All hail the flying factotum of the Dales

Eye witness: Yorkshire - Branson & co salute a great British eccentric.
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The Independent Online

Who flew the first aeroplane? Not the Wright Brothers, whatever it may say in the text books. The first pilot was a Yorkshireman, as anyone who was in Brompton Dale yesterday knows. A thousand people gathered on the grassy slopes to watch a knight of the realm struggle into the air to mark the 150th anniversary of a great but neglected British achievement.

Sir George Cayley, baronet of Brompton Hall, was the man who sent the world's first working glider off the side of the dale. Yesterday Sir Richard Branson flew into the North Riding by helicopter to try to emulate what was achieved in 1853. The flimsy-looking aluminium and fibreglass replica glider shuddered as he climbed in, dressed in period costume.

"Are you nervous?" asked one of the crew pulling back the bungee ropes that were meant to catapult Sir Richard forward. "Of course I'm nervous," he said, through a grin that may have been a grimace. "I've never flown anything before except a balloon - and they always crash."

Unfortunately, the rope broke. The glider trundled down the side of the dale, earthbound. They would have to try again, and the pressure was on. It had been a morning of typical Branson razzmatazz, with fly-pasts and photocalls to remind the world of Sir George's achievements. Wilbur and Orville Wright got all the glory for their first-ever powered flight in 1903, the centenary of which is being celebrated across the world this year, but even they acknowledged that Sir George was the true father of flight.

The achievements of this amateur engineer have long been recognised abroad but ignored here. Attempts to redress the balance received a great boost when Sir Richard agreed to sponsor an attempt to recreate the first flight. Yesterday he even sent a Virgin jumbo jet from Amsterdam to thunder over the normally peaceful valley in tribute.

"How does that stay up?" said a senior member of the Yorkshire police on guard in the VIP tent. "I think that every time," said the Duchess of Kent, who is related to the Cayleys. The Red Arrows also flew over, white smoke trailing, on their way to an air display in Scotland. The replica glider was built by engineers at BAe Systems in Brough, where they also make the Hawk aircraft flown by the Red Arrows. On the day, Sir Richard could not resist taking the controls of the glider, primitive as they were, apparently waiving a multi-million-pound personal injury insurance policy to do so.

At the second attempt, it rolled down the hill at a gathering speed then left the ground, flying for about 50 yards at an altitude of about six feet. The crowd was elated and so was the pilot. "When the hill on the other side of the dale was looming, I suddenly remembered I had to land the thing," he said, grinning even more.

"Sir George's achievements are given due recognition and I am glad Sir Richard can get something out of it too," said Sir Digby Cayley, the 11th baronet.

The entrepreneur worked the crowd, shaking hands and signing autographs in a way the royalty present preferred not to, and although Sir Richard was notionally dressed as a coachman, his costume was notably more flamboyant than the period costumes hired by the Cayleys. More seriously, the event was also a chance to press a point about Concorde, which is due to be scrapped but which he wants to buy from his old adversaries at British Airways. If he could ensure one great British achievement was given due credit, he seemed to be saying, why not let him do the same for another?

Sir George Cayley was a compulsive inventor who made an artificial limb after one of his farm workers lost an arm in a farming accident, but aerodynamics was his passion. However, being an 80-year-old aristocrat, Sir George did not fly his invention himself so instead ordered a servant to do so. Cayley family legend says that first pilot was the coachman John Appleby, who broke his leg on landing and limped away out of the pages of history

The episode was so traumatic he took one of the most drastic steps a working Yorkshireman could at that time: he emigrated to Lancashire. "I'm handing in my notice, Sir George," he said. "You hired me to drive, not to fly."