London to Manchester

Englishman v. Frenchman


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Claude Grahame-White

Claude Grahame-White

Louis Paulhan
Louis Paulhan

In 1906 the Daily Mail offered a prize of £10,000 for the first aviator to fly from London to Manchester within 24 hours. No more than two landings were allowed en route and the aviator must start and finish within five miles of the Daily Mail's London and Manchester offices. At the time the offer was made, their money seemed safe! Alberto Santos-Dumont was the leading aviator in Europe and he could only stay in the air for seconds at a time. His furthest flight was a mere 220 yards (200 m.), while the distance between the two great cities was 185 miles (298 km). The prize was believed by everyone to be quite unwinnable. The satirical magazine Punch offered a similar sum for the first man to swim the Atlantic, and also for the first flight to Mars and back within a week! But by 1910, the incredible pace of aeronautical progress meant that such a flight was within the grasp of a bold aviator with a reliable machine. The first pilot to attempt the feat was Claude Grahame-White.

Grahame-White had been running a successful motor car dealership in London's exclusive Mayfair district when Louis Blériotcrossed the Channel in the summer of 1909. Grahame-White was fascinated by the flight. He went to see Blériot's aircraft on display at Selfridges department store, in near-by Oxford Street, and the next month he left for the Rheims Aviation Meeting. "Don't be surprised if I return in an aeroplane!" were the parting words to his bemused staff. At Rheims he introduced himself to pilots such as Curtiss, Esnault-Pelterie and Farman, and saw their aeroplanes at close quarters in the hangers. He met the great Louis Blériot and bought a Blériot XII from him. Grahame-White was now so fascinated by all aspects of aviation that he stayed for eight weeks at the new Blériot factory, helping to build his aeroplane. When it was ready, he made a few taxi-ing tests along the ground and then, without any air experience, took off on his first flight!

Claude Grahame-White's experience selling cars led him to think of ways in which he could combine his new passion with business. So in imitation of Blériot, he set up a flying school in the south-west of France at Pau. Naturally the equipment was six Blériot machines. By February 1910 he had eight pupils (though what quality of tuition Grahame-White was able to provide seems open to question!) Really what he wanted was to move the flying school back to England, and what better way to do it than in a burst of publicity by winning the London-Manchester prize.

Grahame-White's First Attempt

Giving the problem some serious thought, Grahame-White decided that his Anzani powered Blériot XI was not capable of making the flight in only three legs. To overcome this he bought a Farman III with one of the new 50 h.p. Gnôme rotary engines. After shipping the Farman back to Britain, he proceeded to survey the route. He planned to follow the London & North Western Railway all the way, and persuaded the company to whitewash its sleepers for 100 yards to the north of every junction, so that he might stay on the right line. He was helped in the attempt by Henry Farman himself and a team of French mechanics, who came over from France.

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CG-W and Farman

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Map of the Route

On Saturday 23 April 1910 the weather seemed favourable and he made his aircraft ready while it was still dark at Park Royal, in north London. Despite the early hour, several hundred people had come to see him go as well as members of the Royal Aero Club and Henry Farman. It was a misty, wintry morning but the wind was not blowing too strongly, judging from the factory chimneys towards Wormwood Scrubs. At 5:19 a.m. the Farman gracefully took to the air after a run of less than 100 yards and, to the relief of the on-lookers, climbed over the chimneys, before becoming lost in the haze. The pilot's immediate target was a gas holder near Wormwood Scrubs, where a Royal Aero Club official was stationed to note the time. It had been agreed beforehand that this landmark was within five miles of the Daily Mail offices in Fleet Street. Grahame-White passed over the heads of more cheering spectators on the Scrubs, circled the gas holder, and then set course north to pick up the London & North Western Railway at Willesden Junction. Meanwhile his friends and mechanics ran for their cars to give chase.

Grahame-White takes off from Park Royal
Grahame-White takes off into the mist from Park Royal, London, at 5:19 on the morning of 23 April 1910.
His machine only had a single rudder, giving it an " I " shape tail.

The line took him over Harrow, Watford, and through the Chiltern Hills at Berkhampstead. He emerged onto the flatter country of Buckinghamshire and pressed on up to Northampton. All along the route people thronged the railway bridges and vantage points to cheer him on his way. His was the first aeroplane to be seen in some of the counties he crossed. Those following in motor cars had a hard job to keep up. Descending a steep hill and cutting across the village green at Kilsby, in Northamptonshire, a car carrying mechanics overturned, seriously injuring one of the party.

