Aviation Firsts in Northern Ireland

Christine Crawford remembers some of our high flyers

The first woman and second person to make a nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean made her grand finale landing in Farmer McGeady's field in Culmore, County Derry -just 14 hours and 56 minutes after leaving Harbor Grace, Newfoundland. Amelia Earhart of Acthinson, Kansas attempted to make her way to France when unexpected engine trouble dropped her bright red Lockhead Vega 5B plane a little short of Paris but still safe and sound in the fields of Northern Ireland.

A figure stumbled up the field in full flight gear with a face smeared in oil, 'she got out and it wasn't normal to see a lady in jodpers in those times...McGeady thought she was a fella,' said Joseph Melarkey, development worker for the Amelia Earhart Heritage Centre. He added, 'We are fiercely proud that she arrived in Derry -such an amazing person.' Earhart's legacy lives on in the city of Derry with a number of landmarks throughout the city called after her, such as Amelia Court and Earhart Park.

Earhart: “Where am I?”
McGeady: “You're in Mr. McGeady's field”
Earhart: “ No, where am I in the world?”
McGeady: “You're in Derry, Northern Ireland”

On May 21, 1932, five years to the day after Lindberg's initial solo-Atlantic flight,  Earhart made it across the Atlantic in less than half the time taken by Lindberg's first flight. She was the first woman to do it, the first person to have flown the ocean twice in a heavier than air machine and held the fastest Atlantic flight on record. However, it was not an easy feat because just four hours after the Vega left Newfoundland, the exhaust manifold burned out and flames began to bellow out of the plane.

Earhart had no idea where the nearest Northern Irish airport was and flew north until she spotted some railway tracks which she followed in the hopes that they would lead her to a city or town with an airport. Unexpectedly, she crash-landed and there was no welcoming crowd to cheer on the heroic aviator, as she circled the fields of Derry and floated down to earth in her red and gold monoplane.

'It gave me a queer feeling, not being able to know when I was getting too near the water,' said Earhart. She added, 'I flew around looking for a place to land but the pasture was the best I could find and here I am with about $10 in American money in my pocket. However, the hospitable Irish people have told me not to worry.'

Earhart continued her pioneering flights but in 1937, the worlds most famous female aviator disappeared as she attempted to become the first woman to fly around the world.

Co Derry has a strong historical background in aviation. 'A year later an Italian called General Balbo and 24 sea planes landed in the mouth of the Foyle,' said Melarkey. Following Earhart's arrival in Culmore the people of Derry experienced an even more dramatic event when General Italo Balbo and 24 flying boats of the Italian Air Force flew into Lough Foyle in order to refuel whilst on route to Chicago, for the World Fair.

Derry also produced a number of native aviation innovators. Melarkey said, 'Cordner was living in Derry and tried to fly a plane back in 1908.' Joseph Cordner owned a bicycle repair shop (like the infamous aviators, the Wright brothers) and claimed to make the first powered controlled flight in Ireland. Later, he continued his passion for aviation by purchasing a First World War airplane to take people on pleasure flights around Portrush and Coleraine.

Despite Cordners claims, the accolade for first man in Ireland to make a powered flight goes to Harry Ferguson. 'Harry Ferguson designed his own aircraft and carried the first woman passenger,' said Michael McCaughan, head of Transport at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum . The flight took place on December 31 1909, at Hillsborough, Co Down when Ferguson traveled 130 yards in a monoplane he had built by following plans in a magazine -hence, the affectionate term 'mad mechanic'. He gave up aviation by 1912 and developed the famous Ferguson Tractor.

Northern Ireland has been dabbling in the field of aviation for centuries. McCaughan said, 'Historically Northern Ireland people have been pioneers of aviation and technologically advanced from early times to the present.' It all began in the 19th century with regular balloon ascents from Belfast's Botanic Gardens. The first municipal aerodrome in the British Isles was located at Malone, Belfast and the Northern Irish inventor and engineer, Rex McCandless developed the famed James Bond, Giro helicopter.

Today, Northern Ireland firms are at the forefront of the aviation and aerospace industry. The Short Brothers PLC (Bombardier) employs around 5700 people in the Belfast area and is a world leader in the design and manufacture of aviation products and services. Bombardier's Northern Ireland operations push advanced techniques and the firm holds contracts with Boeing, Rolls Royce and General Electric.
Supported by the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation

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