Among the great aviation mysteries of history are those people who seem to have just flown off to vanish into thin air. The first person that may spring to mind concerning this is undoubtedly the famous case of Amelia Earhart, but there have been many others who have joined her in the realm of baffling unsolved mysteries of the air, and one of these is a British aviation pioneer, who embarked on a monumental flight only to vanish off the face of the earth and leave behind a historical mystery that has never been solved.
Cecil Stanley Grace was one of the great pioneering aviators of British history, and a member of the Aero Club of Great Britain, later called simply the “Royal Aero Club,” an organization that had its start in 1901 by Frank Hedges Butler, his daughter Vera and Hon Charles Rolls, who was one of the founding members of Rolls Royce. The club has an interesting history in its own right, an air sport club having its start as mostly concerned with ballooning, before actively embracing the airplane and its emerging technology in 1908. They would go on to teach piloting, becoming an officially recognized distributor of Aviators Certificates, as well as becoming the official governing body in the UK for air sports, which they remain to this day. They would build their first flying ground over a swath of marshland at Eastchurch, near Leysdown on the Isle of Sheppey in early 1909, and this is where Grace’s tragic story would begin.
Grace was already well-respected, having earned only the fourth Royal Aero Club Aviator's Certificate ever, and been involved with giving flying lessons to the Royal Navy, and he was one of the early members of the club, so when a major aviation event was pursued by the club in 1910 he was very enthusiastic about participating. Called the the Maurice de Forest’s Baron de Forest Prize, the goal of the event was to see who could clock in the longest flight across the English Channel from England into continental Europe, which in the era when the first flight had been made in Britain just 2 years before and the Wright Brothers historic flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, was not even a decade in the past was quite an ambitious feat. There were plenty of dangers, but the £4,000 prize money, quite a kingly sum at the time, was enough to get plenty of aviators to try, and Cecil Grace was one of them.
There had already been some bumps in the road for the event, with aviator Claude Grahame-White crashing before he could even really start, and things were off to a bumpy beginning, but one pilot named Tom Sopwith was able to achieve a 170 mile flight into Belgium. Grace thought he could do better, and on December 22, 1910, he took to the air in his Short S.27 biplane aircraft in a bid to win the prize. It was to be a flight that would cement him in history as one of the earliest and most baffling aviation mysteries there is, as he flew off into the sky and seemingly right off the face of the earth.
It is known that Grace managed to fly from Swingate Downs, near Dover, all the way to Calais, in France, but it was still not enough to earn him the prize. Undeterred, he began heading back to England in order to refuel and make another attempt. The weather was not ideal at the time, with high winds making for slow going, but even so it was thought that the seasoned and experienced Grace would have no problems, and that the flight should only take about 40 minutes, yet he never arrived. The only clue anyone had as to his whereabouts was a sighting by the Coast Guard of what they thought to be Grace’s plane off the coast of Kent, England, but after that there was no sign. By 3:30 PM that afternoon, the pilot had still not arrived, and was hours over schedule. It was assumed that he may have turned around to go back to France in the face of the high winds whipping through the region, but others raised the ominous idea that he had simply crashed. No one knew, and the search was on, but not a scrap or sign of the missing pilot or plane could be found.
Days would go by with no sign of Grace or his plane, and there was still hope that he may have managed to make an emergency landing somewhere, but with every hour that passed those hopes faded. Things looked even grimmer when on January 6, 1911, a pair of aviator goggles and a man’s cap were found washed up upon a beach at Mariakerke, Belgium, and were thought to have belonged to Grace. However, there was no other sign at all of a clue as to the fate of the missing pilot until months later, when on March 14, 1911 a body was discovered washed ashore at Ostend, Belgium and it was believed that it could perhaps be that of Grace. The problem was, the corpse was so waterlogged and decomposed that it was impossible to make any sort of positive identification, and there were those who had been close with the pilot who insisted that it was not him. Another argument against it being Grace was that it was simply too far away from where he had last been allegedly seen off Kent, and so the mystery remained.
Despite no concrete answer to what had happened to Cecil Grace, no trace of the plane itself, and the doubts that orbited it all, he would be declared officially dead soon after the discovery of the body. He would be posthumously awarded the distinguished British Royal Aero Club’s Gold Medal and hailed as an aviation hero, with a stained glass window at All Saints' Church in Eastchurch devoted to his achievements, all while the mystery of what had really happened to him swirled. What happened to Cecil Grace? Considering no wreckage was ever found and the body was never conclusively proven to be his, the disappearance has never been completely solved, and it seems likely that the mystery will continue on as a historical aviation oddity.