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CG-W goes to warm up
Two hours after setting off, Grahame-White approached his first scheduled stopping place, the village of Hillmorton, near Rugby. On the ground waiting for him were some friends and Mr H.E.Perrin, the secretary of the Royal Aero Club who had driven like a demon from London to beat the aeroplane. Most of the other cars only arrived some time later. At first Grahame-White circled the tree tops, unable to locate the correct field. Mechanics ran out into its centre shouting and carrying white sheets. He saw them, cut the engine and glided down. The landing was fairly smooth but he broke an undercarriage strut on a small hillock. When he clambered down from the plane Grahame-White was numb with cold and shaking. While his circulation was painfully returning, Lady Denbigh, who was present with Lord Denbigh, lent him her fur wrap and a number of other ladies did the same. The time was 7:20 a.m. and Grahame-White had covered 75 miles - more than a third of the distance. He had also set a new British cross-country record. With a troop of boy scouts guarding the machine, he was driven to nearby Gellings Farm, owned by some friends, for a bite to eat and a hot drink. Munching a biscuit, he told reporters, "It was wretchedly cold all the way and I was cold at the start. My eyes suffered towards the end, and my fingers were quite numbed." He had had no problem finding his way however. The highest he had been was around 1,100 ft. and he had averaged around 400 ft. His speed had been between 30 and 50 mph, depending on whether the section of track he was following was pointing into or away from the wind.
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CG-W leaves Hillmorton
Claude Grahame-White
Grahame-White ready to depart.
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CG-W at Hademore
At 8:15 a.m. he set off again on the next leg to Crewe, in Cheshire. He passed low over the railway station roof at Rugby, and his wave was answered by a cacophony of whistles from the engine drivers. But now the flying was becoming even harder as the wind picked up and turbulence from hills and woods affected the low flying aircraft. The head wind was particularly bad as he entered the Trent Valley. The westerly wind was being caught between the Welsh mountains and the Pennines and being funnelled down it at a terrific pace. Twice gusts caught the Farman and spun it round so that it was facing back towards London. Grahame-White struggled back onto course, but the Gnôme did not seem to be developing the power that was necessary to maintain effective control in the conditions. Then, when over a wood near Tamworth, 15 miles north-east of Birmingham, the engine stopped altogether. A dangerous forced landing seemed to beckon, but luckily the engine re-started after a glide of 100 feet. With the wind against him and his engine clearly in need of attention, Grahame-White decided to land early. He came down near the village of Hademore, a couple of miles from Lichfield, at 9:20 a.m. and this time broke an undercarriage skid. The engine problem was traced to a defective valve and was easily fixed by the mechanics, while the pilot took some breakfast and had a nap.

But Grahame-White was forced to stay on the ground at Hademore until the wind should die down. Henry Farman agreed that the present conditions were dangerous even with a good engine. They waited into the afternoon, but the wind only became stronger. A crowd gathered as word spread that the plane was on the ground, and the enterprising owner of the field began to charge 2d. for admission. At 7 p.m. they decided to give up on the day and try again at 3 o'clock the next morning. That would leave 2 hours and 15 minutes to reach Manchester within the 24 hour deadline, which should be sufficient.

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The road back to London
Unfortunately the wind was still too strong at 3 a.m. A storm appeared to be on the way. Grahame-White climbed onto the Farman's seat and announced to the patient crowd that the attempt was off. He would go to Manchester and try to fly from there to London inside 24 hours instead. The weather had ruined his attempt but there was worse to come. The mechanics forgot to tie the Farman down with stakes and ropes, and during the night of Sunday 24 April it was blown over onto its back by the gale. The top wing was torn in several places and numerous struts were broken. Grahame-White was forced to return to London for major repairs.
Grahame-White's Farman wrecked
Grahame-White's Farman thrown onto its back and damaged by the storm at Hademore.

Paulhan v. Grahame-White

*Paulhan had made a flight from Orleans to Châlons the week before; a distance of 130 miles. Grahame-White's attempt had roused other aviators to the possibility of winning the £10,000 prize, and when he arrived back in London he found a competitor had arrived. Louis Paulhan had been observing the German military dirigible tests at Cologne when he heard of Grahame-White's exploit. He had been contemplating the prize himself and immediately departed for England. He was similarly equipped with a Gnôme-engined Farman, and received equal help from Henry Farman. (Whoever won, Farman couldn't lose!) Paulhan's machine differed in having two rudders at the tail, forming a box shape with the tailplanes, while Grahame-White's only had one, making an "I" shape. Paulhan's machine also had shortened lower wings to give it greater speed. Worryingly for the Englishman, Paulhan was holder of the world record longest cross-country flight!* The prospect of a head-to-head race between Frenchman and Englishman, on virtually identical aircraft, created a great deal of patriotic excitement in both countries. Grahame-White was made aware of the expectation on him when he received a telegram saying, "Every Englishman is watching you. Win the competition and preserve the honour of Old England!"

