RheimsThe First International Aviation Meeting
hard on the heels of Louis Blériot's
successful crossing of the English Channel, the
first ever international aviation meeting was organised at Rheims in August
1909. The event was sponsored by the great French champagne houses, such
as Bolinger and Mumm, and so the venue was in the heart of the Champagne
region of France. It was also partly inspired by Henry
Farman's historic cross-country
flight the year before from Bouy to Rheims. The 'Great Week of Aviation'
was intended to be a showcase of man's conquest of the air and progress
in aeronautics. There would be display flights, record attempts and races.
Public interest in aviation was at fever pitch during the summer of 1909
and so the meeting was eagerly anticipated. A rectangular course of 10
km (6 miles) was marked out on a large plain near the village of Bétheny,
5 km (3 miles) from Rheims, and grandstands, public enclosures and aircraft
sheds were erected. The stands could hold 5,000 and included a restaurant
that could seat 600 diners at a time. The course was marked by tall pylons
at each corner, and a take-off area was designated in front of the sheds
so that the aeroplanes could become airborne before they joined the course.
Special trains were laid on to bring the crowds of spectators from Paris.
Some 38 aeroplanes were entered for the competitions to be held over the
week, which included speed, distance and altitude contests. The most prestigious
competition, however, would be the first race for the Gordon Bennett International
Aviation Cup. This was to be an annual competition in which pilots would
represent their countries in a speed trial over 20 km.
The pilots included
some of the most famous French aviators, such as Blériot, Farman
and Latham, but Wilbur and Orville Wright (who were in Europe) declined
to participate in such 'amusements'. It fell to Glen Curtiss to represent
the USA in the Gordon Bennett competition. Six Wright Flyers were
present, though, with two being flown by Paul Tissandier and the Comte
de Lambert, who were pupils of Wilbur. Alberto Santos-Dumont was due to
appear at Rheims with his Demoisellebut
was unable to attend. Capitain Ferber, who was a serving army officer,
was forced to fly under the pseudonym of "Monsieur de Rue" in order to
satisfy his superiors. George Cockburn, a Scot and founding member of the
Aero Club of Great Britain, was the only British pilot at the meeting.
The Meeting opened on Sunday 22 August and ran for eight days until Sunday 29 August 1909. Pilots were required to fly between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. - when the public enclosures would be fullest - but this meant that there could be no competitive flying during the periods of the day when the wind was calmest: just after dawn and at dusk. In 1909 most pilots favoured flying in a dead calm if at all possible, and so in recognition of this the organising committee arranged a system of coloured flags to indicate to the public whether they were likely to see flying on any given day. A black flag meant that the wind was too strong for any flying; a white flag meant that flying was possible; and a red flag meant that aeroplanes had already flown or were in the air. The flags were sited along the road to Bétheny and in the town of Rheims itself.
The competitors had been promised that the Bétheny Plain would be clear of crops to facilitate forced landings, but on arrival they found to their dismay that there were still some fields of standing crops and many more full of sheaves of wheat and barley drying in the sun. It was obvious that these would provide a dangerous hazard to any pilot making an emergency landing, and indeed this proved to be the case during the week. The organisers were somewhat lucky that no one was more seriously hurt as engine failure became an every day occurrence.
Sunday 22 August
|The meeting got off to an inauspicious start. It had rained solidly all day on the Saturday, turning the paddock into a quagmire, and although the rain abated on Sunday, the ground was still sodden and the wind blustery. In the morning, the black flag was hoisted to indicate that no flying was expected. To provide against the weather, most events had been planned to be spread over several days, but Sunday was the only day on which the French entrants in the Gordon Bennett Cup would be chosen. For this reason a number of Frenchmen attempted to start in the morning despite the risk to their machines. The first aeroplane to attempt to get airborne was a scarlet REP monoplane. It had to be dragged onto the manoeuvring area by a horse, and was completely unable to leave the muddy grass. The Wright pilots were at a considerable advantage because they could take off from a starting rail, rather than across the sticky surface, and the first man to complete a circuit of the course was Eugène Lefebvre, who flew for the Société Ariel - the company formed to market the Wrights' designs in Europe. He took 8 min. 45 sec. to complete the course, and in doing so set the first time in the 'Prix de Tour du Piste', the contest for the fastest time over 10 km (one lap). After a number of pilots had failed to rise from the glutinous mud or had crashed back to earth after a few hundred yards in the turbulent air, the Aéro-Club de France abandoned the elimination contest and announced that Hubert Latham, Louis Blériot and Lefebvre would be the French representatives on the basis that they had been the first to actually cross the start line in flight.|
Mechanics shelter from the rain under a Wright Type A. The wooden starting rail is visible to the right.
