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Archive Report: 1914 - 1918
Compiled from official National Archive and Service sources, contemporary press reports, personal logbooks, diaries and correspondence, reference books, other sources, and interviews.
Edwin Dunning RNAS First man to land on warship
Sqd Commander Edwin Dunning DFC RNAS. First man to land on warship

Born: 17 June, 1892. South Africa

Date of Death: 7 August 1917

Place: Scapa Flow, Orkney Isles, Scotland

Cause of Death: Drowning

Squadron Commander Edwin Harris Dunning (Royal Naval Air Service) made aviation history when on August 1, 1917 he became the first person to land an aircraft on the deck of a ship underway, thus paving the path to the modern fleet carrier force.

The central positioning of funnels, bridge and other structures on a warship left insufficient clear deck to permit a plane to land onboard, thus, hitherto, all aircraft launched from ships and out of range of land had to come down on the sea beside the mother ship and be winched back onboard, a hazardous exercise at the best of times and overly fraught with danger in conflict, when a stationary ship presented an easy target for lurking submarines. The alternative was to ditch the plane and at least rescue the pilot. Since airpower was even then considered to be a potential threat to the largest ships afloat because of its ability to launch a torpedo attack out of range of an enemy's big guns, as well as providing accurate spotting of enemy formations at long distance, it became clear that a more useful mechanism was required to recover planes at the end of their sorties.

Dunning conceived the audacious plan to fly alongside the ship, HMS Furious, then underway in Scapa Flow, heading into wind until he came abreast of the bridge and then side-slip his plane onto the deck cleared for the purpose running from the bridge to the prow. As any pilot will confirm, side-slipping requires a delicate touch on the controls and good distance judgement if the down wing is not to hit the ground before the plane is levelled for landing. Hard enough to do on land without a cross wind, but perilous in the extreme onto a ship heaving on a swell and buffeted by the unpredictable gusts formed by onrushing air hitting the vessel.

Dunning flew his Sopwith Pup with great precision and accomplished the first ever landing of a ship underway. The Admiralty later said this of this feat:

'The Admiralty wish you to know what great service he performed for the Navy. It was in fact a demonstration of landing an Aeroplane on the deck of a Man-of-War whilst the latter was under way. This had never been done before, and the data obtained was of the upmost value. It will make Aeoplanes indispensable to a fleet and possibly revolutionise Naval Warfare. The risk taken by Squadron Commander Dunning needed much courage.'

Dunning performed the feat twice more and insisted on a further attempt on 7 August, 1917 before other pilots were allowed to try, but as he came in for his landing an engine malfunction caused his plane to fall onto the deck and despite the frantic efforts of deck crew to halt the runaway plane, a gust of wind carried it over the edge, plunging the Pup into the sea. Dunning was knocked unconscious and drowned in his cockpit.

Tim Brown, a naval historian, has graciously provided us with this account:

'I believe Dunning's first successful deck landing was made on 2 August 1917, not the 1st. Furthermore, on 7th Aug he was repeating the attempt. As he was about to land on a gust of wind caught the aircraft, so Dunning wisely decided to overshoot and reposition the aircraft... However when he opened the throttle the engine on his Sopwith Pup spluttered or failed altogether. The aircraft fell onto the short flight deck and burst the starboard tyre on its undercarriage, causing it to slew to the right and fall from the deck into the sea. The impact with the water caused Dunning to hit his head on the instrument panel, knocking him unconscious and he drowned before a rescue boat could reach him. [Although] I do not have a single source to verify my [account], [.. it] is based on various accounts read over many years studying early naval history.'

Edwin Dunning landing

Left: Dunning landing. Right: Crew stopping plane

Dunning's plane is taken overboard on his second landing

Left: Dunning upside down in water. Right: Being winched aboard

He is buried next to his mother in Bradfield St. Lawrence churchyard in Essex, England

Edwin Dunning's grave in Bradfield St. Lawrence Churchyard, Essex

The Admiralty plaque mentioned above continues:

' My Lords desire to place on record their sense of the loss to the Naval Service of this gallant Officer.'