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Paulhan Postcard
Paulhan set up base in some flat open fields at Hendon in north London and proceeded to erect his plane, which arrived some days after him on Wednesday 27 April. His Farman had had to travel by road from Folkestone because the railway tunnels on the way were too narrow for its large crate. Meanwhile, Grahame-White worked flat-out at the Daily Mail garages to repair his battered plane. Henry Farman spent Wednesday morning with Grahame-White, helping ready it for a test flight at Wormwood Scrubs, and the afternoon with Paulhan at Hendon. In the morning the Englishman paid a courtesy visit to Hendon to discuss the problems of the flight with Paulhan. Grahame-White's test flight at 2 p.m. was satisfactory but the wind was still too strong in his opinion for an attempt at the prize, and he had to disappoint the 15,000 strong crowd who had gathered to see him off. He put his Farman into its hanger and went back to his hotel for a much needed sleep.

Louis Paulhan
Louis Paulhan in his machine. The exposed piloting position is evident.

At 5:30 p.m. Paulhan and his team had finally finished putting up his Farman under the supervision of Henry Farman. Audaciously, Louis Paulhan saw that he had a chance to snatch the prize there and then. Grahame-White expected him to start tomorrow morning: well, he would start today! Without even a test flight, Paulhan took off, banked round back over the 4,000 madly cheering spectators and headed south for Hampstead Cemetery (which was his agreed five mile landmark). He came back into view, flying north, at the "immense" height of 400 or 500 ft. and disappeared out of sight. 


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Clearing the crowd

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In the air - just!

It was 5:57 p.m. before Grahame-White was wakened and told that his rival was in the air. Immediately he jumped into a car and drove back to Wormwood Scrubs. He would try and catch Paulhan if he could. There was always a chance that he would suffer engine problems which would delay him. Whilst the Englishman pulled on his flying gear, the car dragged the Farman out of its shed and into position for a take off. He was noted to be "perfectly cool" but "greatly vexed" at allowing Paulhan to get ahead. He didn't even stop to eat anything. Only a few hundred stragglers from the crowd of thousands remained on the ground to witness him take off at 6:30 p.m. The Farman climbed shakily to the gas holder against the strong wind and then banked round to come back downwind over the crowd at what seemed like a great speed.

Grahame-White's second attempt
Grahame-White prepares to take off in pursuit of Paulhan on 27 April.

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CG-W at Roade

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Paulhan at Lichfield

But when night fell Paulhan was as far ahead as ever. Grahame-White had made 60 miles and was at Roade, in Northamptonshire, while Paulhan had reached Lichfield, 117 miles (188 km) from London. Along the route, even greater crowds turned out than at the weekend to see the Frenchman pass over followed by the Englishman in pursuit an hour or so later. At Roade, after having a cup of tea in a signal box, Grahame-White returned to his aeroplane to find the field full of well-wishers. He was carried shoulder high and then made to sign autographs by the light of a bicycle lamp.

Louis Paulhan 1910
Paulhan prepares to land in the dusk at Lichfield beside the railway track.

MapPaulhan would surely reach Manchester early the next day, and Grahame-White was forced to resort to desperate measures: he would fly through the night in order to overhaul the Frenchman! It would involve making the first night flight in England. He resolved to depart about 2 a.m. when the moon rose. However, when 2 o'clock came the moon was mostly hidden by large clouds from which a fine drizzle fell now and then. At last, at 2:45 a.m., a gap in the cloud let the moon shine through and illuminate the scene. The field was a tricky one to get out of even in daylight. It was surrounded by hedges and trees on three sides and by telegraph poles and a railway bridge on the fourth. Lamps were placed at either end, so Grahame-White could see how much room he had. At quarter to three he climbed into the machine, which was drawn up by the telegraph poles to give the longest run, and ordered the engine started. Watched by a sizeable crowd the Farman bumped across the field, its thin wings seeming luminous against the dark ground, and took off over the line of parked cars in the road beyond the trees. The crowd breathed a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, as he disappeared north into the darkness, his crew on the ground could hear from its note that his engine was not developing full power. 

A short distance away, a couple of Grahame-White's friends were waiting at a crossroads in a car to show him the right direction. When he flew over, they were to drive down the road with headlights burning. 

"We heard a distant hum," recounted one of them, "It grew loader and then suddenly, across the fields, we saw a ring of fire moving in the darkness. At first I couldn't understand what it was, but then I realized it was the exhausts of the Gnôme rotary, spouting red flame in the night, which created this strange ring of light. The aeroplane approached like a great bird out of the dark. I distinguished the silhouette of the pilot between the wings. He waved his hand in greeting and passed above our heads while we drove beneath along the road."
At 3:50 a.m. he was making good progress, over Nuneaton, and only 20 miles (32 km) from Lichfield. But the Gnóme became weaker and weaker, while a head wind began to pick up as dawn approached. His ground-speed dropped to a crawl. In the unlucky Trent Valley he was again forced to give up on his faltering engine and land at the village of Polesworth, about 10 miles from Lichfield and his rival. He jumped from the plane and attempted to keep it upright in the gusty wind until his friends could come and lend a hand. The time was 4:13 a.m.
'The Times' with the special train

