Creator Of Sopwith Camel Dead At 101
Jan. 27, 1989
LONDON (AP) _ Aviation pioneer Sir Thomas Sopwith, the adventure-loving creator of the famed World War I Sopwith Camel and Pup airplanes, died today, his son said. He was 101.
Sopwith, who taught himself to fly in 1910 and began designing airplanes at age 26, died before dawn at his 19th century manor home near Winchester in southern England, his son Thomas said.
''Really he died of old age, but he'd had a marvelous (life),'' said Thomas Sopwith, 56, from his office in Brighton.
The elder Sopwith, an accomplished race car driver and yachtsman before he discovered his passion for airplanes, set several early flying records.
''We had a lot of crashes in those days, but, bless you, it was fun,'' he recalled on his 100th birthday last year. ''This new experience of flying was one of the most exhilarating things that had ever happened to me.''
Sir John Lidbury, a former director of Sopwith's Hawker Siddeley aircraft company, said: ''He was a wonderful engineer, with great technical ability and flair ... Everything he put his hand to he did thoroughly and well.''
More than 16,000 Sopwith airplanes were built for action in World War I, including 6,000 Camels, which shot down more enemy aircraft than any other allied plane. A Camel flown by Roy Brown shot down the German Baron Von Richthofen, the infamous ''Red Baron.''
Thomas Octave Murdoch Sopwith, born in 1888 into a wealthy engineering family, was 16 when the Wright brothers flew under power for the first time in the United States.
Sopwith loved all racing, and became involved with motorcycles, motorboats, ballooning and sailing before taking up flying in 1910.
He bought his first airplane for 630 pounds (then worth $3,000), and after two flights as a passenger, he taught himself to fly. His first solo flight ended in a crash, but he wasn't injured.
Sopwith founded Sopwith Aviation Co. in 1912 and gave up piloting for design two years later. His company created the Snipe, the Pup and the Camel.
Jack Bruce, an aviation historian, said some pilots grew to love the Camel, which he called a ''neurotically responsive machine,'' but only after they had spent time with it.
''(It was) difficult to learn how to handle but once pilots had got the hang of it, (it was) quite exceptionally maneuverable,'' he told the Daily Telegraph last year. ''But a lot of pilots were petrified at the thought of it.''
Sopwith's second company, founded between the wars, took the name of his test pilot Harry Hawker who died in 1921.
In 1936, Sopwith gambled by building 1,000 of his Hurricane airplanes without an advance order from the government, but the plane later became the backbone of the Royal Air Force when World War II broke out.
He retired as chairman of the Hawker Siddeley Group in 1963.
Sopwith was married twice, and both his wives are deceased.
He is survived by his son.