Harry Ferguson
– First flight in Ireland

Ferguson Journal, Vol.4. No.1 Spring 1990

For those who were not able to attend the 1989 ‘FERGUSON OPEN HOUSE DAY’ last December 2nd we publish below, by popular request, the text of one of the two main lectures. John Moore of the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum has had a special interest in Harry Ferguson for many years. The Ulster museum displays the Ferguson replica monoplane (with some original parts) as well as other Ferguson farm and automobile exhibits. We will publish the text of the other main lecture by Aaron Jones, Massey-Ferguson Tractor’s managing director, in a later issue

I have been asked to consider the early activities of Harry Ferguson. in the days before he turned to the tractor and plough for which he became known internationally. As you may know we in Northern Ireland are very proud of Harry Ferguson – so much so that we have recently produced a twenty pound banknote featuring both his aircraft and the Ferguson Brown Model A tractor.

When the question “Who was the first Briton to design, build and fly his own monoplane?” is asked even many experts fail to appreciate that the answer is Harry Ferguson. Born at Growell, near Hillsborough, Co Down, on 4 November 1884 he achieved the first reason for lasting fame a quarter of a century later on 31 December 1909 in the same district. He was born into an age of rapid change. It is difficult for us, in this age of rules and regulations, to appreciate the pulsating excitement and newness of all forms of transport at the turn of the century. The old rubbed shoulders with the new. The horsedrawn vehicle with all its attendant mess and labour was giving way to the noisy, smelly internal combustion engine. The restless souls of the time looked for the thrills of speed both on the land and in the air.

Ferguson Mk1 : Taildragger 1909

Like many others, while their father was still fit to manage the farm, the elder Ferguson boys left the grinding toil, which was a normal way of life for farmers in the early years of the century, to join the industrial revolution. The eldest Joe (J.B.) was apprenticed to Combe Barbour, the mill engineers,
in Belfast. The city was then known world-wide for its linen, ship-building and engineering industries.

He had been introduced to the motor car when repairing a steam car belonging to the boss. With two colleagues, Stewart Hamilton and James A. McKee, the firm of Hamilton and Ferguson was formed. They repaired cars and motor cycles and undertook general engineering work. Harry Ferguson joined this thriving business as an apprentice in 1902.

Harry Ferguson established himself as a motor-cyclist and motorist of considerable skill and local repute. He did this in the cause of business as the partnership was dissolved and the firm of J.B. Ferguson & Co was established in 1903, Through this Harry learnt the necessity and rewards of good publicity. The firm rapidly gained the reputation of being the best machine shop in all Ireland.

In December 1903 the Wright brothers first flew. Their first efforts did not receive much publicity and they experimented more or less in secret until the summer of 1908 when they came to Europe and showed how to control aircraft.

Having seen the young-men-about-town move from cycles to motor-cycles and on to cars he believed that the next stop would be towards aircraft. In this he echoed Kenneth Grahame’s ‘Wind in the Willows’ where Mr Toad progressed from enthusiastic driving in his motor car to flying an aircraft. It was Ferguson’s intention to learn about aircraft and be in a position to satisfy the demand when it came.

Although he had not seen any aircraft Ferguson started drawing up plans for his own machine. In 1909 he visited the air shows at Rhiems and Blackpool to get first hand knowledge. His method of designing his own aircraft was much the same as used by others at the time. He took some measurements from the various aircraft he liked and went home and used a bit from here and a bit from there. This meant that the aircraft as it finally appeared had Antoinette-like wings and tail section attached to Bleriot style fuselage.

The first engine was a 30 h.p. Green. When it arrived the impetuous Harry Ferguson could not wait to have it running. It required some form of flywheel and, as it would have been extremely dangerous to fit a propeller in the crowded garage, he used an old pulley bound with piano wire to strengthen it. The engine burst into life and so did the pulley. One piece was never found again. Fortunately no-one was hurt. The Green engine was soon discarded and a 35 hp V-8 air-cooled JAP substituted. With its open exhaust ports, this engine was compared to a Gatling gun.

