Belfast Royal Academy - founded 1785


Our School – From the Archives…

Jack McCleery & The Development of the First Aircraft Carrier

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.

McCreery, 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 McCreery 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.

Jack McCleery was born in Belfast in 1898, the son of a mill owning family. He joined the RNAS in 1916 as a Probationary Flight Officer. During the next ten months he completed his training at Crystal Palace, Eastchurch, Cranwell, Frieston, Calshot and Isle of Grain, flying more than a dozen landplanes, seaplanes and flying boats, gaining his wings as a Flight Sub-Lieutenant.

In July 1917 he was posted to the newly commissioning aircraft carrier HMS Furious, which would be based at Scapa Flow and Rosyth. He served in this ship until February 1919, flying Short 184 seaplanes and then Sopwith 1½ Strutters off the deck. He also flew a large number of other types during this time from shore stations at Turnhouse, East Fortune and Donibristle. He served with important and well-known naval airmen including Dunning, Rutland (of Jutland) and Bell Davies VC. He witnessed Dunning’s first successful landing on a carrier flying a Sopwith Pup in 1917 and his tragic death a few days later. He also witnessed the Tondern raid in 1918, the world’s first carrier strike mission. He took part in more than a dozen sweeps into the North Sea by elements of the Grand Fleet and Battle Cruiser Fleet. He carried out reconnaissance missions off the coast of Denmark, landing in the sea to be picked up by waiting destroyers. He witnessed the surrender of the High Seas Fleet. Promoted to Captain, he acted as temporary CO of F Squadron for a time post-war.

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