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Paulhan's special train

Fake photoMeanwhile, Paulhan had taken off from Lichfield at 4:09 a.m. Despite the hour, 3,000 people had gathered to see him depart. As the car carrying him with his wife and Henry Farman came through the field, "They were greeted with load cheers, and occasionally counter-cheers were raised for Mr.Grahame-White, who was already reported to be in the air again." Another great cheer was raised when the machine took off but it turned to hush as the Farman's wheels almost touched the telegraph wires at the end of the field. Then, "the cheers were repeated again and again as the aeroplane disappeared in the early morning mist." 

Paulhan was supported by a special train provided by the L.N.W.R., which carried his mechanics, Henry Farman, Madame Paulhan and the world's press. Whenever it stopped at a station, the journalists could telegraph their updates on the progress of the competition. There was massive interest, with the New York Evening Post, for example, hailing the contest as "not the greatest of the century, but of all centuries."

His flight was not untroubled by the wind either though. He sought to avoid the worst turbulence by climbing: "My machine rose viciously and then dropped so quickly that I was almost torn from my seat," he told, "I had to hold onto the controls with all my strength. I climbed to more than 300 metres (1,000 feet) in the hope of finding a calmer patch, but the wind persisted." He passed Stafford at 4:45 and Crewe at 5:20 a.m. At the landing ground at Burnage, near Didsbury on the outskirts of Manchester, the official time taker and other Royal Aero Club members had slept the night at a nearby inn on chairs. By 4 o'clock they were back on the field, and by 5 o'clock a crowd of several thousand had gathered, made up of workers, tradesmen, farmers and country gentlemen. The roads were full of cars and the platform of the nearby elevated station was packed. At 5:25 a.m. a buzz went round the crowd as they learnt that a signalman had phoned up the line to say an aeroplane was only five miles away:

Every eye was directed to the sky-line of the houses and the trees to the south. The eastern horizon was crimson with the light of a threatening sunrise; overhead the sky was dull and grey, and a light, cold drizzle was driving along on a south-westerly wind, which at times blew at about 15 miles an hour.

Suddenly there was a scattered volley of breathless exclamations -- "Here he is!" "Paulhan is coming!" Over the tops of the trees appeared, small and faint at first, but rapidly increasing in size, the now familiar outline of an aeroplane. From the crowd there arose cheer after cheer. No one cared then whether the aviator who approached was Frenchman or Englishman. It was enough that he was a hero of the air.
The Times, 29 April 1910

Paulhan arrives
Paulhan arrives at Burnage, near Manchester, on 28 April 1910.

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Three cheers!

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The victory lunch

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The winner's cheque

Paulhan's machine was recognised by its twin rudders, and landed at 5:32 a.m. Paulhan climbed stiffly down from his painful seat and vowed never to undertake such a flight again, "Even for twice £10,000!" He was mobbed by the crowd and had to be escorted to the station, where his train had pulled in, by two policemen. He had succeeded in flying from London to Manchester in just over 12 hours; 4 hours 12 minutes of which had been spent in the air. 

Grahame-White had been let down by his unreliable engine for a second time, for if it had functioned properly, he would surely have passed over the amazed Paulhan while he was still on the ground getting his machine ready. When he heard of Paulhan's success he climbed onto his machine to announce the news to the crowd which had gathered in the field, and to call for three cheers for Paulhan. He telegraphed congratulations to Manchester. But as it was still early he decided to carry on and complete the course even if it meant coming second. He could still do it within the 24 hours so long as he arrived before the evening. It was not to be, however. The Gnôme was still playing up and the head wind blowing down the Trent Valley was as fierce as ever. He battled on for a while but it was hopeless. It took him half an hour to cover the 8 miles to Whittington, where he landed.

Louis Paulhan was duly certified by a committee of the Royal Aero Club as having abided by the rules on Saturday 30 April, and he drove straight from the Club in Piccadilly to the luncheon given in his honour at the Savoy Hotel in the Strand. Claude Grahame-White was also present, and he received a 100 guinea cup as consolation. Other notable names on the guest list included Colonel Capper ('father' of military aviation in Britain), Sir Hiram Maxim (inventor of the maxim gun and of a flying machine in the 1890s), Major B. Baden-Powell (brother of Robert Baden-Powell and kite experimenter), H.G.Wells (the science fiction author), J.T.C.Moore-Brabazon (one of British aviation's early pioneers) and his friend the Honourable C.S.Rolls (co-founder of Rolls-Royce). Paulhan was presented with his cheque for £10,000 in a golden casket inscribed with the flags of Britain and France. The lunch was also made the occasion for the announcement of another Daily Mail competition - a 1,000 mile race around Great Britain!


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