After 5 p.m., however, the wind slackened and the pilots jumped at the opportunity to get airborne. Those few spectators still present were treated to the unprecedented sight of nine aeroplanes flying simultaneously, and greeted the feat with wild applause. The Comte de Lambert flew three laps in 29 min. 2 sec. in his Wright to set the first time in the 30 km speed trial, the Prix de la Vitesse.
Monday 23 August
The following day was still windy, and Hubert Latham's Antoinette suffered some damage to its propeller when the Frenchman stalled and hit the ground just after crossing the start line. André Fournier may have watched this episode and decided to make sure he had plenty of speed before getting airborne in his Voisin. In any event, the judges decided that his wheels had not left the ground before he crossed the starting line. Fournier sailed on to complete a 10 km lap in blissful ignorance, and only realised his mistake when he passed the judges' box for the second time and saw the flag indicating that his lap would not count. Furious at himself, he wheeled round and came in for a fast landing in front of the sheds, but only compounded his problems by smashing one wing into the ground in his haste.
Lefebvre's landing (270K)
|As on the Sunday, the wind fell in the evening and some good flights were achieved. Louis Paulhan managed 56 km (35 miles) in an attempt to win the distance prize. Officially titled the 'Grand Prix de la Champagne et de la Ville de Reims', it carried a purse of 50,000F for the winner, which made it the richest prize on offer at the meeting. While Paulhan was doggedly circling the course, Lefebvre delighted the crowds by flying over and round him in his far more manoeuvrable Wright Type A. Lefebvre's flight also had a serious purpose - he wanted to test a new 80 litre (17.5 gallon) petrol tank for an attempt on the prize himself. Paulhan was warmly applauded for his feat on landing. Louis Blériot then took up his Type XI and set a new world speed record of 42.9 mph (69 kph) by completing a lap in 8 min. 42 sec. However, his record was less than an hour old when Glen Curtiss beat it in his 'Golden Flyer' with a time of 8 min. 37 sec. Throughout the week, Curtiss would only compete in the speed competitions - with his ultimate goal being the Gordon Bennett Cup to be held on the Saturday. Although he came in for some criticism for this approach, it was eminently sensible considering he was the only representative of his country, had only one aeroplane and few spare parts with him, and was using an engine that had only run previously on the test bench. He was well aware of the frailty of most aero-engines, as the Special Correspondent for the London Times reported:|
Paulhan in flight
"Mr Curtiss told me that while making his flight he was astonished at the number of aeroplanes which had come to the ground and were lying there helpless, waiting for motor-cars to drag them back. It was not because they were incapable of flight, but simply because their motors had broken down." (25 August 1909)
Disappointingly, the wind was still squally on Tuesday - the day chosen by the President of France, M. Fallières, to visit the Aviation Meeting. He was accompanied by members of the government, and met a British delegation at the field, led by David Lloyd-George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. No doubt the French Minister of War and British general Sir John French discussed the military uses of the new flying machines in detail during the visit. The significance of cooperation between the two countries was not lost on the crowd, who made their approval known with shouts of "Vive l'entente cordiale!" Despite the black flag flying over the ground, Louis Paulhan loyally determined to demonstrate the art of flying to his head of state and took off in his Voisin. He succeeded in making a few wide circuits of the course in the difficult wind, waving his handkerchief to the 100,000 spectators. The gesture was greeted with huge cheers.
