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1909 Rheims Aviation Week

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Held on the Betheny Plain outside Reims from August 22 to 29, 1909.

Persons Mentioned in this Article

Georges Bailly
Sanchez Besa
Cortlandt F. Bishop
Louis Bleriot
Louis Charles Breguet
Etienne Bunau-Varilla
G. B. Cockburn
Glenn Curtiss
Leon Delagrange
Rene Demanest
Robert Esnault-Pelterie
Henry Farman
Antonio Fernandez
Henry Fournier
Jean Gobron
M. Kapferer
Charles de Lambert
Hubert Latham
E. Laurens
Eugene Lefebvre
Louis Paulhan
Henri Rougier
Ferdinand Ferber
Louis Schreck
Roger Sommer
Paul Tissandier
Roger W. Wallace

The Opening Day

Anything more unpropitious than the weather conditions under which the Rheims aviation meeting opened it would be difficult to imagine. During the previous night and early morning rain had been falling heavily, and on turning out of doors it was found that on the flag staffs in the Place Royale and elsewhere black flags were displayed, intimating that flying was impossible. Enthusiasm was not so easily quenched. Many, heeding neither the weather nor the black flag, wended their way to the plains at Betheney. Matters looked less promising there. Mud was hardly the word to apply to the sticky, chalky substance which had formed itself into a veritable quagmire, ankle-deep in places, on the special "road" which had been made leading to the grand stand. At times some quaint scenes were witnessed in the effort to annex as little as possible of the Betheney soil.

Some relief was later afforded by the laying down of planks over the more frequented points used by the public, so that it became possible to reach the enclosure without getting one's clothes absolutely ruined. Several of the motor cars, however, fared pretty badly, getting, stuck in the soft mud, and having to be dragged out by horses. As things ultimately turned out, the crowds were rewarded for their optimism, for all in good time the weather cleared, and the programme as officially laid down was proceeded with, in spite of strong winds and heavy showers.

The first event was the French Eliminating Trials for the Gordon-Bennett Race. For this there were twenty entries, and lots were drawn for starting order, each being allowed a quarter of an hour to get away.

First out to the line was one of the red R.E.P. monoplanes, but this was unable to rise, and the first to actually make a start was Tissandier, on a Wright flyer, just before eleven o'clock. He only remained up for 1 min., however, and was followed by Bleriot on one of the little cross-Channel monoplanes. He managed to cover about 2.5 kms., and then Latham had a try. His machine bore the number 13, and to this was attributed his failure to keep going for more than about 500 yards.

Lefebvre's turn came next, and he made the best attempt, very nearly completing two laps of the 10 kilom. course. Capt. Ferber (de Rue) and others made attempts but could not get off the ground. All this time a nasty gusty wind of about twenty miles an hour was harassing the aviators, and at noon a heavy shower of rain did not improve the position. So it came about that when the time for finishing the trials arrived at two o'clock no one had bettered Lefebvre and Bleriot's performances, and they were accordingly announced as the first two French representatives for the Gordon-Bennett Race. The third, it was decided, should be selected according to the pace made in the speed tests in the afternoon, and this secured for Latham the third place, whilst as reserves Tissandier, Lambert, Paulhan, and Sommer, in the order named were appointed.

A heavy storm at five o'clock made it appear that further flying would be out of the question that day. But quick changes were the order of the day, and half an hour later the weather broke, and immediately all was animation amongst the aviators, who proceeded to bring out their machines for the speed trials. Latham was the first away, he being rapidly followed by others, until the wonderful and unprecedented spectacle was witnessed of seven machines in the air at one time. Five, including Tissandier, Lambert, Lefebvre, Paulhan and Sommer, succeeded in covering the 30 kms. for the speed prizes, the three Wright machines and their pilots doing justice to their master by securing the three first places. Moreover, it was vastly interesting to note that the difference between Tissandier, who was first, and Lefebvre and Lambert, who were bracketed second, was only 1.6 seconds In addition to the above, Latham, on his Antoinette, twice made a single circuit, and Cockburn, on his Farman, once, the honour of fastest lap time going to Lefebvre, with 8 min. 58.2 seconds The longest flight of the day was that of Lefebvre, who remained in the air for 41 minutes, and executed some daring manoeuvres, which roused the spectators to enthusiasm.

