In the spring of 1894 a man who lived in Dittisham and worked in Dartmouth became airborne on the slopes above Dittisham Mill Creek in a machine he designed and constructed himself.
This little known achievement some years before the much heralded flight of the Wright brothers in America, makes “our man” one of the earliest pioneers of the heavier than air flying machines in Britain, second only to Sir George Cayley the Englishman accredited as the “father of the aeroplane” who built a gliding machine some years earlier in which one of his servants managed to get airborne.
Our aviator was Albert Liwentaal, a Swiss born engineer who worked in the shipyards of Simpson and Strickland at Noss in Dartmouth. At the time of his flying experiments he lived at Snail Cottage in the parish of Dittisham by the bridge before East Cornworthy.
It is reported that Albert took a great interest in studying the flight of the local sea birds from which he was inspired to design his flying machine. He was encouraged by a Mr Lidstone a boat builder who allowed him to build his machine in his shed. Mr Lidstone’s daughter when aged 90 remembered her father telling her about Albert’s machine.
Albert’s endeavours were reported in the “Dartmouth and Brixham Chronicle” in February and April 1894. The machine of 40 foot wing span was transported up river by boat to the beach below Gurrow Point. He and his helpers man-handled the unwieldy machine on top of the hill above Dittisham Mill Creek. It was pointed into the wind with Albert seated on a bicycle saddle above a single bicycle wheel undercarriage. It rushed down the slope steadied by helpers on the wing tips and was observed to rise six or seven feet clear of the ground for several yards. Unfortunately it was hit by a gust of wind and flipped on to its back doing considerable damage to the structure.
Undaunted and encouraged by the brief excursion into free flight, Albert repaired his machine and made another attempt from the slopes above Dittisham at Bozomzeal. On this occasion he failed to get airborne and crashed into a thick hedge. His machine was irrepairably damaged and Albert was taken to Dartmouth hospital suffering from severe cuts and bruising. A recently published history of Dartmouth hospital is claiming treatment of one of “the first recorded aviation casualties”.
Albert’s machine named the “Dittisham Aerostat” and his pioneering experiments received only local publicity and was not recorded in the Royal Aeronautical Society’s annuals of early British aviation, but was rectified by a local aviation historian.
Unfortunately no pictures of drawings of the machine have been found but a reasonable description was discovered in the Smithsonian Institute, America’s premier aeronautical museum from a French aeronautical publication L’Aeronaute of July 1984. These and other odd notes have been used to construct a model representing Albert’s Aerostat and now resides in the Dartmouth Museum.
After recovering from his accident, it is known that Albert moved to London to continue his aeronautical studies but no records have been found of his London activities.