One of the very few genuine S.E.5a fighters left in the world is this one, which has been dangling from the rafters of the Science Museum in London since 1939. But a fighter with no guns and a civilian livery always has a tale to tell…
In the days immediately before World War 1 an accidental discovery was made: if low viscosity oil inadvertently found its way into a hot exhaust it would vapourize, creating a vast and dense cloud of white smoke without any real detriment to the aircraft. In these early days of flight, any such discovery was investigated for its possible usefulness in war – in this case smoke signals to ground troops or a defensive ‘fog’ to confuse attackers.
An aspiring aviation engineer at the time was one John Clifford* Savage, born in 1891 and apprenticed to Claude Grahame-White in 1909. Savage had a flair for the theatrical and broke off his engineering career in order to become manager and agent to B.C. Hucks, the first Englishman to loop the loop.
It was not until the early days of hard-won peace that the idea of making smoke trails was revived. During the war, Savage had been a lieutenant in the wartime Royal Naval Flying Service, rising to become a major in the new Royal Air Force, but with the onset of peace he was wondering what to do with his future.
He tried his hand at being a journalist, writing for Flight magazine under the nom-de-plume of Oiseau Bleu but that lacked a certain je ne sais quoi…
By 1921 ‘Mad Jack’ Savage had revisited the idea of producing smoke and experimented with making first shapes and then letters in the air… and the art of skywriting was born.The entrepreneurial airman went in search of an aircraft fit for the job, and settled on the Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a.
This was not the most agile fighter of the war but unlike the Sopwith Camel it had a Wolseley Viper V8 engine that was easy to fix and which had a capacious pair of exhaust pipes. In addition they were in plentiful supply – more than 2500 of them had been sitting around since the end of the war and were available to buy at what amounted to pocket money prices.
Savage snaffled up 33 of these unwanted old fighters and converted them to his bespoke skywriting specification at his Hendon premises. When selling his services in later years, Savage declared that, as a wartime fighter, the S.E.5a was ‘designed and built to be eight times stronger than is needed to endure the stresses of sky-writing’.
The rechristened ‘Savage Wolseley S.E.5a’ had extended exhaust pipes that linked together through a hole cut in the tail and, suitably lagged with asbestos, this modification acted as the nib in Savage’s aerial pen. The smoke-generating oil was stored in front of the cockpit where the machine gun previously sat and delivered by a new control on the instrument panel while the pilot’s headrest was removed in order to give him a better rearward view of his handiwork. Finally the old drab camouflage of dark olive upper surfaces and cream linen below was replaced by an all-over silver finish.
Savage’s inventiveness caused a sensation when his skywriting S.E.5a made its very public debut at the 1922 Epsom Derby. A bumper crowd for one of the biggest racing weekends of the year was enthralled as the silver speck 10,000 feet above them spelt out DAILY MAIL in vast white letters which, the newspaper later claimed, was ‘the greatest single development in outdoor advertising’ and that ‘everyone within an area of a hundred square miles – and there were millions – gazed spellbound at this fascinating sight.’
It was certainly a smash. Among those in the VIP enclosure at Epsom was none other than the leading novelist of the day, Virginia Woolfe, who used the occasion as the opening segment in her next book, Mrs. Dalloway.
Flushed with this success, Savage shipped one of his aircraft to the USA. With another ex-RAF pilot, Cyril Turner, at the controls, Savage’s S.E.5a carefully wrote ‘HELLO USA’ in the sky above New York. The following day the silver speck reappeared, writing: ‘CALL VANDERBILT 7100’. The number put potential advertisers through to the hotel where Savage was staying – and the demand for his $1000 service was insatiable.
Savage’s business thrived on both sides of the Atlantic. His 33 fighter aircraft were equipped with air-to-ground radio in order for him to give personal instructions to the men at the controls while they laboured away. The biggest European success for Savage’s skywriters came in 1928 when he was employed by German pharmaceutical company Henkel to promote its Persil brand of detergents. The response was swift and impressive.
The Persil script stood an heroic 1.5km tall at the ‘P’ and ‘l’ and 1km tall for the ‘ersi’. The six letters stretched fully 7km across the skyline and 45 million cubic feet of smoke had to be generated in order to make the letters. The pilots also had to fly their route in reverse to make sure that it could be read from below, requiring them to rehearse the complex aerobatic moves until they became second nature:
The campaign was such a success that in many European countries a cloudless sky was called a ‘Persil sky’ right up until the 1960s. Whenever there was a sunny afternoon from the North Sea to the Mediterranean, people still half expected a flashing silver dot to appear and make its magical graffiti above them.
Savage stayed in business until 1939, although the fleet of S.E.5a’s grew tired and old and Savage invented a night time alternative to using smoke when he created a searchlight advertising beam to display words and logos – doubtless a great inspiration to the creators of Batman! One by one the old fighters were pensioned off – usually going to a breaker’s yard, but not always.
In 1934 two of his aircraft, registered G-EBIA and G-EBIC went to new homes- their first stops on a journey which today sees them, resplendent in their wartime specification, as mainstays of the RAF Museum, Hendon and The Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden – although more of them later.
By 1 June 1939 only one aircraft was left in Savage’s keeping, so he sat down with what might well have been his last sheet of headed paper and dispatched the following note to the Science Museum in South Kensington:
I have one genuine War time S.E.5a aeroplane left out of a considerable number I used to own.
I really cannot remember whether the Museum has a specimen of this really rather historic type of aeroplane, and if it has not I will be only too pleased to present to the Museum the machine to which I have referred above.
This kind offer was of course accepted, and so G-EBIB has been preserved intact, not only as an example of this legendary fighter of World War 1 but also as an icon of the advertising industry. As for Major Savage, he had already added another invention to his CV – the crop spraying aeroplane, which found tremendous use in the USA and Australia in particular.
As war approached he redoubled his efforts in developing the searchlight technology which, although outlawed in Britain, had proved to be hugely lucrative in the Americas. Founding Savage and Parsons Ltd as a pure engineering firm, he developed an array of sound locators and searchlights, including the Leigh Light anti-submarine technology, which was to prove vital in World War 2.
Jack Savage died in September 1945 safe in the knowledge that his life’s work had been worthwhile and mourned by almost the entire global aviation fraternity. Of the six genuine S.E.5a aircraft still in existence, three are ex-Savage and while the silver example which hangs in the shadowy reaches of the Science Museum might not be the most enticing at first glance, it might well be worth a second look…