In July 1927 F G Wayman, Class AA Duty Pilot Officer, flew a Bristol Fighter (two seat biplane) under the Suspension Bridge. He recorded the incident in his memoirs, passed on to us by Patricia and Glyn Morris:
“Whilst doing Reserve Air Force training I was challenged to a bet of five shillings that I could not fly under the Clifton Suspension Bridge. I accepted the challenge without knowing the hazard.
The next day I motored to the bridge, parked the car, and walked up-stream along the left bank. Then and only then did I see the twists and turns the river takes as it approaches the bridge – making it impossible for a straight approach.
The following day I flew up-stream for two miles at about 200 feet and made an about turn, lowering to 100 ft. About half a mile downstream I reduced to near stalling speed, banking steeply, right wing down. I skimmed the precipice into mid-stream, flattened, then levelled off at twenty feet above the river level. The rest was easy! I passed under the bridge then a full throttle upward climb and away back to the aerodrome.
The five shillings, and more, went on beer in the mess. The following day I faced the Commodore receiving a Severe Reprimand for ‘a stupid and insanely reckless feat’.”
As faster planes were designed and built, the feat became too dangerous. There are stories that Spitfires and other aircraft were flown underneath the bridge during WWII but such claims have not been substantiated. The last known fixed-wing flight beneath the bridge was in 1957 when Flying Officer Crossley of 501 Squadron, RAF flew a Vampire Jet at 450 mph from east to west under the bridge (in spite of a ban against such escapades and against all safety regulations!). He crashed into the cliffs on the Leigh Woods (south) side and was killed instantly.
Today it is illegal to fly any aircraft within 500ft of any highway or structure. This is a general rule, not a specific bridge byelaw. The exceptions would be when coming into land, or when the pilot has the permission of the CAA, although the police and other emergency services have such permission for search and rescue. Police helicopters flew beneath the bridge in 1997 and 2017 while conducting searches.