Preston Watson

Preston Watson - Picture

Preston Watson Information

Preston Watson

Preston Watson (1880-1915) was a Scottish aviation pioneer, who is sometimes said to have been the first true aviator. He is supposed to have made and controlled motorized flight with a heavier-than-air aircraft in 1903 - thus predating the Wright brothers flight.

This claim has however been discredited by the aviation historian Charles Gibbs-Smith in the book "The Aeroplane". The man behind the "Powered Flight Before the Wrights" myth was Preston's brother, James, who made the claim in 1953, 50 years after the supposed flight. James would later clear up the issue in an article, which was published in the December 1955 issue of the magazine Aeronautics, explaining that the aircraft in question had been a glider, i.e. unpowered.

The Watson brothers were sons of the prominent Dundee family that made up one half of the Watson & Philip Wholesalers. Preston joined his father in this business but had a keen interest in mechanics that led him to his true calling to fly.

Preston built and adapted 3 planes from 1903 to 1913 all at a cost of 1000 each paid by his father. He also invented a rocking wing system for control which he patented in 1909

Preston was never able to tell his story as he died while training with the Royal Naval Air Service in 1915. The plane exploded above Eastbourne.

Watson's aircraft

The actual date of Watson's first powered flight has not been fully established. Some evidence seems to point out that the flight could not have been earlier that 1910 as his second aircraft, powered by a 30 hp Humber engine, was produced that year.

The story of him acquiring an engine from Alberto Santos-Dumont could not have taken place earlier than 1909, since the engine fitted to his first aircraft was a 1909 - 1910 Dutheil Chalmers four cylinder 20 hp engine. The Curator of Aviation and the French Musee de L'Air at Le Bourget in Paris verified this from photographs of the engine fitted to his first aircraft.

Preston Watson seems to have built three aeroplanes, one in 1909, one in 1910 and the last one in 1913. Only the last two got airborne under their own power. Two grainy photographs are the earliest showing one of his aircraft in flight. These pictures are found in the 15 May 1914 issue of Flight magazine. These show his second machine in flight at Errol in Perthshire in 1912.

There is no substantial evidence to support the claim Watson flew anything in 1903, the eyewitness accounts cannot be relied on for accuracy or consistency since they were made at least fifty years after 1903. He was only 22 years old at the time, and never made such a claim himself. There is a three page article in Flight magazine that he wrote about his flying experiments.


In the 1950s there were many calls from locals that they had claimed to have seen the Watsons flying their planes well before the Wright brothers.

Harry Band

The most notable was Harry Band a farm manager. He recalled that he had seen a flying machine near Errol in July 1903. In his interview with the Dundee Courier he said 'I heard noises - something like a machine gun at a distance - but I could't see actually what it was'. 'It was why down over field'. He took a closer look and described what he saw. 'It was like a lot o' blooming old window blinds and sticks tied together, there was this whirly thing on the front, when all at once the thing was up in the air. It flew over the top of a cottage'.

John Milne

John Milne who was a fellow student of Preston at University recalls: 'there was a good deal of secrecy about the building of the first plane. I was among the first to see the machine in its early stages of construction at the works of his cousin, Mr. Yeaman, at Carolina port.'

James Manson

James Manson found himself working on the second plane in 1906. 'I started working on the engine that we got from Santos Dumont in Paris. I worked with Preston on all his other planes and later traveling to France were I crashed the plane'.

Alexander Paterson

In 1966 an ex detective Alexander Paterson came forward to recall what he saw. Young 'eck' and his school pal Ernie Bruse helped the brothers to get the plane off the ground.' There was more than one failed attempt, the brothers were always adjusting the engine and arguing over details. On the 3rd day, away she bounded, with us running barefoot in its wake. After about 100 yards she lifted and rose to about the height of the farm buildings'. He claimed it was July 1903.

Kerr B Sturrock

Kerr B Sturrock made the propellers for Preston and recalls 'This was well before he was married in 1905'


A film about Preston Watson's life is expected to be filmed.

Percy Pilcher
List of aviation pioneers

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Source: WikiPedia

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