The Ferguson flight again - August 1980
The Ferguson Festival 1980 had a range of events taking place in and around the town for two weeks.
Ernie Patterson was involved in the event as he flew a home built flying machine along the route that Harry had taken in 1910. His daughter, Mrs Betty Sheldon had flown over from England for the event. On Ernie’s arrival in Newcastle after completing the flight she presented him with a cheque for £100 just like her father had received in 1910 which was the prize for the first person to fly a distance of two miles. He has written this article on the event.
Each year our Club, the Ulster Hang Gliding Club, puts on a demonstration at Newcastle, one of our biggest seaside resorts.
The town is remembered in the song, “Where the Mountains of Mourne Sweep down to the Sea”.
Slieve Donard, the highest peak, is 2,796 feet ASL and provides a beautiful backdrop. The climb to the top is a blood sweat and tears job. Vehicles have to be left at the 700 foot level, just above the tree line and pilots coax their gliders up the other 2000 feet. The flight from the top, however, is a thrilling experience, arriving over the town at 2000 feet with lots of time and space to enjoy. On landing on the beach last year, Bill Martin, Chairman of the Town Committee approached me, camera clicking. He told me of this plans for the 1980 Festival. It would be known as the Ferguson Festival after Harry Ferguson, Ireland’s first aviator.
Harry Ferguson began building aircraft in 1909. His first successful hop was on 31/12/1909 at Hillsborough Park. He built several versions but crashed frequently, eventually writing them all off. The Newcastle Town Committee of the day offered a prize of £100 for the first person to fly a distance of three miles and Harry Ferguson was the only contender. He made this first attempt to fly along the three mile stretch of sand from Dundrum Bay at Newcastle on the 23rd July 1910. He was unsuccessful at first – hindered by mechanical problems, adverse weather conditions and several crashes. But success came on the 8th August 1910 – he won the prize and found a place in the record books.
He gave up flying in 1912 after a bad crash but went on to even greater fame by inventing the hydraulic three point linkage system for tractors, which is fitted to most tractors on the market today. He began building tractors and moved to America where he became Henry Ford’s only partner. The name Ferguson is still seen on tractors today (Massey-Ferguson). The Ferguson-Formula four wheel drive system for cars was another of Ferguson’s inventions.
The Ferguson Festival was planned to commemorate the historic three mile flight, and the other achievements of the County Down farmer’s son. Bill Martin had hopes of involving the farmers, the vintage tractor enthusiasts, the local flying club and the Ulster Hang Gliding Club. I had already been at work building a microlite aircraft, a powered Quicksilver, which in some ways resembled the 1910 craft. Could I re-enact the prize winning flight of 1910 by flying the microlite over the same course? Seemed fascinating! I contacted my sponsors, Ross Cochran (who produce mineral waters) and they were interested. All I had to do was finish the microlite. The undercarriage was no problem but I built five different engine units using a Mac 101B with different drive systems and layouts before arriving at a good power unit. The final result is an under slung shaft-driven job. The engine hangs right above my head making starting, adjustments, etc from the seat, easy to do.
Would it fly?
When the time came to commence aviation we loaded the wing and undercarriage onto the roof of the Daihatsu jeep and crammed engine, tools and spares inside. The site was Tyrella Beach, chosen because at low tide there are miles of flat obstacle free runway. I was hoping to pop off a few feet and hold it there as I flew the length of the beach to see how she handled. It rained. The already damp sand became a slurry. The front wheel spewed sand and water directly into my face and the Quicksilver wasn’t pulling herself up out of it. Enough of this sand-yachting. We packed up and went home in the rain. At the next attempt we arrived at the beach, assemble the machine and sure enough the rain came on. However, the microlite was now sporting a large mud-guard on the nose wheel. At least I would see where I was going. After several attempts, Chris Simmons, our Safety Officer, who had been following me on each run in the jeep, checking speed and making observations, decided that we should raise the nose to increase the angle of attack. This we proceeded to do, one degree at a time, by shortening the lower under-carriage cables. When we ran out of adjustment on these, Chris invented an ‘auxiliary tensioning device’ – using some rope. The Quicksilver would fly off smoothly at 28mph. Sweet success. Elation.
The Wright Brothers must have felt this way. It was a beautiful feeling, flying along in the rain with the sand passing slowly underneath. I landed about a mile down the beach. There was no wind so we just turned around and flew back, and turned around and...Darkness began to fall. We stood under the wing, sheltering from the rain, discussing the flights. The dream had come true.
