Charles Rolls Flies the Channel

Charles Rolls dons a life preserver as he prepares for his flight across the English Channel.

Published on June 2, 2012

On this day in aviation history, 102 years ago on June 2, 1910, the early British aviation pioneer and automotive innovator Charles Rolls successfully completed the first non-stop double crossing of the Channel from Dover, England. In just one hour, 35 minutes, he took off from Dover, England, flew to France and then, without stopping, returned to Dover for a safe landing.

Louis Bleriot had made the first crossing of the English Channel by airplane just a year before in 1909 and, a little known historical fact, the very first manned crossing of the English Channel by air was accomplished in an unpowered hydrogen balloon by Jean-Pierre Blanchard and John Jeffries in 1785. Yet to truly demonstrate the military efficacy of the flight, the government of Great Britain recognized that an air mission would not be complete until the airplane could take off from Britain, fly to observe a site in France and return to England non-stop.

By 1910, Charles Rolls was already a well-known name in Great Britain. He was a founding member of the Automobile Club of Great Britain and in 1906, had joined together with Frederick Henry Royce to co-found the Rolls-Royce car manufacturing firm. An avid balloonist, he had 170 balloon ascents to his credit. He was also a founding member of the Royal Aero Club in 1903 and the second Briton to be licensed to fly by the organization. That very year, he went on to win the Gordon Bennett Gold Medal for achieving the longest single flight time.

In 1909, he purchased one of just six Wright Flyer aircraft built by Short Brothers under licence. In it, he made more than 200 flights. Finally, on 2 June 1910, he made his most famous flight, the first a non-stop double crossing of the English Channel by plane. In the wake of his triumph, he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Aero Club.

Just one month later, on July 12, 1910, Charles Rolls perished in a plane crash when the elevator on his Wright Flyer broke off in mid-flight at Hengistbury Airfield, in Bournemouth. Thus, Charles Rolls also became the first Briton to be killed in an aeronautical accident with a powered aircraft.

In the years following his flight, the Rolls-Royce company entered into the aviation industry, producing some of the world’s most powerful piston engines, including the Merlin (which powered the Spitfire and Mustang, among others). Today, Rolls-Royce produces some of the finest jet engines in the world, powering many of the world’s most popular civilian airliners.

Today, the name of Charles Rolls is rarely spoken, despite the fame of the company he helped create; nonetheless, two statues commemorate his flying achievements — one at Monmouth near the site of his crash, and the other in Dover, UK, which celebrates his double crossing.


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