Incidents of intense interest were momentarily occurring, the utter novelty of the entire proceedings rendering the most trivial occurrence of moment. A machine dropped down here and there, only to have its place filled by another would give place to the next. Motor troubles seemed to be the most fruitful cause of stoppages. Enthusiasm knew no bounds when the crowd were treated to one or two turns of racing, as when Tissandier overhauled and passed Bunau-Varilla, as seen in our photograph on p. 523.

Bleriot, too, caused a little flutter of excitement by charging a stack of wheat sheaves, resulting in a in a damaged propeller. Altogether the total distance covered in their flights by the various "bird-men" during the day totalled to 309 kms.

Among the spectators were the Right Hon. Lloyd George and Sir Henry Norman, who had motored from Boulogne, stopping the previous night at Compiegne. The Chancellor of the Exchequer was intensely impressed, and did not hesitate to express a wish that such a meeting could be held on Salisbury Plain or some other convenient spot in the British Isles. It is to be hoped that he will be able to impart some of his enthusiasm to other members of the Cabinet, so that aviation may receive a little more encouragement in Great Britain. Sir Henry Norman, who was equally impressed, gave vent to his feelings by expressing the opinion that the world was that day witnessing the birth of a new epoch of human development.

Monday's Events

What a contrast to the opening morning was the second day's dawn. On the Monday morning all was fair and calm, and to all appearance weather after the aviator's heart was in store. Bleriot was up betimes giving his big monoplane a trial run soon after 6 a.m. by traversing one circuit of the course. Nothing further of importance occurred during the morning except the arrival of the dirigible "Colonel Renard," which M. Kapferer had sailed over from Meaux in a little over 1.5 hours, and a flight by M. Paulhan of not quite five circuits of the course.

About midday the wind became somewhat gusty, and Bunau-Varilla and one or two others who ventured out failed to accomplish anything very startling. Bunau-Variila got blown off his course and landed in a field of oats, while M. Fournier was placed hors de combat by a gust of wind which caused him to land precipitately on one of his wings, crushing it, the damage being, however, quickly repaired.

This was the day of the qualifying trials for the Grand Prix, and the other event was attempts to beat record for the lap time. A start was made at 4.30 p.m., when Lefebvre was first away, quickly followed by Paulhan. Lefebvre covered 21.2 kms. In 20 minutes 14.4 seconds, when he decided to come down, while Paulhan kept going until 56 kms. had been covered in 58 minutes 48.8 seconds

Several of the competitors also attacked the circuit record, and Bleriot succeeded in reducing it to 8 minutes 42.4 seconds, but his victory was short lived, as Curtiss later, in his American biplane, brought it down to 8 minutes 35.6 seconds

One condition of the Grand Prix was that competitors had to fly a reasonable distance on or before Monday to qualify to take part in the trials on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Under this regulation 18 actually qualified.

Before the close of the day's proceedings Lefebvre again provided the crowd with a series of thrills by flying over and under and circling round Paulhan, who was at a height of about 25 feet. Arising out of this, when making one of his dashes under his rival's machine, he swooped down so suddenly and so close to terra firma that one of the vast brigade of Press photographers who swarmed over the flying ground, and in whose direction Lefebvre was travelling in a bee line, in not unnatural terror flung himself flat on the ground, not realising what was happening, and fearing that his last moment had suddenly arrived. A couple of seconds relieved his anxiety, but a brother "photo fiend" had recorded the incident in the meantime.

Tuesday's Progress

Black flags had once more to be hoisted on Tuesday morning, the strong winds blowing rendering flying out of the question. Later on angry and ominous clouds gathered over the ground, and it looked as though a wet reception awaited M. le President, for this was the day he had chosen for his first visit.

Just before four o'clock, when President Fallieres arrived, however, the weather improved somewhat, but flying was still impossible, so the President spent some time examining the various machines, and receiving their various designers and pilots. He also received the British deputation, headed by General French, and just before five took his seat in the grand stand.

