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Slipping The Surly Bonds Of Earth:

William Samuel Henson and the Birth of Aviation


by Chris Oakley


Part 3


Summary: In the first two chapters of this series we chronicled British inventor William Samuel Henson’s development of the world’s first practical airplane and the establishment of his partnership with Cornelius Vanderbilt to lay the foundations for an aviation industry in America. In this segment we’ll look at how the Crimean War would spark the first serious attempts to utilize aircraft as an instrument of warfare.




In early April of 1854, shortly after the Crimean War had broken out, a senior Royal Army official approached William Samuel Henson with an urgent request for the Aerial Transit Company to design and build in the shortest possible time a flying machine capable of operating in a battlefield reconnaissance role. Much to his surprise, the official found that Henson had already gone him one better and drafted a series of blueprints for a modified version of the Phaeton that could be used to drop bombs on enemy troop concentrations. Such an aircraft, Henson said, could augment British artillery strength and give Britain a  much-needed advantage against Russia on the battlefield. The official was quickly sold on Henson’s concept; a few weeks later a delegation of the Royal Army’s top generals assembled at ATC’s main research and development field to watch a prototype of Henson’s military variant of the Phaeton, dubbed the "Cumberland" after the 18th-century general who had crushed the Jacobite rebellion at the Battle of Culloden Moor, perform a simulated bombing run against scarecrows made up to resemble advancing enemy infantry.

The pilot, despite only having the human eye for a targeting system at the time, did fairly well in hitting his marks, and more than a few scarecrows bit the dust before the test run was over. The next day,  ATC accepted an order from the Royal Army for 250 Cumberland bombers, 150 reconnaissance aircraft, and 100 two-seat trainers; within less than a week ATC’s factory was going full blast to ensure that this was filled.

On May 3rd, 1854, Queen Victoria issued a royal decree proclaiming the establishment of Her Majesty’s 1st Aerial Cavalry, and the face of warfare would soon be transformed forever...


Most of the 1st Aerial Cavalry’s first days in existence were spent learning the basics of flying and stockpiling bombs to guarantee there would be an adequate supply when they were sent into combat against the Russians. It wasn’t until late July of 1854 that the unit finally received orders to ship out to the battlefield, but when they did get their baptism of fire it would be a memorable one indeed.

The unit’s first assigned mission was a raid against Russian cannon positions along the borders of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman sultan was bitterly upset about having so many Russian guns in firing range of his army outposts, and he wanted them done away with as quickly as possible. The British shared his sentiments wholeheartedly; should the Russians succeed in conquering Turkey, Britain’s strategic position in Asia Minor would be seriously jeopardized; worse, Russian troops based in Turkey would be in a fairly good position to invade Greece, which meant serious problems for British interests in the Mediterranean.

On July 29th, 1854 the main body of Her Majesty’s 1st Aerial Cavalry took off from a staging area west of Mount Ararat for the first aerial bombardment in human history. The Russian gunners, most of whom had never seen an airplane before, mistook the Cumberlands for kites and started to laugh; the laughter stopped very quickly, however, when the British bombers started to deliver their lethal cargo onto the Russian artillery lines. Like giant fists the bombs slammed down on the cannon emplacements; though they didn’t always hit what they were aimed at, they inflicted spectacular damage where they did hit. Russian infantry soldiers positioned nearby tried to bring down the Cumberland bombers by shooting at the pilots, but for the most part their shots went far wide.

When word of this attack filtered back to the Kremlin, the czar and his imperial court were horrified. What hideous new weapon, they asked themselves, had the British unleashed on their armies? How many of it did the British army have? Were more such attacks coming, and if they were could a means be found or developed to guard against them? The fate of the Russian empire hinged on the answers to these questions...


Across the Atlantic, US War and Navy Department intelligence analysts studied newspaper accounts of the bombing with the intense fascination of an archeologist probing an Egyptian tomb. If a handful of small biplanes could do so much damage to an enemy, who knew what could be accomplished by making such attacks with larger aircraft-- why, it might even be possible one day to impede an enemy’s industrial capacity by bombing his factories. The airplane was certainly useful for supporting infantry and gathering battlefield intelligence, not to mention ferrying supplies and men from camp to camp.

One American military official who took particular interest in the possibilities of air power was Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. Even before Her Majesty’s 1st Aerial Cavalry launched its historic assault Davis had commissioned a study of how bomb-carrying biplanes could be used to augment the firepower of US Army artillery regiments; after the bombing he became a staunch believer the utility of air power in battle, and so in early August of 1854 he invited Marcus Vanderbilt’s Eastern Aerial Carriages Company to submit a bid for a contract to build a Cumberland-type biplane for the Army.

The result of that bid was the Valley Forge, a two-seat light bomber that made its maiden test flight in September of 1854 at a field near (appropriately enough) Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. The new plane was powered by twin 135 hp engines and boasted an improved bomb-release system; it also introduced the world’s first telescopic bombsight, an instrument which although it seems prehistoric in comparison with the computerized laser-guided aircraft targeting systems of today was a step up from the aim-by-eyesight method military aviators had been heretofore forced to rely on.

The Valley Forge was certified for service with the US Army in October of 1854. That same month President Millard Fillmore signed an executive order creating the first American military aviation unit, the 1st Aerial Cavalry Regiment; in both name and purpose the new unit was similar to the British 1st Aerial Cavalry1. The US 1st Aerial Cavalry’s commanding officer, Major General Alfred Pleasanton, had followed the exploits of his regiment’s British counterpart from day one and relished the opportunity to command an aviation corps of his own.

Meanwhile, the British 1st Aerial Cavalry was gearing up to mount another raid on Russian artillery emplacements, this time near the Crimean town of Balaclava. A land cavalry battalion under the command of Lord Cardigan was engaged in pitched battle with the Russian army and they needed all the close air support they could get...


To Be Continued



 1 Modern military historians believe it can also be regarded as a distant ancestor of today’s helicopter-equipped 1st Air Cav.


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