Europe's First Kilometre Circuit

Henry Farman Wins the
Grand Prix d'Aviation
Henry Farman
Wrights in France
The Channel
Chavez flies Alps
Round Britain Race
Roland Garros
Europe to Egypt
The Men
The Machines
Bibliography & Links
Alberto Santos-Dumont had shown Europe that the dream of powered flight could be a reality. During 1907 many aviation enthusiasts and experimenters tried to build on his achievement. Few of them, however, met with much success. Among them were Adolf de Pischof, Louis Blériot, and Romanian Trajan Vuia. Meanwhile Paul Cornu and the Breguet brothers experimented with helicopter designs. In Britain, Horatio Philips got (briefly) airborne in a machine with four sets of wings, Samuel Cody began construction of a biplane for the Army, and John William Dunne was commissioned by the Government to design an aeroplane in secret.
The most successful aircraft of the year was by far and away the one made by the brothers Charles and Gabriel Voisin. With a biplane elevator at the front, it was clearly influenced by the Wright's designs, but it also owed something to boxkite construction, and carried a huge square tail assembly at the rear. Power was provided by the 50hp Antoinette. It was a crude and heavy machine with no control in roll at all, but it was capable of staying in the air for several seconds at a time, and on this basis the brothers set up a workshop to manufacture it. In the summer of 1907 their third production machine was ordered by Henry Farman.

Henry FarmanHenry Farman was born in 1873, the son of a respected English newspaper correspondant working in Paris. Henry trained as a painter at the École des Beaux Artes, but quickly become obsessed not with painting, but with the new mechanical inventions that were rapidly appearing at the end of the nineteenth century. Since the Farmans were well-off he was able to pursue this interest as an amateur sportsman. Farman had a natural flair for getting the 'feel' of a piece of machinery, and enjoyed considerable success. In the 1890s he became a championship cyclist, and at the turn of the century he discovered motor racing. Driving Panhard cars he came fifth in the Paris-Berlin road race of 1901, and then won the Paris-Vienna in 1902. With his mechanic he covered the 615 miles to the Austrian capital in just 16 hours along unmade roads. In 1903 he came in third in that year's Gordon Bennett Race, which was held in Ireland after the French government banned racing on open roads as too dangerous.

Motorist loses wheel during race
Motor racing in the early 1900s was a sport for the fearless!

Farman himself became a casualty of the sport when he was involved in a serious accident. He fully recovered, but the experience destroyed his enthusiasm for cars. Nevertheless his fascination with machinery endured. He was aware of the Voisin float-glider experiments on the Seine during 1905/06, and he had flown in balloons before with his brother, Richard. When the Voisins began to produce a powered aeroplane for sale in 1907 he was one of their first customers. He made his first flight at the end of September and, displaying his usual sure feel for machines, he was soon able to stay in the air longer than anyone else. On 26 October he flew for 771 m. (843 yds) at Issy. For this flight he won a cup sponsored by Ernest Archdeacon of the Aéro-Club.

Farman by the tail of his aircraftLater on, Claude Graham-White met him at the Rheims Meeting and of Henry's piloting skill he wrote, "Farman is small, quick, and eager in his movements. He seems the ideal airman, with eyes that see everything, and hands that move with the greatest delicacy." By early November, Farman was coaxing turns out of the Voisin, despite it being built without any roll control. This meant that all turns were a delicate skid round on rudder alone. If the outside wing picked up too much airspeed it would rise, and if the turn was persisted in, the plane would be in danger of side-slipping into the ground lower wing first. Farman made a number of modifications of his own to the Voisin during the autumn, including a reduction in the size of the tail surfaces, removing one of the forward elevators, and rigging a slight dihedral angle into the wings. Thus the Voisin-Farman 1 became the Voisin-Farman 1-bis.
The flight as reported by
 the London Times
By now it was clear to members of the Aéro-Club that Farman would soon attempt to win the last and largest Archdeacon prize, the so-called 'Grand Prix' of Aviation. This comprised a purse of 50,000 francs (of which half had been contributed by oil magnate Henri Deutsch de la Meurth), for the first aviator who could fly to a marker 500 m. from his take-off point and return without touching the ground. Farman made a practice flight on 9 November without observers present, but then the weather deteriorated. His record attempt was finally made early in the new year, on 13 January 1908. A pole was set up on the frosty parade ground at Issy by Aéro-Club officials and a finishing line marked by flags 500 m. away. In contrast to Santos-Dumont's exploits a year or so earlier, there were no large crowds present - only a knot of fellow enthusiasts in overcoats. Farman took off, crossed the line at low altitude and began a wide turn with the pole at its centre. Gradually he wavered back up towards the spectators by the flags. One minute, 28 seconds after he took-off he recrossed the line to their jubilant cheers of congratulation. Due to his wide, flat turn he had probably covered about 1500 m. in all (about a mile). This was by far the longest European flight to date. 

Farman's Voisin
Henry Farman coming up to the finishing line, 13 January 1908

Farman's Voisin - front view
A photograph taken at the same moment as above but from further up the course

Farman victorious
Farman takes a well-earned smoke afterwards
with Henri Deutsch de la Meurth and Charles Voisin

Later in 1908, Henry Farman would go on to make the first cross-country flight in Europe and begin work on his own design of aeroplane, which would soon prove hugely influential. Click here for more.


Balloons · Airships · Zeppelins · Santos-Dumont · Farman · Wrights in France · The Channel · Rheims · London - Manchester
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