The starting of engines notified that flying was to be attempted, and in a few minutes Bunau-Varilla swept past the grand stand, waving his hat to the distinguished occupants. He, however, only remained up for a few minutes, when his place was taken by Paulhan, who managed to just complete his second lap as the Presidential party started back for the railway station. Altogether he completed three laps, but his time was a good way off the record, which was hardly surprising in view of the strong wind against which he had to contend.

The only other aviator to make the three rounds was Latham, whose time was 30 min. 2 seconds, but the time officially recorded against him was 5 per cent, more than that - 31 min. 32.2 seconds This "fine" was under the penalisation rule for his unfinished attempt on Sunday. While Latham was flying,

Bleriot took a turn round for one lap, and by overhauling and passing his cross-Channel rival, demonstrated that he had easily the faster machine. Enthusiasm was intense when it was found that he had handsomely beaten the record, bringing it down to 8 min. 4.4 seconds

Lefebvre was again flying in the dusk, and once more performed some extraordinary evolutions, the most impressive being a number of sharp double turns and "8's" in front of the grand stand.

Wednesday's Racing

On Tuesday night Rheims had been en fete, or at least as gay as it could be in face of a heavy downpour of rain. Next morning the black clouds presaged anything but the best weather conditions. However, the wind was very light, and as on several occasions more than one aviator has shown an indifference to rain, it was vainly hoped that some one would venture into the central blue. Until nearly four o'clock, when Paulhan started off on a trial for the Grand Prix, and, as it turned out, made a wonderful performance by shifting the world's record for duration and distance a good way further on, there was nothing of moment to vary the monotony of waiting to record. He did not come down till after half-part six, when he had been up 2h. 43m. 24.6s., and had traversed 131 kms. (82 miles). This is over 6 minutes ahead of Sommer's recently-made unofficial record, and more than 23 minutes better than Wilbur Wright's previous world's record. Naturally, of course, this performance overshadowed all the others during the afternoon, and the scenes around the young aviator upon his return to earth were somewhat disconcerting to his dignity: - at least, from a Britisher's point of view.

While Paulhan had been pursuing the even tenor of his way, Latham and others had been making attempts to better the circuit times, and Fournier experienced a second tumble, this time much more serious than the first smash. He was flying at a good height and had travelled about half-way round the track, when his Voisin machine, struck by a miniature whirlwind, suddenly swerved, turned over once or twice, and then crashed sideways to the ground. Fournier, with the usual good luck of an aviator, escaped serious injury, and returned to his shed riding the horse of a friendly gendarme. His machine was badly broken up, the tail being severed from the main body.

Latham, on his third attempt, succeeded in covering the 30 kms., his time, however, being slower than the record for the Prix de Vitesse. While he was in the air a splendid rainbow appeared in the sky, and the spectacular effect of this, in conjunction with the Antoinette dragon-fly, was most impressive and not likely to be soon forgotten by those who were fortunate enough to witness it.

In the twilight Curtiss tried to regain the honour of fastest time, and although he improved on his former speed, he could not lower Bleriot's record, whilst several aviators, including Delagrange, Rougier and Capt. Ferber (de Rue), were out, but nothing startling, in view of previous exploits, transpired. Truly is it that familiarity breeds, if not contempt in this case, at least indifference, and that very speedily. The marvellous of to-day is but the accepted of tomorrow.

Records Broken on Thursday

A splendid day was experienced on Thursday, and the sensation was Latham's world's distance record of 152 kms. (96 miles), his speed also beating all previous efforts, thereby bringing about the curious anomaly of not breaking the duration record. His time for the 150 kms. was 2h. 13m. 9.6s. This splendid effort was made during the afternoon, and followed a preliminary canter of 70 kms., which he flew during the morning in 1h. 1m, 51.4s. In each case he was forced to come down owing to his petrol supply giving out, but his second marvellous flight easily placed him first for the Grand Prix.

During the long flight there were several exciting incidents. On one occasion Mr. Latham had the opportunity of racing with a passing train for some distance, while at another time he passed over Delagrange, who was flying round the course on his Bleriot.

Another thrill was afforded by Bleriot who carried a passenger during a couple of flights, while Curtiss completed four circuits of the course, and Mr. Cockburn also indulged in an exciting race with another passing train.

