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February 9, 2022

Stanley Spencer’s First Airship, Sponsored by Mellins Foods, Became the First Airship to Fly Over London in 1902

Stanley Edward Spencer (1868–1906) was an early English aeronaut, famous for ballooning and parachuting in several countries, and later for building and flying an airship over London in 1902.

The success of the airships designed and flown by Alberto Santos Dumont in Paris led Spencer to believe that he could build an improved version. To fund the construction costs, he entered into a sponsorship contract with Mellin and Company of Peckham, the manufacturer of “Mellin’s Food”, a leading brand of infant formula “for babies and invalids”. The sum of £1,500 was payable in return for twenty-five return flights carrying an advertisement for “Mellin’s Food”.

The airship was assembled in Spencer’s balloon shed at Crystal Palace, London, then a popular site for balloon ascents. The envelope of the airship measured some 75 feet (23 m) in length and had a capacity of 20,000 cubic feet (570 m3) of hydrogen. The gondola was an open framework of bamboo poles, on which was mounted a 3.5-horsepower (2.6 kW) Simms petrol engine. There was only space for a single person. The engine drove a wooden propeller which worked in tractor configuration; previous airships had used a pusher configuration, which, being mounted at the back, ran the risk of igniting any escaping gas. A fan pump and valve designed by Spencer replaced any lost gas with air, to prevent the envelope from deforming. A further safety feature was that in the event of a catastrophic failure of the envelope, Spencer claimed that it was designed to collapse into the shape of a parachute.

The completed airship was reported to have made its first flight some time in late June 1902. There followed a series of trial flights at the Crystal Palace polo ground. On 14 July, the airship was piloted by Spencer’s wife, Rose, on a powered flight in a circuit around the ground, “under perfect control” according to one newspaper report.

If the various press reports of the event are correct, this makes Mrs Spencer the first woman to pilot a powered aircraft. Although designed to be a single-seater, Spencer flew with his three-month-old baby daughter Gladys on at least one occasion, claiming that she was the first female to have flown in an airship.


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