After the President
had left, the wind again slackened in the late afternoon and a number of
pilots took to the air. Blériot regained the speed record on his
XI, completing the circuit in 8 min. 4 sec., at an average speed of
74.3 kph (46 mph). Meanwhile, Latham completed three circuits on his Antoinette
in 30 min. 3 sec. in an attempt to win the prize for speed over 30 km,
the Prix de la Vitesse. He amazed everyone by flying at the height
of 300 feet (90 m). Lefebvre for his part delighted the crowds by making
a number of daring 'aerobatic' manoeuvres, such as steep turns and dives,
Wednesday 25 August
If anything, the weather was even worse on the morning of the fourth day of the meeting. Black clouds scudded across the sky and occasionally produced squally showers. Nobody flew before 4 p.m. when Latham, Fournier, "de Rue" and Paulhan took off, encouraged by brighter patches of sky and the wind dropping to about 15 mph (24 kph). André Fournier's bad luck continued when he was forced down with engine trouble. The wheels of his Voisin touched a haystack and somersaulted it onto its back. Fortunately, anxious spectators in the stands could see the pilot walking round his machine through their binoculars, and a car was despatched to collect him. The accident ended Fournier's active involvement in the meeting.
Latham also suffered engine trouble and had to come in after one lap for adjustments. Taking off again, he was only able to cover 30 km (18.5 miles) in an attempt on Paulhan's Grand Prix distance. Paulhan, however, was able to build on his Monday flight and set a new distance record of 131 km (81 miles) in a flight lasting 2 hr. 43 min. 24 sec. The flight was only ended by his supply of petrol being exhausted and was made all the more dramatic when he continued on through a rain shower, which swept the course towards the end of the flight. It also meant that a Frenchman had beaten Wilbur Wright's endurance record of 125 km (78 miles), a feat of huge significance to the French spectators. Paulhan received a hero's welcome on landing and the flight did much to cement his reputation as one of the best French pilots.
Latham's Antoinette IV
|Thursday 26 August
At last on Thursday, a day dawned which promised good flying weather and most pilots decided to take to the air in the gentle morning breeze: Latham improved his personal distance record to 70 km (43.5 miles) in 1 hr. 1 min. 51 sec.; Blériot practised on his two-seater Type XII for the passenger carrying competition (the Prix des Passagers) by taking up his friend Leblanc; and Tissandier, Sommer and Cockburn all took their turn at retrieving their planes from the fields after engine failure. Cockburn damaged his Farman's tail unit on one of the ubiquitous sheaves of wheat and had to make repairs. Curtiss contented himself with a test flight of his modified biplane, which had been stripped of any excess weight and was now christened the 'Rheims Racer'.
Latham & Levavasseur
|In the afternoon, rain clouds re-appeared but Hubert Latham ignored the showers (taking a leaf out of Paulhan's book) and finally got his reward for perseverance by beating Paulhan's distance record. Latham flew for 2 hr. 17 min. 21 sec. to cover a distance of 154 km (96 miles). Although he had been in the air for a shorter time than Paulhan the day before, it was distance that counted in the Grand Prix, not endurance. At one stage in the flight, Latham had raced the train from Paris for 3 km at a height of 30 m (100 ft) along a straight before easily pulling ahead. On passing Paulhan's record, he lifted a hand from the control wheel to acknowledge the crowd but had to hurriedly replace it as a gust of wind hit his Antoinette. He only landed when he had run out of petrol. He was met with wild enthusiasm from the crowd and 'chaired' to the sheds to be congratulated by the Antoinette's designer Léon Levavasseur. Latham was now on target to win the 50,000F but Paulhan immediately set to work fitting a 90 litre (20 gallon) tank to his Voisin. The Comte de Lambert also made a good flight for the Grand Prix on his Wright of 116 km (72 miles) in just under 2 hours.|
experienced a freak accident in the evening. At 6:40 p.m. he was flying
in his Type XII with another passenger, a Mr Rath, the designer
of his 60 hp ENV engine, when he experienced engine trouble. He headed
at once for the landing area, but gliding in, he found his path suddenly
blocked by a troop of cavalry whose duty it was to keep the course clear
of spectators! Blériot was forced to swerve and his new landing
run now ended at the crowd barrier of the public enclosure. The spectators
saw him coming and quickly dispersed in all directions. The Blériot
XII burst through the barrier and finished its run in the middle of
the enclosure in a somewhat bent condition. Fortunately, the crowd had
been able to flee in time and no one was hurt. When the pilot clambered
out of the battered cockpit, he was greeted with cries of "Vive Blériot!"
The Curtiss shed
was the last day to compete for the Grand Prix de la Champagne and
many pilots stayed up late into Thursday night preparing their machines
for a final attempt to snatch the prize. Work was particularly intense
in the Blériot, Cockburn and Farman sheds. The weather was certainly
promising, as Friday turned into a hot summer's day with just a gentle
breeze rippling the flags on the grandstand. To date, the best distance
Before the meeting, Roger Sommer held the unofficial record for endurance (2 hr. 27 min.) but, like Farman, he was finding his water cooled Vivinus engine troublesome. The distance competition was more a test of engine reliability than anything else.