The months of November and December 1909 were spent in final assembly and attempts to fly at Lord Downshire’s Hillsborough Park. These tests led to a number of changes in the design including simplification of the undercarriage to eliminate the suspension which appears to have consisted of motor-cycle forks pivoted and controlled by large rubber bands. The Beedle propeller was replaced by a 76 inch diameter Cochrane.

Having decided that he was going to fly in 1909 Harry Ferguson was confronted by bad weather, rain, wind and snow. On 31 December 1909 he gave up waiting and, in spite of winds of nearly 30 mph and hilly ground, undertook some short hops. Then by taking the plane to the top of a field he opened up the throttle and his helpers let go. After a very short run he got up to a speed of 30 mph and pulled the aircraft up into the air. The speed dropped but he managed to stay up and cleared a hedge at the other side of the field to achieve a flight of 130 yards. Apparently this was more nerve-wrecking for the spectators than for the pilot who had achieved his ambition more by force of personality than by anything else.

Having got into the air Harry Ferguson then met the twin problems of how to design an aircraft to fly and how to fly the product of his designs. To achieve a simultaneous solution to these two problems he had to find a better place to fly. The first place he tried was Masereene Park outside Antrim on the edge of Lough Neagh. This provided slightly better air flow conditions. He also discovered that the wide expanse of the sandbanks at Magilligan on the estuary of the River Foyle provided a very suitable site for flying.

In June 1910 the Sports Committee at Newcastle, Co Down, ‘accepted a proposal by Mr H Ferguson of Belfast to give, at a cost of £100, an aviation exhibition at the athletic meeting of 21 July. ‘ Special trains were run to this meeting. Unfortunately, Newcastle, at the point where ‘The Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea, ‘ suffers from considerable turbulence. It was not the best of choices for ‘the first public exhibition of Irish aeromanship ever held.’

Ferguson monoplane at Newcastle, Co. Down, © Ulster Transport Museum, Museum of Innovation, BELUM.Y16778

Crowds gathered but were disappointed. The original plan had been to give demonstrations on three consecutive days. However, the blustery and unpredictable conditions persisted and only on the evening of the third day did Ferguson even try to fly, and then it was on the beach, not in Donard Park the original planned venue.

Having assembled the aircraft and run up the engine he turned into the direction of the most frequent gusts and took off. At least he flew about 50 yards and rose 10ft. into the air. Then a wicked gust hit the aircraft and it dropped violently breaking the propeller and buckling a wheel. After replacing these items he gamely tried again but fared no better this time cracking a wing. This put further flight out of the question.

The Sports Committee realised that the problems were due to the topography and extended the time limit on their offer. After many more attempts he moved to Dundrum Bay. about three miles away and, on 8 August, took off to fly the full length of Newcastle strand and back to land at the Slieve Donard Hotel. He later described the effort, “I am sure I made at least 500 attempts to win it before actually doing so. Sometimes I would get half a mile, sometimes ~ quarter, and sometimes only a few hundred yards. Then I would get into a swirl of air, or a down-current or ‘air-pocket’ as they are called, and come crashing down. There was not a piece of the machine that at some time or other I did not break at Newcastle, and I had escapes innumerable. The aeroplane sometimes turned a complete half-somersault after landing or rather falling, and had it not been for the design of the machine, I would assuredly have been killed on many different occasions. At last, one calm day, I got up a clear hundred feet and made a three-mile flight, so winning the prize.” The £100 reward was obtained at an expenditure of considerably greater effort than several £ 1,000 prizes won by much advertised pioneers in other corners of the United Kingdom.

After this public exhibition Ferguson returned to the privacy of Magilligan where he continued to improve both his design and his flying skill. He let the people of the district see his aircraft and gave some flights. An enterprising visitor at this time was a Miss Rita Marr of Liv’erpool who travelled over to become the first woman passenger in Ireland. She had been refused trips by various English aviators of the time.

