Happy birthday Tower Bridge: 120 today. Like any icon, the venerable crossing has attracted all kinds of attention over the decades, including spectacular stunts.
1912: Just nine years after the Wright Brothers’ pioneering flight, Frank McClean had sufficient confidence to manoeuvre beneath bridges. Starting from the Isle of Sheppey, McClean piloted his Short-Farman hydroplane between the road and upper walkways of Tower Bridge. One act of death defiance is never enough, so the plucky pilot continued upstream, dipping under all the remaining bridges as far as Westminster. “It isn’t so risky as it appears,” he told a reporter. “For the arches of the bridges are tremendous things when you get close to them.” His cockiness was punished. On the return trip, a sidewind hooked him into the drink as he was attempting to fly under Tower Bridge. Fortunately, McClean was unhurt and his beloved seaplane was towed to shore for repair.
1919: Australian Flight-Lieutenant Sidney Pickles was another to fly through Tower Bridge, this time piloting a Fairey seaplane. He dove down from 1,000 feet, and passed through the bridge at 120 mph. Speaking to the Daily Chronicle, Pickles predicted, “In a few years, pilots will be as common as taxi drivers, and on the same level socially and economically.” Flying under the bridge was outlawed soon after.
‘Mad Major’ buzzes bridge
1931: Pedestrians crossing the bridge ran for their lives as a Puss Moth monoplane swooped from the skies to fly between the road and the upper walkways. The plane then looped around and made a second pass through the gap in the bridge, before heading on to duck under Westminster Bridge. At the controls was Major Christopher Draper of Willesden, a flying ace who had served with distinction in WWI. The reckless Major initially cited a moment of madness, but later framed the flight as a protest about the Government’s treatment of war veterans. “I did it to prove to the aeronautical world, and to satisfy myself, that, in spite of the lapse of ten years, I am still the highly skilled specialist I used to be,” he told the court. This somewhat shaky defence was good enough for the magistrate, and Draper got away with no punishment, but promised to be on his best behaviour for 12 months.
Teen dares dad into stunt flight
1951: Another pilot buzzed the bridge two decades later. Frank Miller, a chemist from Chingford, piloted a single-engined Auster light aircraft through the gap, egged on by his 13-year-old son. The wheeze was apparently the child’s idea. Miller initially told him ‘no’, fearing the stunt would result in a fine. When Miller Junior offered up 35 shillings from his piggy bank, the father changed his mind. “I decided that if my son was prepared to sacrifice his savings, I couldn’t disappoint him. I pushed the nose down,” he told the judge (a certain Major Draper was one of those sitting in the courtroom audience). Junior’s 35 shillings did not make much of a dent on the £100 fine Miller received.
Bus jumps bridge
1952: Perhaps the most famous — and most incredible — incident in this roll call concerns the number 78 double decker to Dulwich. A watchman’s mistake allowed the bus onto the bridge just as the northern bascule began to rise. By the time driver Albert Gunter (46) noticed, the bus had reached the point of no return. In a split-second decision, Gunter hammered down the accelerator and leapt a six-foot gap between the bascules. Twelve of those onboard suffered injuries, and the bus chassis was bent, but it limped on to safety. “Everything happened terribly quickly,” related the driver. “I felt I had to keep on otherwise the bus would have toppled into the river.” Gunter later received a £10 bonus for his unorthodox evasive action.
Return Of The Mad Major
1953: Christopher Draper had not been idle. Following his aeronautical naughtiness in 1931, the Mad Major found work as a stunt pilot, a stage and film actor, a double-agent spying on the Nazis (including a meeting with Hitler), an anti-submarine pilot and latterly, with some bathos, a store keeper. A final moment of glory beckoned in 1953, however, when he once again commandeered a plane and flew under 15 of London’s bridges (check out this magazine cover depicting the feat). The 61-year-old told the press, “It was my last ever flight. I meant this to be a spectacular swan song. I shall never be allowed to fly again.” Bizarrely, the stunt again went unpunished. His pilot’s licence was initially revoked, but soon restored by the Ministry of Civil Aviation. He kept it until 1964, when it was once again revoked on health grounds. The crowning blow, grumbled the 71-year-old veteran, was that the “revocation order was signed by a woman”.
Jet plane protest
1968: It sounds like the plot of an 80’s action film. A rogue pilot is angered by the decisions of high command, breaks formation, and heads out solo over London to seek revenge. It actually happened when Flight Lieutenant Alan Pollock flew his Hawker Hunter jet low over the Houses of Parliament in protest at Harold Wilson’s government, who’d been stripping back the air force. He was also dissatisfied at the lacklustre plans to mark the RAF’s 50th anniversary. In a one-man air display, he flew his plane through the gap in Tower Bridge, before going on to buzz several airfields. “It was easy enough to fly over it, but the idea of flying through the spans suddenly struck me. I had just ten seconds to grapple with the seductive proposition which few ground attack pilots of any nationality could have resisted. My brain started racing to reach a decision. Years of fast low-level strike flying made the decision simple…”. On landing, Pollock was arrested, but later invalided out of the RAF without court martial. This was the first time a jet plane had been flown under the bridge’s walkways.
2009: Robbie Maddison leaps the bridge on a motorbike, with backflip!
2012: A pair of helicopters flew through the bridge, filming a scene for Danny Boyle’s Olympic Opening Ceremony. It wasn’t the first time this had been done, but in the YouTube age, it’s much easier to present online. Here they come…
See also: how people initially hated Tower Bridge, and how it confused dogs.