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Are you interested in gaining an insight into the early days of air combat?

Fig.1. World War One: Aviation Comes of Age

This free, open, interactive and connected online course is about to start. It runs for only three weeks and will take a couple of hours a week to do, a little longer to take part in, and as long as you like to indulge.

From First World War

Fig. 2. Gustav Hammel – an early aeronaut who my grandfather saw fly in age 13

I’m doing it to refresh my knowledge from my late grandfather who say the very earliest aviators as a boy and then after 18 months as a machine gunner on the Western Front successfully transferred to the Royal Flying Corps to train as a pilot.

The course is led by a retired former senior RAF officer, Dr Peter Gray with whom I’ve already had a lecture courtesy of the MA in Military History, also with the University of Birmingham. His lecture was on how to read and review a book, and on how to write a competent essay. I’ve been respectively three, then one then ? marks shy of a distinction with my essays so he got me pointed in the right direction.

These courses are known as MOOCs for ‘Massive Open Online Courses’ because courtesy of the Internet they are global and can attract thousands of participants and ‘open’ because they are free to do and talk about … the other two are obvious. An off-putting acronym for a set of rich, multi-media webpages designed for learning? Lord Reith of the BBC, one of the founding fathers of the BBC, would have approved as these MOOCs from FutureLearn entertain, inform and educate.

Anyway, the course is about to start. It is open to anyone, and it is free. So see you there?


Gustav Hamel – Aviator & Aeronaut 1912

In 1912, my Uncle Billy Steel from Penrith took me to see Gustav Hamel giving a flying exhibition at Carlisle Racecourse.

We went over by train from Newcastle and got a bus from Brampton. You paid half a crown to get in. That would be about from £5.50 in today’s money.

Gustav flew a Bleriot Monoplane.

It was fitted with a 50hp Gnome Engine. For six pence you could enter the flying enclosure where the planes were grounded. They were held down with ropes in case they were flipped over by the wind; they were flimsy affairs, just string and paper. More like a kite.

This Monoplane could attain a speed of 65mph. Gustav crossed the Channel eleven times, which didn’t count for much if you weren’t the first, but he was the first over with a lady passenger. He also held the record for flying to a height of 11,500 feet.

I remember him arriving in a chain-driven red two-seater Mercedes sports car.

There was a girl in the front seat waving a hat; that was his youngest sister Annie I believe.

He put his flying gear on, clambered into this Monoplane and went up. He did one circle and down. That was it the first time. There was a near riot. But it the wind was getting up and he understood the risks. It was a couple of hours more before he risked his arm again. This second time he banked the machine, did vol-planes and pan-cake descents which everyone thought was a mistake … it was extremely thrilling.

That’s how Billy and me got the bug.

We bought these model planes as well left and flew them down the bank at the Spa.

They thought he was a spy for the Germans.

He was eventually lost over the North Sea.

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