Mr T W K Clarke, the propeller manufacturer, also visited Ferguson and was taken for several flights. In October 1910, on his way back from leaving Clarke to the train at Bellarena, Ferguson was hit by a sudden squall . This upset the aircraft at a height where there was not enough room to recover thus causing a crash. Ferguson was knocked unconscious and received other bruising. The aircraft was considered a write off.
In spite of all these difficulties Harry Ferguson persevered with his intention to have an aircraft available for sale. He, therefore, took the opportunity to redesign the aircraft. The fifth variant of the Ferguson aeroplane appeared in June 1911 with a triangular fuselage and a single cabane strut formed, as before, by the extension of the undercarriage legs. The new wings were of 32 foot span, the reduction being achieved by the lighter construction of the aircraft.

He also spent the winter improving’ the tune of his 35 hp JAP engine. In converting this previously somewhat temperamental engine into a reliable, smooth, power unit he eliminated much of the trouble which had plagued him in earlier test flying. The fall-off in power which accompanied long flights could well have been a contributory factor to his October accident at Magilligan.

By June 1911 Harry Ferguson had broken away from his brother J. B. The amount of time being spent on the aircraft with such small return must have increased the friction between them. The effort involved in setting up his own garage must have slowed down the work on the aeroplane. However, to save travelling time he decided to try and fly at Newtownards only ten miles from Belfast. The new aircraft proved to be extremely easy to get airborne but ‘in trying to avoid spectators he landed heavily and broke the front skid and propeller. On the next day he had a satisfactory flight of about a mile but when taxying back the skid stuck in a mud bank and the aircraft turned over and was wrecked again.

By October 1911 Harry Ferguson had rebuilt his aircraft in yet another configuration. This time he had incorporated tricycle undercarriage to prevent a repeat of the last accident.

This aircraft was replicated by Capt. Jack Kelly-Rogers of Dublin in 1976 and is on display at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum.  Having proved that his aircraft was practical and having found that there were not enough takers ready to purchase copies Harry Ferguson turned his attention to other pursuits. He was persuaded to take up less dangerous activities such as racing for Vauxhalls. He was entered for the Dieppe Grand Prix but did not actually compete. He also built up his garage business with agencies for British and American cars, Star, Vauxhall and Maxwell. This led to an agency for the Overtime tractor which provided the opportunity to be called in as an expert by the Ministry of Munitions during World War I in their attempt to increase home food production. From this exercise he saw the necessity for a plough designed to work with a specific tractor. The depression following the Wall Street crash caused Ford to stop producing Fordson tractors leaving Ferguson with the only option of producing his own tractor and plough as the ‘Ferguson System’ with which he revolutionised farming.

© John Moore: Ferguson Journal, V4. No.1 Spring 1990
Reprunted in Journal 56, Summer 2007.

Extract from: Graces Guide 1910: Harry Ferguson: First Flight in Ireland

“THE Emerald Isle is not by any means very far behind the times in matters of practical value, and among the several flying machines which have been built and experimented with, that of Mr. H. G. Ferguson, of Belfast, appears to give very good promise of success. So far the work of trying it has been hampered by the lack of a suitable ground, but it is hoped that this will shortly be remedied. It has been located at Lord Downshire’s park at Hillsborough, but this, having proved to be too hilly, a move has been decided upon.

During the three weeks the monoplane has been at Hillsborough, the weather has been all against practice, but on the last day of the old year Mr. Ferguson, after fitting a new Cochrane propeller, was successful in getting his machine to rise and fly for 130 yards, and this in spite of a gusty wind blowing at an average rate of 25 miles an hour. During this trial Mr. Ferguson had the machine under perfect control and landed again without difficulty. The machine is a monoplane somewhat suggestive of the Bleriot cross-Channel flyer, having a supporting surface of 192 sq. ft., the main planes being 34 ft. span. They are mounted with a dihedral angle of 4°, while the angle of incidence when flying is 7°. The length of the machine is 30 ft., and it weighs 620 lbs.

It is fitted with a 7 ft. tractor, driven at a speed of 1,200 revs, per min. by a 35-h.p. 8-cyl. air-cooled J.A.P. engine, and a speed of 32 miles has to be obtained before lifting is accomplished. The monoplane was constructed entirely in the works of Messrs. J. B. Ferguson, Ltd., of Belfast, and was designed by Mr. H. G. Ferguson after studying the various aeroplanes which took part in the Rheims and Blackpool meetings. The owner hopes to be the first to fly across the Irish Channel, and moreover to accomplish it before long.”