Wills’s Aviation Card #73 – “Willows II.” Dirigible.

73f 001.jpgHistory Behind The Card: “Willows II.” Dirigible.

Card #73 of 75, W.D.& H.O Wills, Aviation series 1911, Vice Regal Mixture – Black-back issue

  • E.T. (Ernest Thompson) Willows, born in Cardiff, Wales, Great Britain on July 11, 1886 – August 23, 1926 at Kempston, Bedford, England, Great Britain.

Ernest Thompson Willows was the first person in Great Britain to earn a pilot certificate for an airship of any kind then Britain’s Royal Aero Club awarded him Airship Pilots Certificate No. 1. And yup… that’s the most exciting thing I could find on him.


E.T. Willows.

So what makes Willows and his Willows II dirigible worthy of their very own tobacco collector’s card?

Being British in the brand new flight of fancy known as aviation certainly earns one entry into a British tobacco manufacturer’s line-up on the subject.

After gaining entry in 1896 to Clifton College in Bristol, Great Britain, Willows left the school at the age of 15 in 1901 to further pursue a career as a dentist. Interesting… if this was a blog about dentistry… and no, that doesn’t make me an anti-dentite.

Willows was simply following in the footsteps of his father’s profession.

However… after reading the 1903 newspaper exploits of one Alberto Santos-Dumont, and perhaps of the South African (living in England) Captain William Beedle, our man Willows became fascinated with aviation and the dirigible.

He completed his first dirigible in 1905, and lacking imagination but not ego called it the Willows No. 1.

If you happened to glance at Willow’s birthdate, however, you will note that he built his first dirigible at the tender age of 19. I’m pretty sure I was sneaking beers and trying to get a woman – any woman – to look at me when I was his age.

All of the five dirigibles built by Willows were considered to be pioneering, as they were the first (or among the first) to not have a rigid frame… they were semi-rigid.

Willows No. 1


Willows No. 1 (1905) drawing from “D’orcy’s Airship Manual” from 1917

First flown on August 5, 1905 in a flight lasting 85 minutes over the East Moors of Cardiff, Wales, the Willows No. 1 was a small semi-rigid dirigible with a capacity of 12,600 cubic feet (354 cubic meters).

Its envelope (balloon) measured 74 feet (22.55 meters) long and 18 feet (5.5 meters) in  diameter, and was made of silk, holding a visible framework gondola for the crew suspended beneath it.

At the rear of the gondola framework was a twin-cylinder seven-horsepower Peugeot motorcycle engine fitted with a two-bladed 10 foot (three meter) pusher propeller. (Since the propeller is at the rear of the machine, it “pushes” the vehicle forward.

All in all, Willows took the Willows No. 1 on total of six flights, with the longest lasting two hours.

Willows No. 2

Willows No 2

Willows No. 2 1909 – Photo credit from Rosebud’s Early Aviation Archive, http://www.earlyaeroplanes.com/archive/airships01/1909.Willows.No.2.jpg, Public domain

73r 001.jpg

The Willows No. 2 was designed and piloted by Willows, first flying on November 26, 1909.

No. 2 was 86 feet (26.2 meters) long and 22 feet (6.7 meters) in diameter, with a envelope (balloon) volume of 29,000 cubic feet (820 cubic meters) volume.

The Willows No. 2 was powered by a JAP 30-horsepower, air-cooled V8 engine and had two swiveling propellers mounted either side of the suspended car. It was also fitted with a rudder for directional control.

On June 4, 1910 the Willows No.2 semi-rigid dirigible landed outside of Cardiff City Hall before it was flown back to the dirigible shed back on the East Moors.

On July 11, 1910 Willows No.2 was flown from Cheltenham in southwest England to Cardiff, with a return back to London on August 6.

That initial flight was the longest such flight of a Great Britain cross-country flight at 122-miles (196 kilometers).

Records being what they were Willows himself s considered to be the first aviator to cross the Bristol Channel in a powered aircraft.


Circa June 1910, Willows No.2 is about to land near Cardiff city hall.

Willows No. 3 – City of Cardiff

Willows No. 2 was re-built as Willows No. 3 and renamed by Willows as the City of Cardiff.No.3-postcard

The rebuild mean the new dirigible was now 120 feet (36.56 meters) long, 40 feet (12.2 meters) in diameter, with its envelope volume being 32,000 cubic feet (905 cubic meters).

Willows No. 3 utilized the same JAP engine to power its two 6 foot (1.83 meters) long propellers.

The airship first flew on October 29, 1910 over White City in London, England.