It quickly became clear that Paulhan would not be improving on his existing time. As he was taking off from the Manoeuvre Area, he saw Léon Delagrange's Blériot XI descending towards him on a collision course. Quickly, he dropped his Voisin's nose but the wake turbulence from the Blériot caught him and tipped him into the ground, nose first. The Voisin suffered a broken propeller and crumpled left wing. Paulhan received a cut to his hand and was badly shaken.
Sommer's Farman III
|However, by 5:30 p.m. Sommer, Farman, Blériot and Latham were all in the circuit trying to out do each other. They were also joined by the French military airship Colonel Renard and by the Comte de la Vaulx's little Zodiaque airship, which were conducting a private race of their own. It was an extraordinary sight. Gradually, though, Sommer and Blériot dropped out with engine trouble. The airships went back to their hangers. Latham flew on until his petrol was exhausted, but failed to better his distance of 154 km.|
Farman was left alone circling on endlessly round at a height of about
50 feet (16 m). To the spectators, his little machine became practically
part of the landscape as it passed in front of the stands and then receded
into the distance before repeating the performance again and again. The
flight extended into the twilight and Farman's lonely figure cut a heroic
profile as he circled relentlessly on into the night.
"The closing laps of that flight, extending as they did into the growing of the dusk, made a breathlessly eerie experience for such of the spectators as stayed on to watch - and these were many. Night came on steadily and Farman covered lap after lap just as steadily, a buzzing, circling mechanism with something relentless in its isolated persistency." - E. Charles Vivian (eye witness), 'A History of Aeronautics'
flight described in the London Times
||Eventually, at 7:30 p.m. the judges flagged that they could no longer time him because of the gloom and rising mist. Farman completed one more lap and then came into land. He was shivering with cold but "was seized upon by the enthusiastic crowd and carried in triumph to the restaurant where a scene of almost delirious excitement was witnessed" (The Times). A military band crashed out the Marseillaise followed by "God Save the King" in recognition of Farman's Anglo-French status. He had officially covered 180 km (112 miles) in 3 hr. 4 min. 56 sec. and won the Grand Prix de la Champagne. However, he could have gone further because he started with 62 litres (13.5 gallons) of fuel and finished with 15 litres (3 gallons). What was even more remarkable was that he had only finished fitting a new 50 hp Gnôme engine (in place of the troublesome Vivinus) and making its propeller that day! Farman finally extricated himself from the crowd by jumping over the barrier into the pilot's paddock and walking back to his shed where he was congratulated by his brother, Dick, and lit a well-earned cigarette.|
A contemporary colour postcard of Farman's epic flight on 27 August 1909
Saturday 28 August
If Friday had been a day of high drama, Saturday promised to be no less exciting. Today the Gordon Bennett International Aviation Cup would be won. The rules were simple. Each country could enter up to three competitors. Each competitor would have one opportunity (and only one) to fly 20 km in the fastest time they could. The winner would receive a magnificent trophy worth £500 and £1,000 in prize money, both provided by James Gordon Bennett, the proprietor of the New York Herald and Paris Herald. The next year's competition would then be defended in the winner's home country. Latham, Blériot and Lefebvre had been chosen earlier in the week to represent the French Aero Club. George Cockburn would represent the Aero Club of Great Britain. And Glen Curtiss would represent the Aero Club of America. The weather was hot and sunny, with a light breeze of around 5 mph (8 kph).
Curtiss gets ready
|Curtiss chose to fly first because on his practice flight it had seemed to him that there were strong areas of rising air ("thermals") around the course and he wanted to try and use these to go faster. He was afraid that if he waited until later in the day, they might disappear. He took off at 11 a.m. Using these thermals, Curtiss gained height relatively easily in his Rheims Racer and then completed the course in a shallow dive in order to maximise speed. There was nothing in the rules against this. He crossed the line about 20 m (65 ft) up in the time of 15 min. 50 sec. "I made the turns as tightly as I dared," he recounted, "and banked the machine up steeply. The bumps were so violent that I was lifted out my seat and could only stay in by jamming my feet against the framework."|
Next off was George Cockburn on his 50 hp Gnôme powered Farman. But engine trouble soon forced him to make an emergency landing in a field. Once again, he collided with a sheaf of wheat on landing, but was unhurt.