On Friday, Saturday and Sunday the finals of the various heat events constituted the programme, the Gordon-Bennett Race being reserved for to-day (Saturday).

Thursday's Doings

In our last issue we had to break the story of the flying at Rheims just at the point where Latham had succeeded in bettering Paulhan's record for distance made on the previous day. This wonderful flight of the Antoinette monoplane was, of course, the outstanding feature of that day; in fact, it might be called an "Antoinette" day, for in the morning Latham, on his No. 13 machine, flew for 70 kms., beating all records for speed. At the start he had notified his intention of running for the Grand Prix, but something going wrong with one of his planes he had to come down after seven laps. Not to be denied so easily, he brought out his No. 29 in the afternoon, and once more started off, circling round the track until his 65 litres of petrol was exhausted, when he glided to earth, after covering 154.5 kms. in 2h. 17m. 21.4s.

Count Lambert also made a flight for the Grand Prix, his supply of fuel only carrying him 116 kms. in 1h. 50m. 59s.

Two mishaps occurred during the day. The first was through the engine on Rougier's machine stopping, whereby he made a sudden drop among the crowd, fortunately without seriously injuring anyone. Several were very much scared, however, by finding themselves brought so suddenly into close quarters with the biplane. The second incident was when Bleriot, at the end of his third flight with a passenger, lost control of his machine through the steering-gear failing. The result was a crash into the fence, again fortunately without any serious injury to anyone.

Several short flights were made during the day by Legagneux on Capt. Ferber's Voisin, Tissandier, Sommer, Cockburn and Curtiss, the latter covering 30 kms. in an attempt for the Grand Prix.

Friday's Record

Farman's record-breaking attempt for the Grand Prix of course overshadowed all else on Friday. It was extraordinary, too, that such success should have been obtained, in view of the fact that the installation of the new Gnome motor was only completed 40 minutes before the time set as the limit for starting. However, the change proved grandly successful, and Farman kept up in the air until well after the official time for declaring the meeting at an end for the day. As will be seen from our tables he was officially credited with having flown 180 kms. in 3h. 4m. 56s., but as a matter of fact he only missed completing another lap by a few yards. But the clock had chimed half-past seven, and the official eyes were closed.

The day's proceedings were varied a little by the appearance of the dirigibles "Col. Renard" and "Zodiac." Latham in the course of a trial for the Grand Prix flew close under the car of the former. Paulhan intended trying to regain the world's record, but was rendered hors de combat by a mischance. In order to avoid collision with Delagrange he made a sudden drop, with the result that the left side of his machine came into violent contact with the ground and was crumpled up., Both Latham and Tissandier made good flights, each completing ten laps, and Bleriot at his first attempt for the Grand Prix traversed 40 kms. in about 40 minutes During the day the weather was perfect, and most of the prominent flyers made trials. At the start of Farman's great flight the unusual sight was witnessed of three machines passing each other vertically. Sommer was at the bottom, Farman passed over him, and Latham, travelling much faster, flew by on top.

Saturday's Great Race

Saturday's programme contained the piece de resistance, for the first International competition for the Gordon-Bennett Aviation Trophy was to be run for on this day. It was a splendid day for flying as there was only a breath of wind. The proceedings opened soon after ten, when Curtiss brought out the machine on which American hopes were fixed, and made a trial for the Circuit Prize. He succeeded in lowering the record to 7 minutes 55.4 seconds Then, finding his machine running well, he determined to make his cast for the great event. The two laps were covered in 15 minutes 59.4 seconds, and this time not being bettered, the Cup crosses the "herring pond," and the next contest for it will have to be held in America.

Cockburn, the British representative, made the next attempt, but he was unable to complete one lap. Lefebvre led the way for France, but he was nearly five minutes too slow. Latham and Bleriot did not make their attempts until the afternoon, when the cross-Channel hero just failed to keep the trophy in France. His first lap time was the same as Curtiss' second, but during the second round he was impeded by a squall, which made him some ten precious seconds slower. His total time was 15 minutes 56.5 seconds, while Latham's was 16 minutes 32 seconds

Bleriot, however, secured one trophy, that for the fastest circuit, by completing the course in 7 minutes 47.8 seconds, a figure which was not bettered. The other events of the day were the competition for the Passenger Prize, which was eventually won by Farman, the only aviator to carry two passengers, second place also going to him for the best flight with one companion. Lefebvre covered one lap accompanied by a friend.

