Royal Aero Club

The Clarke Glider

Photo and information courtesy of the Trustees of the RAF Museum

The Clarke Glider was built in 1910 by T. W. K. Clarke & Co, Aeronautical Engineers of Kingston-on-Thames, Surrey. It was presented to the Royal Aero Club in 1911 and is displayed on loan at the RAF Museum, Hendon.


Thomas Clarke was born in 1873. He graduated from Cambridge in Mathematics and Mechanical Engineering. He was a schoolmaster and then an engineer on the construction of the Bakerloo Railway, and was wounded in the Boer War.

He founded T.W.K. Clarke & Co at Kingston-on-Thames, Surrey in 1906, as the first Aeronautical Engineering Company in Britain. As well as gliders, the Company also produced powered aeroplanes, engines, propellers, spare parts and models.

From 1911 to 1913 he served on the Council of the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain, where he served on the Inventions Committee. In 1912, he left the Company and became a Scientific Officer at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough. He was the author of several scientific papers, and was awarded the Bronze medal of the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1932.

T.W.K. Clarke seems to have based much of his glider design work on proven designs which he modified. The example on display is based on a design of American glider maker Octave Chanute. He also produced one that was a copy of the Wright Glider.

Gliding was pioneered by Sir George Cayley (1773-1857) who made the earliest studies of aeronautics and heavier than air flight. It was initially primarily a means to develop the concepts and control systems of powered heavier than air flight. It was not until 1922, with a competition organised by the Daily Mail at Itford Hill in Sussex, that recreational gliding really started to become popular in the United Kingdom. The Clarke Glider was more of an ancestor of modern hang gliders than of gliders as we know them today.


Clarke & Co produced a range of four biplanes including the ‘Chanute’, the third largest, of which this is an example, priced at 34 complete. The other biplanes were the ‘Popular’, the ‘Aero’ and the ‘Wright Type’. It is based on the gliders produced by American pioneer Octave Chanute.

The Clarke ‘Chanute’ Glider has a Span of 6.70m, Length of 3.58m and weighs 27.2kg (60lb). It is constructed of ash with wings covered in undoped linen.

It has rectangular, superimposed planes, similar to the configuration used by Octave Chanute and the Wright Brothers in their early experiments. While the glider does show some of the characteristics of Chanute’s final design, it differs in the considerable camber of the wings and the covering of them on both sides.

The controller adopted an upright position, supported under his armpits by padded rests, and controlled the glider by two levers. These levers when moved fore and aft lowered or raised the leaning edge of the pivoted tail for the purpose of ascent or descent, while a side to side movement of the levers actuated the rudder for steering. The operator would also have been able to move his body slightly in relation to the machine, and by so doing correct lateral instability for which no positive method of control is provided.


Built by T. W. K. Clarke & Co, Aeronautical Engineers, Kingston of Thames, Surrey
Apr 1911 Presented to Royal Aero Club by Mr Fred Scully
1913 Placed on loan from the Royal Aero Club for exhibition in the permanent collection of the Science Museum.
1913 to 1961 Displayed in South Kensington western galleries, except during the two world wars.

To Science Museum store at Hayes, Middlesex when the western galleries at South Kensington were cleared prior to redisplay.

Jan 1981 From Science Museum store at Hayes to RAF Museum Reserve Collection at Cardington for restoration.
Late 1983 To the RAF Museum, Hendon for display, on permanent loan from the Royal Aero Club through the Science Museum.
Feb 2001 To the RAFM restoration facility at RAF Wyton for re-covering.
Nov 2001 Returned to the RAFM Hendon for display following complete recovering with undoped linen.
Dec 2003 Displayed in RAFM Milestones of Flight Exhibition.

Return to RAeC Home Page