1989: A Longtime and Legendary Transportation Trailblazer Passes Away at the Age of 101

January 27, 1989

Aviation pioneer Thomas Sopwith died at his mansion near the city of Winchester in southern England. He was 101. “The Genius of Flight is Dead,” announced a headline in the London-based Evening Standard. 

Sopwith was born on January 18, 1888, in the Royal Borough of Kensington (now part of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea) in southeastern England’s Greater London area. His earliest transportation-oriented passions included motorcycles. When Sopwith was only 16, for example, he competed in a 100-mile (160.9-kilometer) Tricar trial motorcycling race between Hatfield and Newmarket in eastern England and ended up as one of that event’s four medal winners. 

Sopwith subsequently began his initial involvement in aviation. He first took to the skies in a hot-air balloon in 1906. Sopwith eventually developed what would become his strong and lifelong interest in planes, teaching himself how to operate that means of transportation and first flying a plane in 1910. 

Sopwith was soon setting new records and earning various prizes for plane flights. In 1912, he established the Sopwith Aviation Company. This company built a variety of planes, including the famed single-engine Sopwith Camel, that proved to be critical to English military efforts during World War I.

Not long after the end of World War I, Sopwith — along with a small group that included test pilot Harry Hawker — founded aircraft manufacturer H.G. Hawker Engineering. Sopwith served as the chairman of this company, which was renamed Hawker Aircraft Limited in 1933. In 1935, Hawker Aircraft Limited merged with the engine and automotive company Armstrong Siddeley and its subsidiary Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft to form Hawker Siddeley Aircraft. Just a few years later, Hawker Siddeley Aircraft developed a large number of fighter planes that were vital to Allied efforts during World War II. 

Sopwith was also an accomplished yachtsman. He competed in a couple of America’s Cup sailing races, and nearly won that competition in 1934 with his yacht Endeavour.

(The accompanying photo of Sopwith was taken in 1911.)

Photo Credit: Public Domain

For more information on Thomas Sopwith, please check out https://iwhiddenheroes.org.uk/tom-sopwith-1888-1989/ and https://www.ctie.monash.edu.au/hargrave/sopwith.html

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