It only remained for the three Frenchmen to try their luck. Lefebvre, who only had a 20 hp Wright-designed engine, realised he had little chance and went next. He completed his two laps of the course in 20 min. 47 sec., which was a credit to the aerodynamic efficiency of the Wright and his piloting skills, considering the horsepower he had available. Hubert Latham in his 50 hp Antoinette followed, and crossed the line 17 min. 32 sec. after taking off. It was not good enough. French hopes now rested solely on Louis Blériot and his rebuilt Type XII. He had specifically installed the heavy British 60 hp ENV engine in the hope of creating a fast 'racing machine'. Late in the afternoon, Blériot took off and made what was evidently a very fast couple of laps. On landing, he was greeted by rapturous applause from his countrymen and Curtiss feared the worst. All eyes were on the judges' box. At last, a red, white and blue flag was hoisted up the mast - was it the French tricoleur? - no, it was the 'stars and stripes'! The score board showed that Curtiss had in fact been just six seconds faster than Blériot, whose time was 15 min. 56 sec. Glen Curtiss had made history by winning the first ever aeroplane race.
Louis Blériot's 'consolation prize' for failing to win the Gordon Bennett Cup was that he was able to win the speed prize over 10 km, the Prix de Tour du Piste, later that evening. He completed a lap in 7 min. 47 sec. and so created a new world speed record of 77 kph (48 mph).
The Saturday evening also saw the holding of the passenger-carrying competition, the Prix de Passagers. There were in fact only two entrants, because Blériot, despite having the only two seater aeroplane, had stripped the fabric from the ends of his wings to reduce drag to concentrate on the speed contests. The entrants were Henry Farman in his Farman III and Eugène Lefebvre in his Wright Type A. Both pilots successfully managed to take up one passenger, but Farman won the competition by carrying two people around the circuit (an extra weight of 20 stone / 132 kg). Thanks to the well designed undercarriage of the Farman III, the machine "seemed to come to earth most perfectly and with least shock ... even when he had two passengers aboard." (Flight magazine).
Sunday 29 August
The last day of the
meeting drew the largest crowd, with some 250,000 people packing into the
stands and public enclosures. The main event was the altitude contest (Prix
de l'Altitude), and was also the last day of the speed contests, the
de la Vitesse and the Prix de Tour du Piste..
|The Aero describes Latham's victory||In the evening, Farman attempted to add the altitude prize to his distance record. He reached the 'ceiling' of his Farman III in just three great spirals of the ground, about a mile in diameter, stunning the breathless crowd. Using triangulation calculations and a barograph carried on his plane, the meeting officials were able to confirm that Henry Farman had reached 110 m (360 ft). As Farman was gliding down, Hubert Latham's Antoinette VII took to the air and climbed away gracefully on its outstretched wings. It circled upwards relentlessly, until even the ordinary spectators on the ground could clearly see that it had reached an even more perilous height than Farman's machine. The height was confirmed as 155 m (510 ft) - the prize was Latham's, and his victory was immensely popular with the crowds. As a final flourish, Latham returned to earth in a steep dive which was expertly transformed into a low level bank, and came round to land behind the judges' enclsoure.|
And so the Great Week
of Aviation drew to a close. At the celebratory banquet for aviators and
press on the Monday (Blériot attended with his right arm in a sling),
the results were confirmed as follows.
The meeting was unanimously
agreed to have been a great success. So it had been, and it had left its
mark on the public consciousness. Despite the many forced landings, the
memorable flights that had been made were truly impressive. Farman's flight
of 112 miles on the Friday, Curtiss' battle with Blériot in the
Gordon Bennett Cup, and Latham's altitude record all demonstrated that
aviation was past its experimental phase. The Channel crossing had been
no lucky fluke. The range of aeroplanes was not limited to 22 miles. In
fact, if progress continued at this rate there was no limit to what might
be achieved. Quite suddenly, airships had started to look rather slow and
flimsy. The aeroplane was beginning to look like the future.
· Airships · Zeppelins
· Santos-Dumont · Farman
· Wrights in France · The
Channel · Rheims · London