Incident Harold H. Piffard No.2 "Hummingbird" Biplane Unregistered, Tuesday 4 October 1910
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Date:Tuesday 4 October 1910
Type:Harold H. Piffard No.2 "Hummingbird" Biplane
Owner/operator:Harold H. Piffard
Registration: Unregistered
MSN: 2
Fatalities:Fatalities: 0 / Occupants: 1
Other fatalities:0
Aircraft damage: Substantial
Location:Sussex Pad Hotel, Shoreham, West Sussex -   United Kingdom
Phase: Landing
Departure airport:Shoreham, West Sussex
Destination airport:
Confidence Rating: Information is only available from news, social media or unofficial sources
Harold Hume Piffard (10 August 1867 – 17 January 1938) was a British artist and illustrator, and one of the first British aviators. Piffard lived in Bedford Park, London where he had his studio. He began making model aircraft in 1907, winning a prize for one of them at Olympia in 1909. He began to fly in 1909, using an 8-cylinder 40 horsepower ENV 'D' engine and building the airframe in his studio; he rented a shed on Back Common Road, Turnham Green near his home to assemble the aircraft, which was a biplane with elevator in front of the wing, and a variable-pitch propeller.

From September 1909 he tested the aircraft on a rented field in Ealing to the west of Masons Lane at what was then Hangar Hill Farm (not the same as the later Acton Aerodrome, which was the other side of Masons Lane). He managed to get the plane airborne and fly "a foot or two from the ground for a distance of a hundred yards or so." However, on 3 December 1909 the aircraft and its marquee hangar were destroyed in a storm

Piffard then co-founded (with George Wingfield, a lawyer) the Aviator's Finance Company, which took out a lease on land at Shoreham-by-Sea near his old school, Lancing College, which already possessed a hangar. With Edouard Baumann and two assistants, they reworked the aircraft's design and had Hummingbird ready on 3 May 1910. It was able to take off in short hops, earning it the nickname of "The Grasshopper"; it frequently crashed because of the hidden ditches in the grass. In September 1910 he flew at a height of 30 or 40 feet for half a mile, managing to fly right across the field to a nearby hotel, The Sussex Pad "in about 40 seconds".

He had not learnt how to turn the plane in the air, and the plane had to be wheeled back to the hangar, as there was no space to take off near the hotel, but he celebrated with champagne all the same.

On 4 October 1910, a local cinematograph company asked to film a flight, and he confidently accepted; Colin Manton describes this as characteristic hubris. Ignoring warnings of a dangerous ditch, he tried to fly over it, destroying the aircraft in a "comprehensive smash" which was recorded on film. The cameraman noted that Piffard still "seemed in no way disappointed; in fact, I thought I saw a gleam of satisfaction in his eye".

The crash of Harold Piffard's No.2 "Hummingbird" biplane my have been the first ever crash of a fixed wing aircraft in East Sussex. Writing many years later in 1951, Air Vice Marshall Vincent described how he had witnessed this early flight in his youth, although his impression of Piffard himself perhaps reveals another dimension to the aviator’s personality.

‘Piffard was a man of over 40 then, and was a poster artist by profession; and for some strange reason he had decided to take up aviation. He was a bundle of nerves, and I have never since seen anyone smoke so many cigarettes in such a short time as he did when he had decided to get his aeroplane into the air’ (The Royal Aero Club Gazette 1951).

Vincent also explained how the machine gained its name, Hummingbird. Spectators gathered and the ‘engine was run up and, there being no rev counter or other instruments, everybody hummed the highest note reached by the engine. On switching off, the crowd still hummed the note, and a tuning-fork...was sounded. If the two notes agreed then all was well, the engine was restarted and the flight was on!’ If not, then adjustments were made to ‘tune up’ the engine.

In 1911 Piffard unsuccessfully tested a new aircraft, the Piffard Hydroplane, which had floats as well as wheels, on Shoreham beach. Piffard abandoned aircraft after 1911 and continued his career as a successful artist and illustrator until his death in 1939 He developed no more aircraft and did not attempt to fly again. The land at Shoreham became Shoreham Airport.


7. British Aircraft 1909-1914 by P Lewis, 1962; The Story of Acton Aerodrome and the Alliance Factory complied by P Roberts, London, Borough of Ealing Library Service 1978;
8. The Piffard Monograph Shoreham Airport Historical Association c.2000;
9. ‘The Piffard Biplane’, The Aeroplane 12 Oct 1909;
10. ‘The Pleasures and Pains of Aeroplane Experiments’ by Harold Piffard, The Aeroplane 25 Jan 1911;
11. ‘The Beginnings of Shoreham Airport’ by S F Vincent, The Royal Aero Club Gazette Golden Jubilee Number 1951.

Revision history:

19-Feb-2020 21:24 Dr. John Smith Added

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