Preston Watson: Dundee’s Pioneer Aviator

Dundee’s aviation pioneer who beat the Wright Brothers into the air by at least five months in 1903.

Preston Watson was Scotland’s aviation trailblazer who beat the Wright Brothers into the air by at least five months in 1903. This extract places Watson within the wider context of aviation innovation in the early 21st-century and highlights his place – and his hometown of Dundee – in the story of pioneer aviation.

Extract from The Pioneer Flying Achievements of Preston Watson 
By Alastair W Blair and Alistair Smith
Published by Strident

Many believe that the Dundee-born Preston Watson (1881–1915) beat the famed Wright Brothers into the air by a margin of several months in the early years of the 21st-century. Eye witnesses interviewed in the 1950s clearly recalled the flight setting off from a primitive landing strip at Errol by the banks of the Tay in the summer of 1903. Watson’s wire and wood flying machine was hoisted by means of ropes and weights into the trees, catapulted with engines running, and flew some 100–140 yards before landing. Encouraged by his success, Watson went on to build two further planes. He joined the Royal Flying Corps at the outbreak of the first World War but was killed in a training accident at Eastbourne at the age of only thirty-four. He was buried on July 5th, 1915 in Dundee’s Western Cemetery. Preston’s brother James campaigned for his brother’s feat to be acknowledged, but the authorities were sceptical. Now, however, Dundee’s first pilot is finally receiving the recognition he deserves.

Abridged Extract from the Introduction

There have emerged a considerable number of designs and actual attempts to fly by individuals in the 19th-century. Some were based on a rudimentary understanding of the physics involved and some resulted in fledgling flight. Some were doomed to failure (often spectacular) and some merely remained as plans which, by modern analysis, might have been capable of flight.

The question of who first achieved powered flight was a matter of great individual and national importance at the time, and some of the rival claiming led to heated disputes. There seems little doubt that it had been achieved in some imperfect way before December 1903, but as is often the case in such matters, authentication is difficult or impossible. In the case of flying, what constituted a ‘flight’ had yet to be defined. Although Jullien flew a clockwork driven model airship in 1850 and Langley flew his steam driven model in 1896, the interest centred on who was first to achieve manned flight, with power take-off (perhaps assisted) in a heavier-than-air machine whose direction and height could be controlled and which ended in a landing (or at least the possibility of one). Then there was the problem of what distance across and above the ground qualified for the term ‘flight’.

One could define ‘flight’ as a powered and manned aircraft lifting off from the ground and sustaining that flight through the air by means of the propulsion, before landing the aircraft in a controlled manner. The distance and height achieved are probably academic, but the important criterion is the sustaining of the flight.

A large enough body of collected experience did not exist at that stage and no independent organisation had the sapiential authority or the credibility to arbitrate any conflicting claims, so anything of that nature would have had to be done retrospectively. The Wright brothers had by far the best documented and witnessed claim to a flight which was piloted, took off under its own power and flew convincingly clear of the ground (for 852 feet in 59 seconds) on 17 December 1903. It was piloted by Wilbur who demonstrated that he had control of lateral stability and climb/descent; and was able to land without too much damage to pilot or machine. Without formal process this was generally accepted as the standard by which other claims would be judged. The speeds, altitudes and effectiveness of control all moved on from then. The Wrights themselves did not consider they had satisfactorily conquered these aspects until 1905 – the year their patent was granted. Even then, they did not demonstrate their ‘Flyer’ in public until 1908.

Subsequent claims to have flown prior to the Wright brothers have been accompanied by less convincing documentation and history has come to accept the Wright Brothers as being the first to achieve the criteria for what now might be regarded as ‘flight’ in the aviation sense. In one sense, it does not matter greatly whether one considers flight was first achieved by du Temple in 1874, Ader in 1890, Mozhaisky in 1884, Whitehead in 1901, Watson in 1903 and many others, or the Wright Brothers in 1903. Without wishing to diminish in any way the determination, genius and bravery of any of these (undoubtedly best documented in the case of the Wright Brothers), it is true to say that they were able to do so working from a foundation built up by others. That view is reinforced by the fact that these men, working largely independently, achieved their aim in some measure all within the space of twenty-eight years. Cayley, Lillienthal, Pilcher and others had brought matters to the cusp of success. But the efforts of the empiricists such as du Temple and Mozhaisky, and even some whose efforts with tie-on or mechanical flapping wings engender mirth and ridicule, made a contribution.

The object here is to attempt to set the achievements of Preston Watson into that context in the hope of giving him the place that the authors and many others feel he deserves in the story of pioneer aviation.

The Pioneer Flying Achievements of Preston Watson, by Alastair W Blair and Alistair Smith, is out now published by Strident priced £11.99. The People’s History, featuring Preston Watson, is available on STV Player here.

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