Belfast Royal Academy - founded 1785


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Aircraft came of age as weapons of war between 1914 and 1918. At sea they were initially launched from catapults on the decks of warships, then ditched when their mission was accomplished. Later, it was decided to experiment with the possibility of taking off and landing aircraft from ships.

 The ’belowtheradar’ television production company was in school on 19th of June 2018 to film a documentary on the life of a former pupil called Jack McCleery, who was one of the pioneers of a secret programme that would change the nature of warfare forever: the development of the first aircraft carrier.

McCleery, whose name may be seen on the Roll of Honour on the first floor of the Crombie Building, was one of the elite group of pilots chosen for this mission. He was eighteen years old in 1917, when he was recruited for nine months of intensive training, and then posted to HMS Furious. Over the next two years the techniques of taking off and landing with wheeled aircraft on a specially prepared deck were developed by Jack McCleery and his fellow pilots, and HMS Furious became the world’s first dedicated aircraft carrier.

With the production company in the Academy were Jack McCleery’s son, John Orr McCleery, and the latter’s grandson, another Jack McCleery. They may be seen at one of the familiar old desks in the History Department.


The programme, a joint production of BBC Northern Ireland and BBC Scotland, will be broadcast near Armistice Day in November of this year. The photograph of JM McCleery in this article was specially ‘colourised’ by former pupil Stanley Robinson, who also photographed the Roll of Honour.

After the war, Jack McCleery returned to work with the family flax spinning mill in Belfast, ‘William Ross & Company’. He died at his home in Kircubbin, in 1983.

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