As the opening day of the Ferguson Festival (5th July) drew near, there were interviews for newspapers and radio and photos to be taken. Ross’s employed a PR man to maximise publicity. Newcastle Town Committee organised a Press Conference on the 4th at the Slieve Donard Hotel. The Committee had commissioned a local boat builder to build a full size replica of the Ferguson aircraft, and this was on display along with the Quicksilver. The replica was a beautiful machine, superbly finished. Many people commented on the Quicksilver and the 1910 machine. Both were cable braced structures using a king post. They had a similar wing span. The major difference was weight. Total weight of the Quicksilver, 112 lbs, was less than half the weight of the engine fitted to the replica (J.A.P engine V8, 36 hp, 320 lbs, thrust). The Quicksilver has one bottle screw – the replica has fifty bottle screws. The Quicksilver is covered with Dacron – the replica has the best Irish linen. The atmosphere was 1910 vintage.
I slept like a log that night. The weather forecast for the next day indicated that it would be unflyable at least in the early part of the day. I was scheduled to fly at 12.30, the first event of the day. Next morning was as predicted – 25 mph, NW – all wrong. We went through the motions, however, just in case things would improve in time. On arriving in Newcastle, I met Bill Martin on the beach and told him that the weather was not favourable for the flight. We drove leisurely down to Dundrum Bay in the jeep and assembled the Quicksilver right at the water’s edge. Still just going through the motions. The wind was coming off the land over the dunes which are 50-75 feet high. This meant a crosswind plus turbulence, impossible. While we finished preparations, Bertie Kennedy, our club coach and technical officer was standing on the front of the jeep giving a continuous commentary on wind speed and variations thereof. Martin (Bionic) Bates (in our early towing days he performed the function of quick release and automatic line tensioner better than any mechanical device) stood on the nose wheel of the microlite to prevent her flying. Martin Green (club comedian) was helping too. Our one and only spectator commented, “I wouldn’t like to be going up there in that thing.” Says Martin, “I wouldn’t like to be up there without it!”
The Bertimeter was giving us 10-12-14-12-14. Sounds reasonable. But of course we were in the shadow of the dunes. Nevertheless, the wind was decreasing. The engine was warmed up and ready to fly so I pulled on the white overalls (as worn by Harry Ferguson) and climbed into the seat. I was planning to do a short hop to see how bumpy it was. Take off was smooth, but sure enough there was turbulence around. Hoping to climb above it, I flew on. The turbulence was roller-coater variety but the Quicksilver was controllable and reassuring. I pointed her towards Newcastle. The sun was shining, for a change, and the sea was blue with white ribbons. I wished I had more time to take in the view. I didn’t even notice the statue of Lord Erskine on the beach, gazing intently skyward through his 10 x 50s. I did see the jeep bouncing along underneath trying to keep up. When I set course for Newcastle, the ground crew had scrambled aboard in a hurry, my wife Phyllis driving, the two Martins hanging on the back and Bertie in the front holding on to the grab rail, weight shifting in sympathy with me. Newcastle appeared. I flew along to Central Promenade, I was supposed to land on the beach there. A crowd had gathered. I closed the throttle at 100 feet and glided down, touching sand as gently as sliding into bed. Taxiing towards the spectators I thought what now? I had prepared thoroughly for the flight, but hadn’t given much thought as to what was to happen afterwards. The loudspeakers seemed like a central point so I headed there, cut the engine, and rolled to a halt. As the crowd applauded, Bill Martin appeared with Harry Ferguson’s daughter, Mrs Betty Sheldon (who now lives on the Isle of Wight). She had come over to Newcastle for the Festival. Her comment was “That was the most exciting thing I have seen in a long time!” and she presented me with a cheque for £100 just as her father had been presented with the prize, seventy years before. Five light aircraft flew in and landed on the beach. A Tiger Moth gave a superb aerobatic display and then they all flew off as the tide began to encroach on their runway.
The Quicksilver was mounted on a lorry, provided and decorated by Ross’s for the Festival Parade. The Ferguson Replica led the Parade through the streets of Newcastle with wings outstretched over the thousands of spectators lining the route. The Quicksilver followed behind. The Ross’s girls and I threw balloons to the crowd almost causing a riot as people clamoured to get a souvenir.
Soon it was all over. As we dismantled the float and de-rigged the microlite, people came to look, to ask questions and to wonder. The ancient dream of flying stirred the imaginations of many, just as it has been doing for centuries. But at last the day of lightweight, low cost, personal aircraft has come. Dreams do come true!