought by Commander Schwann, now Air Vice-Marshal Sir Oliver Swann, K.C.B., C.B.E. Successful seaplane flights were made by S. V. Sippe in this aircraft at Barrow-in-Furness, Lancashire, in 1911 and 1912.

You can read more on “Evolution of the Fighter”, “From Balloons to Flying Boats” and

“Geoffrey de Havilland” on this website.

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