Denys Corbett-Wilson – First Man 1912 to Fly Irish Sea | Season 3 – Episode 77
Wings Oct 27, 2023
Outwardly quiet and shy, Denys Corbett-Wilson (1882 – 1915) was a keen golfer at Kilkenny Golf Club and also regarded as a reckless horseman with the Kilkenny Hunt. He knew no fear and had a number of spills and on one occasion was knocked unconscious in a fall from his horse at Tullaherin, Co Kilkenny.
Hunting wasn’t enough to satisfy his adventurous spirit and when the new and highly dangerous pastime of flying came to Ireland, he took an instruction course at Pau, France and qualified as an Air Pilot in 1911.
While flying was obviously dangerous, there was also a lot of glamour attached and the exploits of Bleriot when flying the English Channel were widely reported. As flying the Irish Sea (Channel) was yet to be achieved, the thirty-five year old Denys Corbett-Wilson wanted to carve his own name into the history books and he set about planning his attempt.
However, he wasn’t the only pilot with their eye on achieving an Irish Sea crossing and an earlier attempt, on 11th September 1910 by aviator Robert Loraine had ended in failure when he crash-landed just 365 metres from the Irish coast. Interestingly Robert Loraine is credited as the first person to coin the phrase “joystick” to refer to flight controls.
In early 1912 an intense rivalry had sprung up between Denys Corbett-Wilson and the 34 year-old Damer Leslie Allen an Engineer from Limerick as to which of them would be the first to achieve a powered flight across the Irish Sea. A wager was agreed between the two men, there was widespread public interest, and the race was on!
Corbett-Wilson’s airplane was a French Bleriot XI Monoplane. Powered by a twenty-five horse-power engine, it had a wooden propeller on two large rubber-tyred wheels. The fuselage was a box frame and was partially covered in linen. Navigational instruments consisted of a map and compass. Due to the lightweight design of his plane, it was said at the time that a wind blowing at more than 20 miles an hour made flying conditions dangerous if not impossible.
On Wednesday 17th April 1912, Denys Corbett-Wilson and Damer Leslie Allen both took off from Hendon Airdrome in north-west London in their matching Bleriot XI Monoplanes and flew westwards. However due to engine trouble caused by using the incorrect type of oil Corbett-Wilson had to land several times and it took more than a week to reach Fishguard on the Welsh coast which was his starting point for the flight attempt.
However, Allen was not so fortunate, as on 17th April he had taken a separate flight route and flown northwards, landing at the coastal port of Hollyhead. Allen’s intention was to take off from Holyhead and fly westwards across the Irish sea to Dún Laoghaire (Kingstown as it was known then). He took off from Hollyhead, but no trace of him was ever found and it is thought that he had crash-landed at sea and was killed.
It was not until 22nd April that Denys Corbett-Wilson was able to make his flight attempt and he took off from Fishguard at 5:47 am and flew westwards towards Ireland. His flight went well until he was approximately twenty miles off the coast of County Wexford and flew into a ferocious storm. He flew on for forty minutes surrounded by black clouds, uncertain if he was above the sea or the land. His compass malfunctioned and to compound his troubles, his engine began misfiring. Thankfully, a gap in the clouds finally revealed his location, confirming that he was indeed above land.
He quickly descended, guiding his Bleriot XI Monoplane to a rough landing in a hedge near Crane, close to Enniscorthy town, County Wexford. Taking one hundred minutes, flying at six-hundred feet and covering a distance of seventy miles (112 kms), Denys Corbett-Wilson had become the first person to fly the Irish Sea.
The Kilkenny papers were full of his exploits and one paper stated; “For the first time in the history of aviation, the flight from Wales to Ireland was accomplished on Monday by Mr. Corbett Wilson, a native of Co. Kilkenny.” And The “ London Evening Standard” was quoted as saying: “ Mr. Corbett Wilson’s flight over the Irish Channel is one of the finest achievements of aviation.”
Corbett-Wilson continued with his flying and made several appearances at air shows across Ireland during 1912. In June 1913 he also flew the English Channel covering a distance of 120 miles in 90 minutes.
At the outbreak of the First World War, Denys Corbett-Wilson sold up in Ireland and joined the Third Squadron, Royal Flying Corps as a Lieutenant. On 10th May 1915 Lieutenant Corbett-Wilson and his observer were killed instantly while flying in a Morane-Saulnier Type L on a reconnaissance mission over the Western Front, France when their aircraft was struck by a German shell.
Denys Corbett-Wilson, honorary Kilkenny-man and the first person to fly across the Irish Sea is buried in the Cabaret-Rough British Cemetary, Souchez, France.
Information sources and photo credits:
Fishguard and Goodwick Local History
Imperial War Museum
Ireland’s Role of Honour: Loses in Irish Regiments: Officers Killed: Irish Times (1915)
Kilkenny Archaeological Society – Leo McAdams
Letters from an Early Bird: The Life and Letters of Denys Corbett-Wilson(1882 – 1915)