• Royal Flying Corps •
• The first Royal Flying Corps aircraft to arrive in France •
The first aircraft of the Royal Flying Corps joined the British Expeditionary Force in France on 13th August 1914.
The late Jack Bruce was probably the first historian to suggest that the first machine to land was BE2a serial 347 piloted by Lt HD Harvey-Kelly.
This assertion was possibly based upon the statement that Harvey-Kelly was first to arrive in the book 'The War in the Air' by Walter Raleigh - the official history of the RAF in the Great War, and also in the book 'HQ RFC 1914-1918' by Maurice Baring.
These statements were presumably connected to a famous pre-war photograph of Harvey-Kelly standing alongside BE2a 347 next to a haystack, en route from the base of No.2 Squadron in Montrose. See Harvey-Kelly photo on the Imperial War Museum website.
Jack Bruce recognized that 347 was not the first aircraft to land in his later works. However, statements to the contrary have persisted, and even a statement that Harvey-Kelly was the first to leave England. Two replica BE2a aircraft are currently flying with the serial 347 on the tail in order to commemorate the flight.
That Harvey-Kelly was the first pilot to land at Amiens is not in dispute. However, he was most certainly not flying BE2a 347.
The actual evidence
Harvey-Kelly was a Flying Officer with 'A' Flight of No.2 Squadron, based at Montrose on the east coast of Scotland.
In early August 1914 the squadron relocated from Montrose to Farnborough, in readiness for the Channel crossing scheduled for the 13th August.
No.2 squadron left Montrose for Farnborough on the 3rd August.
The squadron left in bad weather and the fleet was soon scattered across Scotland and northern England. Capt Todd was forced to land at Carnoustie but managed to reach Berwick by night. Capt Dawes landed at St. Andrews but reached York before nightfall. Maj Burke, Lt Corballis, Lt Martyn and Lt Freeman landed at St. Andrews, and Maj Burke continued to Pitscottie the same day. Lt Dawes and Lt Rodwell reached Berwick, but Lt Rodwell damaged his undercarriage. Capt Waldron reached Newark but had to land due to engine trouble.
Lt Harvey-Kelly damaged the undercarriage of BE2a 347 whilst landing at Kettering.
The following day Harvey-Kelly abandoned 347 and returned to Pitscottie to take over the machine of Maj Burke, who had proceeded to Farnborough by train. 347 was recovered by a ground crew and transported to Farnborough for repair. On 2nd September it was test flown there by Geoffrey de Havilland. It was allotted to the Reserve Aeroplane Squadron at Farnborough but damaged once again and handed back to the Aircraft Park for repair on the 25th September. It returned to the Reserve Aeroplane Squadron on the 15th October and was still there (renamed No.1 Reserve Aeroplane Squadron) in mid November.
On the 5th August the Central Flying School at Upavon handed over 20 of their machines at South Farnborough to make up the numbers required for the Expeditionary Force. Of this total, 5 BE2a machines were initially handed to No.2 squadron: 466, 468, 469, 471 and 475.
It was one of these aircraft, BE2a 471, that became the mount of Harvey-Kelly.
He flew the aircraft to Dover on the 7th August with an air mechanic* as passenger, and accompanied by the other members of 'A' Flight: Capt Waldron (in 327), Lt Marsh (368) and Lt Noel (239).
On the 9th August he undertook coastal reconnaissance flights from Dover in very bad weather. He made a further flight on the 10th. On the 12th he flew as passenger to Lt Read to investigate reports that the cross-Channel cable was broken 3 miles from Abbotts Cliff, but nothing was seen.
The fleet departed on the 13th August, Maj Burke taking off first at 06:25 with the other aircraft following at 5 minute intervals. Harvey-Kelly was probably the 5th to leave, following his Flight Commander, Capt Waldron and the other members of 'A' Flight of 2 Squadron: Lt Gordon Bell (actually an Aircraft Park pilot), and Lt Noel.
The aircraft circled over Dover in order to gain height, having been ordered to climb to at least 3000ft before setting out across the Channel. Harvey-Kelly landed at Amiens at 08:20, followed shortly after by Maj CJ Burke.
*The War Diary implies 403 1AM AE Hobson was Harvey-Kelly's passenger on this flight and that 557 2AM F Harris had flown with Lt Noel. However the log book for BE2a flown by Noel clearly shows Hobson had flown with him. The personal diary of Maj Burke indicates that Harris flew as passenger when Harvey-Kelly crossed the Channel on the 13th August.
It is assumed therefore that the War Diary was not attributing the names respectively. Whether Hobson crossed the Channel with Noel is unclear.