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By Rachel Boon on

Winston Churchill: Up In The Air

Rachel Boon looks at the lesser known story of Winston Churchill’s passion for flying.

Sir Winston Churchill was passionate about technology, in particular aviation. He was one of the first people, and likely the first politician to learn how to fly. Heavier than air flight was less than a decade old when Churchill first jumped into the pilot seat. This was in the days when flying was still considered a dangerous sport and no pilot would let Churchill fly alone for fear that he may have an accident on their watch. He was a keen learner and was reported to go up in the air over ten times a day.

Fears about Churchill’s safety grew after one of his instructors, Captain Lushington was killed in a plane crash in Kent. Churchill reluctantly gave up his hobby in 1913, following pleas from his friends and wife Clementine, which is illustrated in many of their letters to each other. Clementine’s anxieties are reflected in one letter in which she says, ‘Your telegram arrived late last night, after we were in bed – every time I see a telegram now, I think it is to announce that you have been killed flying… goodbye dear but cruel one.’

Eventually, after giving up the sport, he sadly reflected, ‘This is a wrench. … Anyhow, I can feel I know a good deal about this fascinating new art … well enough to understand all the questions of policy which will arise in the near future.’

As Churchill’s political career developed he earned a living as a journalist. Although he never qualified for a pilot’s license, Churchill wasn’t one to miss an opportunity to write dramatically about learning to fly. He published two articles in Nash’s Pall Mall entitled ‘In the Air’ and ‘Why I gave up flying: The story of two almost fatal crashes’ in June and July 1924.

Flying model, enlarged "Eclipse", c. 1911. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL
Flying model, enlarged “Eclipse”, c. 1911. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

This is one of a pair of model Bleriot planes the Museum acquired with a note that one was ‘broken by Sir Winston Churchill when he was flying it with the Marquis of Blandford at Blenheim Castle‘. It is one of the star objects on display in the exhibition Churchill’s Scientists.

The exhibition explores developments in science during the Second World War and post war period when Churchill was Prime Minister. This model plane is yet another example of Churchill’s hobby and it supports our story of his fascination with the potential of rapidly emerging new technologies of the 20th century.

Rachel Boon is the Content Developer and worked on the Churchill’s Scientists exhibition.