The Turner Novels -

The Aviators

Walter Brock

Walter BrockWalter Brock is one of the factual historical characters that feature in the Will Turner Flight Logs series, interacting with the fictional characters. He appears as a competitor and friend of Will Turner and first appears in British records when he is appointed an instructor at the Deperdussin School at Hendon, near London, in the fall of 1912.

In April of the following year he caused great excitement by experimenting with a Deperdussin monoplane in very high winds at Hendon.

With the wind gusting to nearly sixty mph he had the 35hp Anzani engine started and then, as the mechanics released the tiny airplane he rose almost vertically and struggled across the field. He then turned down wind, shot across the field at very high speed before turning again to traverse the field again into wind, taking fifteen minutes to do it.

This adventure pales into insignificance compared to his exploits the following year.

Flying a Morane-Saulnier monoplane, a demanding machine notoriously difficult to handle, especially when landing, he proceeded to win outright the three major air races of 1914. On June 6th. in typical English summer weather, fog and rain, he won the third aerial derby. This was a race starting and finishing at Hendon that followed a course making a wide circle around London. On June 20th. he proved this was no fluke by winning the London to Manchester and return race.

 Again the weather was bad, and once again Brock flew a faultless race. For his hat trick he finished the season by winning the London-Paris-London race, just a few weeks before the outbreak of the First World War. It was a stunning performance. In three races, flying his own privately entered plane, he beat aviators who were household names, using factory prepared, and possibly government sponsored machines. Hawker, Strange, Noel, Garros, Carberry and Verrier all failed to even keep him in sight, let alone overtake him.

To put his achievement into perspective, these races were possibly the biggest sporting events ever seen in the British Isles up to that point. Hundreds of thousands of spectators invaded Hendon and crowded around the check-points to cheer the competitors on their way. Brock won prize money probably worth something approaching half a million dollars in today's money. It is as if a private entry appeared from nowhere and won the British, French and German Formula one motor racing Grand Prix in succession. And then he disappears from history as suddenly as he arrived.

There are some clues to this mystery. Contemporary reports describe him as quiet and friendly, but engagingly modest to the point of shyness. The British Press, never eager to sing the praises of anybody considered "foreign" said:

"For the American victor no praise can be too high. His dauntless courage in such circumstances mark him as one of the greatest racing pilots in the world."

His sportsmanship endeared him even more to the British public, but he clearly avoided publicity. A refreshing change from today's "sports personalities".

Late in the year 2001, we followed up a lead provided by H.G.Frautschy of the EAA Vintage Airplane division. He told us that an aeroplane believed to have been owned and flown by Walter Brock was on display in a transport museum in Owatonna Minnesota, but we had to be quick as the museum was about to close.

Chris Davey and Taylor Kennedy of Warrensburg Missouri, drove to Minnesota to investigate. Their surprise can be imagined when the aeroplane described as "The Brock Monoplane" turned out to be a modified Morane Saulnier.

After close inspection we are sure that this machine is the one that Walter used to win the three big air races. The engine fitted appears to be a 50 hp Gnome rotary, if the plate is to believed. The racing machine is listed with an 80 hp Gnome. The fuselage has been shortened, but appears original. The wings, cockpit area, controls, tail unit and undercarriage all appear to be the original Morane.

From papers held at the museum, and the evidence provided by the machine itself, we think we have pieced together most of the story of Walter Brock, the quiet American. It appears that he travelled back to the USA within a few days of the last race, bringing his dismantled aeroplane with him. He invested his prize money in land near Chicago, setting himself up as what we would now call a fixed base operator. He enjoyed a long and successful, if low key, career in aviation. His company trained hundreds of aviators in the First and Second World Wars, and provided maintenance and repair facilities to numerous private and corporate aircraft operators.

It is believed he lived to a very old age, working to the end. What we have yet to find is when and where he died, and if he has surviving family.

The biggest remaining mystery is how he managed to get his aeroplane back to the USA. The last race was won within days of the outbreak of World War One. By this time all airworthy, or potentially airworthy machines had been compulsorily purchased by the British Government for war service. But somehow Walter smuggled his machine out of the country.

Perhaps he did a deal where he sold them the very valuable engine and was allowed to keep the rest of the structure, this would explain the lower powered engine now fitted and the modifications to reduce weight. It may be that he had friends in high places who went out of their way to help him. This could explain why he renamed his aeroplane the "Brock Monoplane" to avoid any embarrassment to his British friends.

What is certain is that he flew the machine in demonstration flights before retiring it. the Morane arrived at Owattonna by a circuitous route which included hanging in the Chicago museum of transport for over fifty years, and a period of storage in a suburban garage.

The good news is that this unique aeroplane, one of very few machines to survive anywhere in the world from the Edwardian era, an aeroplane with a fabulous history, was recently purchased by Kermit Weeks and can now be seen in his fantasy of Flight museum in Florida. It sits there on its big bicycle wheel undercarriage with a jaunty, fly me if you dare, appearance. It is still covered in the patina of nearly a century, the fabric fragile, the stains of castor oil lubricant still visible from the last time the engine ran nearly ninety years ago. It is a fitting tribute to one of the unsung heroes of aviation, one of the greatest air racers who ever lived.

View photographs of the Brock Monoplane here.


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