The Yorkshire Birdman
by Dennis French.
Air Shows were the “in thing” in the late twenties and early thirties and attracted large crowds all over the country.
Harry Ward was a daredevil parachutist who had perfected his skills in the Royal Air Force teaching pilots the new art of self-preservation and a regular performer at these exhilarating events.
However on to the scene in 1936 came an American, Clem Sohn, who in a blaze of publicity claimed that he could glide from 10,000 feet using a set of wings strapped to his body. At 500 feet or so above ground he would float gracefully to earth by parachute. The crowds flocked in their thousands to witness such a spectacular display.
Harry Wards manager alarmed at this intrusion by a foreigner suggested that he did the same. Harry in a weak moment agreed. But where did he start and who should he consult about the design and manufacture of his “wings”.
He turned to his friend Cecil Rice, of Rice Caravans, whose factory was at that time in the Low Mill on the Middle Green at Gargrave. Cecil had made a caravan for Harry’s use and the two became good friends. Cecil too was interested in flying and had made his own glider at the mill and Harry had helped in the launching on numerous occasions.
So who better to turn to?
Cecil decided to see Clem Sohn in action. Now what goes on at 10,000 feet is anybody’s guess but Cecil Rice saw enough to confide in Harry that “Clem Sohn is going to kill himself”.
Cecil had realised that Clem Sohn’s wings could not be jettisoned if anything went wrong. He was proved right when Clem Sohn nearly came to grief at a show at the opening of Gatwick Airport. He got into a spin and spiralled down to 300 feet before he managed to get his parachute to open. A close shave indeed.
Cecil produced two sets of “wings”, one with a span of nine feet and the other eleven feet, but if problems arose in mid-air, they could be jettisoned immediately and the emergency parachute used. They were covered in linen on a wood and stainless steel frame, and were hand sewn in the village by Mr Harry Howard and his wife, the local Sadler and Boot maker.
Harry’s suit was made of the same material, as he said if he was going to be a Batman he might as well look the part. And Cecil Rice also made the suit baggy in order to give more flying surface, an idea well in advance of its time that is used by today’s skydivers outfits.
Apart from actually jumping the only way they could see the finished article was to suspend Harry from the Gargrave station yard crane, much to amazement of a passing train. News of that soon spread with the result that Harry and Cecil had to repeat the exercise a few days later for the Yorkshire Post.
All his friends forecast disaster but Harry persevered and eventually mastered the technique. But lack of publicity meant that Harry never achieved the same following around the circuits as Clem Sohn had done.
In 1937, Clem Sohn, as Cecil Rice had predicted, was killed near Paris when his wings fouled both of his parachutes. He plunged into the ground at over one hundred miles an hour. His death brought him the biggest headlines of his brief career. Such is fame.
The day of the Air Circus was over. Harry on one of his last jumps misjudged the wind and drifted out to sea and only quick thinking by his friends saved his life. Harry Ward was lucky. He had lived to tell the tale. By 1940 he was back in the R.A.F and became one of the pioneering instructors in charge of training the newly formed Airborne Division.
In 1997, I was contacted by Mr Alan Copley of Hutton Cranswick, near Driffield, for information about Cecil Rice and the Rice Caravan Company of Gargrave. He unfolded the fascinating story of Harry Ward and subsequently I borrowed Harry’s biography written in conjunction with Mr Peter Hearn called “The Yorkshire Birdman” from North Yorkshire Library in Gargrave. Harry, still alive and kicking, was then 94 years of age.
We were contacted by Harry Ward’s son who informed us that Harry died in Knaresborough in 2000 at the ripe old age of 97. If anyone can add any further information as to the ending of the story I would be extremely grateful. The book makes fascinating reading.