A few days later on November 4, 1910, Willows renamed Willows No. 3 the City of Cardiff, before flying that day from Wormwood Scrubs near London for France.

The successful flight gave Willows the glory of being the first person to cross the English Channel from England to France, as well as the first to cross at night in an airship.

The journey had its fair share of problem, what with the maps being accidentally dropped overboard during the night or the fact that there was leaking within the balloon’s envelope which meant a wee emergency landing at 2AM… but what the heck… French aviator Louis Breguet as around and helped repair the aircraft allowing it to continue its epic flight to land in Paris on December 28, 1910.

Willows then celebrated his achievement by flying around the Eiffel Tower on New Year’s Eve.

Willows No. 4 – His Majesty’s Naval Airship No. 2
Willows moved to Birmingham to build his next airship, the Willows No. 4. First flown in 1912, it was sold to the Admiralty for £1,050 and it became His Majesty’s Naval Airship No. 2. His Majesty being Britain’s King George V.


His Majesty’s Naval Airship No. 2 on the ground in 1905, it is known by its builder as Willows No. 4.

Willows No.4 was smaller than the No. 3, and was completed in 1912. It had a balloon capacity of 24,000 cubic feet (680 cubic meters), and a length of 110 feet (33.5 meters). On its keel was a single 35 horsepower Anzani motor tat powered two four-bladed steerable propellers, enabling it to reach a maximum speed of 50 miles per hour (80 kilometers per hour). Below the keel hung a two-person gondola.

After the aircraft was purchased by the Navy and renamed as His Majesty’s Naval Airship No. 2, its balloon envelope was enlarged to 39,000 cubic feet (11,000 cubic meters).

A year later in 1914, the original gondola was replaced with an enlarged three-seater version with dual controls… however, it only made a single flight with its latest configuration.

The British Navy decided to make a bigger and better balloon, but decided to re-use components.

Taking the balloon/envelope of His Majesty’s Naval Airship No. 2, it was used to become part of the new SS class (submarine scout) of aircraft used to hunt German u-boats during WWI.

Willows No. 5


Willows No. 5 dirigible – Photo credit: from Rosebud’s Early Aviation Archive http://www.earlyaeroplanes.com/archive/airships01/1913.Willows.No.5 .Caudron.jpg

When No. 4 was sold to the British Navy, Willows created a spherical gas balloon school at Welsh Harp, Hendon near London.

He then began to build Willows No. 5 in 1913, a dirigible with a rubberized fabric and a volume of 50,000 cubic feet (1,415 cubic meters). It was 130 feet (40meters) long, and featured a gondola capable of carrying four people.

It achieved first flight on November 27, 1913.

Barrage Balloons
Barrage Balloons.jpg

During WWI, at Cardiff, Willows built barrage balloons.

These were actually kindda cool.

Used often around London, the idea was to have several of these barrage balloons strung together via a steel cable in place over the city lifting a giant net.

They were used to mess up German aircraft or dirigible pilots who could not easily avoid being snagged within the netting.

By 1918 the barrage defenses around London stretched for 50 miles (80 kilometers).

Willows continued to build balloons after WWI, but died on August 23, 1926 when  balloon accident occurred at Hoo Park in Bedford England, killing himself and two passengers.

As of 2017, on the very same spot where Willows had his airfield, Willows High School stands… with a nearby pub called The Ernest Willows reasonably close by.


About mreman47

Andrew was born in London, UK, raised in Toronto, Canada, and cavorted in Ohtawara, Japan for three years. He is married, has a son and a cat. He has over 35,000 comic books and a plethora of pioneer aviation-related tobacco and sports cards and likes to build LEGO dioramas. He has written and been an editor for various industrial magazines, has scripted comic books, ghost-written blogs for business sectors galore, and hates writing in the 3rd person. He also hates having to write this crap that no one will ever read. He works on his Pioneers Of Aviation - a cool blog on early fliers - even though it takes him so much time to do. He also wants to do more writing - for money, though. Help him out so he can stop talking in the 3rd person.
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3 Responses to Wills’s Aviation Card #73 – “Willows II.” Dirigible.

  1. Pingback: Wills’s Aviation Card #73 – Lieut. Jean Conneau (Beaumont) | Pioneers Of Aviation

  2. Pingback: Checklist For Wills’s Cigarettes Aviation 1911 – 75-Card Series | Pioneers Of Aviation

  3. Pingback: Checklist For Wills’s Cigarettes Aviation 1911 – 85-Card Series – soon to be updated | Pioneers Of Aviation

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