Celebrating the wings of hope at new Leeds RAF display

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They were the region’s daredevil pilots whose wings in the sky served as a beacon of hope for Allied forces during the First World War.

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Joseph Enright with pilot Sydney Gillat's Victory medal.' Picture Jonathan Gawthorpe

Joseph Enright with pilot Sydney Gillat's Victory medal.' Picture Jonathan Gawthorpe

And the heroism of local Royal Air Force (RAF) servicemen is being celebrated in a new museum display in Leeds to mark the centenary of its establishment.

From dangerous bombing runs to strategic reconnaissance missions, the exhibition focuses on a series of airmen who risked their lives patrolling the skies.

But it also features the tragic tale of William Rowland Ding, a test pilot who died during a routine flight in Oakwood on May 12, 1917.

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SONY DSC

Mr Ding, who worked for the Blackburn Aircraft Co., became well-known as he regularly wowed crowds flying his Blackburn BE2c naval bomber over Roundhay Park until the fateful flight in Oakwood.

He was killed performing a series of loops during the test flight, which put too much strain on the wings of the bomber plane.

The new exhibition, now on show at Leeds City Museum, was organised by Joe Enright and Callum Clarke, members of young curators group The Preservative Party.

A plaque in Mr Ding’s honour was unveiled in Oakwood last year, and a memorial propeller is on display at the museum’s Leeds Story Gallery.

Lucy Moore, Leeds Museums and Galleries’ project curator, who worked with the young historians on the display, said: “The typical image of the wartime pilot has been one of a dashing, carefree airman but, as this display shows, those who signed up to fly were more often average men from normal backgrounds who showed unimaginable courage and valour to climb into the cockpit and risk their lives day after day.

“We also shouldn’t forget the contribution of those who flew reconnaissance missions or hung in balloons photographing battlefields to gather intelligence and enable the accurate use of artillery.”

The life of a First World War airman was both dangerous and unpredictable, and research suggests the average life expectancy of an Allied pilot was just 17 hours of flying time.

They flew new types of wooden-framed fighter planes, with open cockpits, which could reach up to 20,000 feet.

Callum Clarke with a poem written about Captain Sir John Alcock.' 'Picture Jonathan Gawthorpe

Callum Clarke with a poem written about Captain Sir John Alcock.' 'Picture Jonathan Gawthorpe

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Among the brave pilots and crewmen who rose to the challenge in the First World War was Philip Leslie Holmes, from Chapeltown.

He enlisted in 1909 and served with the Dorset Regiment, Yorkshire and Lancaster Regiment and also flew in the Royal Naval Air Service.

A ten year military career saw him awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his efforts bombing an enemy submarine on April 23, 1917 while he was Flight Commander at RNA Station, Felixstowe.

He was also awarded the Allied Victory Medal and the British War Medal, and the latter is on display at the museum for the first time.

Mr Enright, 18, who helped create the new exhibition, said: “We chose to look at the RAF so we could shed some light on the subject and commemorate the soldiers who served in branches before and after its creation as its 100 year anniversary approaches.”

A pass issued to GW Strafford allowing him to go to Cairo.' 'Picture Jonathan Gawthorpe

A pass issued to GW Strafford allowing him to go to Cairo.' 'Picture Jonathan Gawthorpe

Other local pilots who are part of the display include Sydney Gillat, originally from Sheffield, who was a member of the Royal Aero Club, where pilots trained, before he joined the Royal Flying Corps.

Awarded the British War Medal and Victory medal for his services during the war, he later retired to Aberford, near Leeds.

The new First World War RAF display can be found at Leeds City Museum, in Millennium Square, which is open every day except Mondays and is free.

l Pick up Monday’s YEP for more stories of courage in our coverage of the RAF’s 100th anniversary.

Olympia Works factory in Roundhay that manufactured the Blackburn Aircraft'. 'Picture Jonathan Gawthorpe

Olympia Works factory in Roundhay that manufactured the Blackburn Aircraft'. 'Picture Jonathan Gawthorpe

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