It was 112 years ago this month when an airship touched down in front of Cardiff City Hall, stunning crowds who had gathered to watch. The man behind the landing has lent his name to a Cardiff high school and pub, and was a pioneering aviator and airship builder hailing from Cardiff.
Ernest Willows, born in Newport Road, made headlines when he landed an enormous airship, ‘Willows 2’, on the open field in front of City Hall on June 4, 1910, receiving a warm welcome from the crowds that had gathered from his home city.
‘Willows 2’ was an improved version of Ernest’s first airship, the ‘Willows 1’, which he built in 1905 at just 19 years old. He flew the airship, which was powered by a motorbike engine, from East Moors to the east of Cardiff, with the balloon staying in the air for 85 minutes on its first flight.
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After six successful flights, with the longest lasting two hours, the pioneering aviator designed and built the new and improved ‘Willows 2’, the balloon to touch down in front of City Hall. This new and improved airship made flights to Cheltenham and London, and saw Ernest become the first man to make a powered flight across the Bristol Channel.
When Ernest built ‘Willows 3’, he became the first man to make an airship crossing of the English Channel at night. After making it to France, he stayed in Paris for a few days where he celebrated the New Year by circulating the Eiffel Tower in his balloon.
Ernest was able to sell his next creation, ‘Willows 4’, to the Royal Navy, earning him £1,000 which he put towards building his next machine. When World War One broke out, he built kite or barrage balloons in Cardiff, and he continued ballooning after the war.
But tragedy struck on August 3, 1916 when Ernest died after his new balloon crashed at Hoo Park in Bedford, along with passengers who were with him.
Ernest’s legacy as a pioneering aviator can still be seen in Cardiff. He lends his name to Willows High School, which is built on his old airfield, as well as the Ernest Willows pub on City Road. He is buried in Cathays cemetery alongside his parents and infant daughter.