The Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme

Edwin Dunning (1892-1917)

Aircraft first began flying from ships in 1912, but it was not until 1917 that a plane was successfully landed on a moving ship. HMS Furious had been commissioned as an aircraft carrier early in 1917 and was capable of doing 30 knots, a speed which for the first time made it possible to land planes while underway at sea.

In 1917 HMS Furious was fitted with a 228-foot flying-off deck at the front of the ship. Landing trials were attempted by Squadron Commander Edwin Harris Dunning in a Sopwith Pup while the ship was at sea.

Because the landing deck was at the front of the ship he had to manoeuvre the plane around the superstructure of the ship to make the landing. The aircraft could fly at slow speed, so it was possible to fly the aircraft alongside the ship before being positioned over the flying-off deck.

On 2 August with a 20-knot wind and the ship steaming at 25 knots, Dunning made aviation history when he successfully landed his Sopwith Pup on HMS Furious, becoming the first pilot to do so. Members of the ship’s company rushed out to grab specially-fitted straps hanging from the aircraft as he landed, and then thronged the aircraft to congratulate him. This historic event took place in Scapa Flow, Orkney.

The first landing on a British aircraft carrier took place in Scapa Flow. The plane was flown by Edwin Dunning  Dunning is congratulated after landing on HMS Furious (c) Imperial War Museum

On 7 August he attempted the manoeuvre again. This second attempt was also successful, but the aircraft’s elevator got damaged, so he used aircraft N6452 for his third attempt.

As he approached he tried to abort the landing. The engine choked and the landing was heavy, bursting a tyre. An updraft caught his port wing, which threw his plane overboard. He was knocked unconscious and drowned in the cockpit.

Although his death was tragic, Dunning had shown that landings could happen on moving ships. Soon a landing-on deck was added to the stern of HMS Furious, allowing landings to be made without the need to manoeuvre around the ship’s superstructure.

Dunning is buried beside his mother at St Lawrence's Church, Bradfield and, in recognition of his achievement, there is a memorial to him there.

There is also a memorial for him in Orkney on the shores of Swanbister Bay below Smoogro House (see photographs top right). It was commissioned by Brian Clouston, who once owned Smoogro House, and was carved by Alan Stout, then stonemason of St Magnus Cathedral.

It was unveiled in 1992 by Admiral Sir Raymond Lygo, a former captain of the aircraft Ark Royal, on the 75th anniversary of Dunnington’s death. Mr Clouston funded the memorial with donations coming from Balfour Beatty, the building company who had responsibility for the building of the Churchill Barriers, and British Airways, who flew members of the family to Orkney for the official unveiling.

Today it is difficult to make out the gold lettering and wording, as the sea and weather have taken their toll on the rock on which the inscription is carved. The memorial stands at the end of a jetty and can easily be missed by visitors.

In memory of Dunning, the Dunning Cup or Dunning Memorial Cup is given annually to the officer who is considered to have done most to further aviation in connection with the Fleet for the year in question.