The Church has two windows honouring this pilot (see below), bearing the inscriptions:

'This window and that opposite are to the Glory of God and in memory of Squadron Commander Edwin Harris Dunning DSC RN. He was the first officer to land an Aeroplane successfully on the deck of a ship under way Aug 2nd 1917. Subsequently killed August 7th 1917.'

'He lovede chyvalrye
Trouthe and honour fredom and curtesie
He was a verray perfight gentil knight.'

The inscription is on a brass plaque on black marble and has a border of oak leaves and acorns. The Dunning arms are placed below it and the unofficial badge of HMS Furious and a scene with an aircraft above.

(Memorial recorded by Captain M.T. Morgan RN)

Researched and written by Stefan Pietrzak Youngs from CWGC, Maritime Memorials, Wikipedia, air documentary archives, Tim Brown and original research.

Other WWl Material:

List of WWl Material

Aces and Aviators WW1

US Air Service Victories

Other Naval Material

Fleet Air Arm Database

US Marine Corps WW2 Database

Acknowledgements: Sources used by us in compiling WW1 material include: Dunnigan, James F. (2003). How to Make War: A Comprehensive Guide to Modern Warfare in the Twenty-first Century. HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-060090-12-8.Durkota, Allen; Darcey, Thomas; Kulikov, Victor (1995). The Imperial Russian Air Service: Famous Pilots and Aircraft of World War I. Mountain View: Flying Machines Press. ISBN 978-0-060090-12-8.Franks, Norman; Bailey, Frank W.; Guest, Russell (1993). Above the Lines: The Aces and Fighter Units of the German Air Service, Naval Air Service and Flanders Marine Corps, 1914–1918. Oxford: Grub Street. ISBN 978-0-948817-73-1.Franks, Norman (2005). Sopwith Pup Aces of World War I. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 978-1-841768-86-1.Franks, Norman; Guest, Russell; Alegi, Gregory (1997). Above the War Fronts: The British Two-seater Bomber Pilot and Observer Aces, the British Two-seater Fighter Observer Aces, and the Belgian, Italian, Austro-Hungarian and Russian Fighter Aces, 1914–1918. Oxford: Grub Street. ISBN 978-1-898697-56-5.Franks, Norman; Bailey, Frank W. (1992). Over the Front: A Complete Record of the Fighter Aces and Units of the United States and French Air Services, 1914–1918. Oxford: Grub Street. ISBN 978-0-948817-54-0.Guttman, Jon (2009). Pusher Aces of World War 1. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 978-1-846034-17-6.Guttman, Jon (2001). Spad VII Aces of World War I: Volume 39 of Aircraft of the Aces. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 978-1-841762-22-7.Kulikov, Victor (2013). Russian Aces of World War 1: Aircraft of the Aces. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 978-1-780960-61-6.Newton, Dennis (1996). Australian Air Aces: Australian Fighter Pilots in Combat. Motorbooks International. ISBN 978-1-875671-25-0.Pieters, Walter M. (1998). Above Flanders Fields: A Complete Record of the Belgian Fighter Pilots and Their Units During the Great War. Oxford: Grub Street. ISBN 978-1-898697-83-1.Shores, Christopher (2001). British and Empire Aces of World War I. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84176-377-4.Shores, Christopher; Franks, Norman; Guest, Russell (1990). Above the Trenches: A Complete Record of the Fighter Aces and Units of the British Empire Air Forces 1915–1920. Oxford: Grub Street. ISBN 978-0-948817-19-9.Shores, Christopher; Franks, Norman; Guest, Russell (1996). Above the Trenches Supplement: A Complete Record of the Fighter Aces and Units of the British Empire Air Forces. Oxford: Grub Street. ISBN 978-1-898697-39-8., Aircrew Remembered Databases and our own archives. We are grateful for the support and encouragement of UK Imperial War Museum, Australian War Memorial, Australian National Archives, UK National Archives and Fold3 and countless dedicated friends and researchers across the world.
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