The first man to land on an aircraft carrier at sea was a South African

A South African holds a very prestigious place in the world of aviation firsts.  Edwin Dunning was the first man to land an aircraft on a moving ship adapted to carry aircraft, a feat that at the time was near impossible, and the practice of landing aircraft even today on an aircraft carrier takes supreme skill and is reserved for the ‘best of the best’ pilots, such is the hazard.  Unfortunately for his pioneering endeavour his efforts were to end in tragedy.

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Squadron Commander E H Dunning climbs out of his aircraft on the flying-off deck of HMS FURIOUS after the first successful landing on an aircraft carrier underway.

Edwin Harris Dunning was born in South Africa on the 17th July 1892, the second child of Sir Edwin Harris Dunning and was later educated at Royal Navy Colleagues in the United Kingdom.

A very skilled aviator, he took to pioneering naval aviation.  He rose to a high rank within the Royal Navy’s newly born Air Service or RNAS (which was to evolve into their ‘Fleet Air Arm’).  During World War 1 the Army and the Navy ran separate Air Services under their own Command. During the war the Royal Navy began to look at how aircraft can be operated from fighting ships.

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Squadron Commander E H Dunning

Previously the Royal Navy had used catapults to launch the aircraft from ship decks but landing them was a different matter – early naval aircraft types were fitted with pontoons (sea-plane or ‘float’ plane) and ‘landed in the ocean next to the vessel to be hoisted back on.  This posted a number of difficulties, sea conditions and time and manoeuvring of the aircraft and ship for hoisting for starters.  Also, they could only operate one aircraft from a ship and it was usually used for one thing – ‘spotting’ i.e. reconnaissance work.

The solution lay in an adapted fighting ship with a runway from which a number of aircraft could take-off or be catapulted from and could land directly on the ship again, this could then bring the formidable nature of air-power – striking targets anywhere in the world within range completely at will into the realm of sea-power.  The concept of the aircraft carrier was born (a concept that to this day divides a super-power from an ordinary country).

However, you needed people with considerable skill and courage to try this idea out, that it was dangerous to land on a ship in high winds and rolling seas is an understatement – think of runway that is always moving around.  They found such a man in our hero, one very brave South African aviator.

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HMS Furious with the original flight deck conversion in the front

The Royal Navy decided to convert a Courageous-class Battlecruiser, the from a fighting ship into a fighting aircraft carrier by removing her forward gun and a flight deck was added to the bow in its place.  A difficult proposition to land on as the approaching aircraft had to manoeuvre around the superstructure to land (much later on they removed the rear gun and extend the flight deck to compensate for this, but it look a tragic learning).

Squadron Leader Edwin Dunning, aged just 25, flying a Sopwith Pup bi-plane marched into the history books at Scapa Flow, Orkney Islands, Scotland during test exercises in the Flow.  He became the first person to land on a moving aircraft carrier at sea.  He completed this landmark aviation feat on 2 August 1917.

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A colourised image captures Dunning’s milestone.  Note naval personnel ‘catching’ his aircraft

The landing was extremely perilous – whereas now arrest wires would bring a plane to a halt, Dunning was relying on the deck crew of the Furious to grab the wings of his Sopwith Pup to bring it to a halt.

Five short days later, after completing his milestone, Dunning endeavoured to do it again.  However tragedy struck during his third landing of the day. On approach, his aircraft stalled and he came down on the deck of the Furious at too steep an angle. Dunning was knocked unconscious, his port wing lifted as the plane went over the side of the ship and he drowned in the cockpit.

 

Recognition

Edwin Dunning is buried at St Lawrence’s Church, Bradfield in England. A plaque in the church says just about everything in recognition of his contribution to naval aviation.

It reads:

“The Admiralty wish you to know what great service he performed for the Navy. It was in fact a demonstration of landing an Aeroplane on the deck of a Man-of-War whilst the latter was under way. This had never been done before; and the data obtained was of the utmost value. It will make Aeroplanes indispensable to a fleet; & possibly, revolutionise Naval Warfare. The risk taken by Squadron Commander Dunning needed much courage. He had already made two successful landings; but expressed a wish to land again himself, before other Pilots did so; and in this last run he was killed. My Lords desire to place on record their sense of the loss to the Naval Service of this gallant Officer”.

In memory of Edwin Dunning, the Dunning Cup is given annually to the officer who is considered to have done most to further aviation in connection with the Fleet for the year in question. In the 1950s and 1960s it was awarded to Royal Air Force squadrons which achieve the highest standard on courses at the Joint Anti-Submarine School.

A memorial stone was also unveiled at Swanbister Bay in Orkney in 1992 in recognition of Dunning’s feat.

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On the occasion of the centenary of Dunning’s feat the British marked the occasion in Orkney with a Hawk flypast and a new plaque was unveiled.  Lt Cdr Barry Issitt, Commanding Officer of 736 Naval Air Squadron, paid tribute in August 2017 to mark the centenary, he said;

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The new plaque has been produced by local craftsman Stuart Wylie, of Orkney Crystal – 2017.

“The event itself is of particular significance to the Royal Navy and Fleet Air Arm as it marks the first successful landing of a fixed-wing aircraft on a ship under way at sea; a moment that would be the genesis for the establishment of the pre-eminence of aircraft carriers.

“It is all the more poignant considering the current regeneration of the UK’s carrier capability, with HMS Queen Elizabeth currently conducting sea trials not far from the location of Dunning’s landing, with Merlin helicopters from 820 Naval Air Squadron operating from her flight deck.”

In Conclusion

As is typical to South Africa’s lack of recognition to countrymen who attained greatness serving in the ‘hated’ British forces (as was the case with the old National Party) or in the case of the ‘colonial’ forces (as is the current case with the ANC), even if the feat was an international aviation milestone.  So it passed unnoticed and no such flybys, plaque unveilings, awards, centenary mark or national salutes were given to our pioneering hero in South Africa – and that’s more tragic than the tragedy itself.

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Cdr Chestnutt is presented The Edwin Dunning Trophy on the pride of the Royal Navy, the new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth

Related Work and Links 

Fleet Air Arm – South African sacrifice ; South African sacrifice in the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm

Fleet Air Arm – Dick Lord; Dick Lord – the combat legend who took learnings from the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm to the SAAF

South African Navy sacrifice in the Royal Navy; The South African Navy’s ‘darkest hour’ is not recognised and not commemorated


Researched by Peter Dickens.  Source and Extracts – Wikipedia and BBC News

4 thoughts on “The first man to land on an aircraft carrier at sea was a South African

  1. Peter,

    Any chance that he was related to the late Doreen Dunning who had such a prestigious record of service during WWII?

    She was an aviator, her photograph was displayed in the Jhb Military Museum until that pathetic raid some years ago when the SANDF thought it was a right wing plot.

    Last time I looked it was no longer there..

    Ludi

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  2. Any idea where in SA Edwin Dunning was born and how long he spent in this country? All the references seem to say just ‘South Africa’. I’m reminded of Roger Bushell, the Big X of the Great Escape who is popularly regarded as wholly English, but was born in Springs, went to junior school in Jo’burg, and is listed on the war memorial on Hermanus (where his parents retired). .

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  3. Dunning probably deserves to be second on any list of 1892 births in (the future) SA who went on to distinguish themselves in England – after J.R.R.Tolkien (born in Bloemfontein)!

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