The Final Day

The contests for the two big prizes being over, Sunday, the last day of the first successful flying meeting, was earmarked for the final attempts for the Circuit and Speed Prizes, while the Height Competition also formed part of the day's programme.

Ideal weather prevailed, and it was anticipated that an exciting duel would be witnessed between Curtiss and Bleriot for the Speed Prize. Curtiss placed himself in front by completing the course in 24 minutes 15.4 seconds Although he had to submit to a penalisation of 5 per cent, for a previous attempt, he still proved to be the best thus far.

Bleriot made a determined attempt to capture the prize, but alas, his hopes were soon dashed to the ground. He brought out his fastest machine, but at the far end of the course a sudden descent caused some flexible petrol connections to break. In some way the petrol became ignited, and a few moments later the racer was a wreck. Fortunately, Bleriot was able to get clear, but not before his hand had got badly burned.

As will be seen from our tables, several other flyers made attempts for the Circuit and Speed Prizes, but nothing transpired entailing a change in the position of the leaders.

On each day during the week attempts were to have been made for the Dirigible Prize, a race over five laps of the circuit, but it was not till the last day that the "Col. Renard" made its attempt. Its time for 50 kms. was 1 hour 19 minutes Later the "Zodiac" went round, but was unable to better the time, so the "Col. Renard" secured the prize.

The sensational feature of the day was the contest for the Altitude Prize, for which Latham, Paulhan, Farman and Rougier competed. Latham made the most impressive flight, and when he returned to terra firma it was found that his barometer registered 155 metres (504 feet) the next best being Farman with n o metres (358 feet). Although other attempts at flight were made they were of little interest after these wonderful performances, which concluded the Rheims Flying Week.

Closing Scenes

On Monday, the proceedings were officially brought to a conclusion with a banquet offered by the organisers to the competitors, journalists, and others who had taken part. The Marquis d'Polignac presided, and among the honoured guests present were the Mayor of Rheims, Mr. Roger W. Wallace, Chairman of the Aero Club of the U.K., and Mr. Cortland F. Bishop, President of the American Aero Club. Mr. Hubert Latham, on behalf of the competitors, tendered their thanks for the splendid organisation of the meeting, which it was announced would be repeated next year.

Table of Entered Machines

P. Tissandier. Wright. 25hp 4-cyl. B. and M. engine.
P. Tissandier. Wright. 25hp 4-cyl. B. and M. engine.
Comte de Lambert. Wright. 25hp 4-cyl. B. and M. engine.
Comte de Lambert. Wright. 25hp 4-cyl. B. and M. engine.
Schreck. Wright. 25hp 4-cyl. B. and M. engine.
E. Lefebvre. Ariel Co. 25hp 4-cyl. B. and M. engine.
H. Farman. Farman. 50hp 4-cyl. Vivinus engine.
H. Farman. Farman. 50hp 4-cyl. Vivinus engine.
R. Sommer. Farman. 50hp 5-cyl. Gnome engine.
G. B. Cockburn. Farman. 50hp 5-cyl. Gnome engine.
J. Gobron. Voisin. 55hp 4-cyl. Gobron.
Delagrange. Voisin. 50hp 8-cyl. Antoinette engine.
De Rue (Capt. Ferber). Voisin. 50hp 8-cyl. Antoinette engine.
Paulhan. Voisin. 50hp 5-cyl. Gnome engine.
Bunau-Varilla. Voisin. 50hp 8-cyl. E.N.V. engine.
Rougier. Voisin. 55hp 8-cyl. Renault.
Fournier. Voisin. 50hp 4-cyl. Itala engine.
Sanchez Besa. Voisin. 50 8-cyl. Antoinette engine.
Legagneux. Voisin. 55hp 4-cyl. Gobron.
Glenn Curtiss. Curtiss. 30hp 3-cyl. Curtiss engine.
Breguet. Breguet. 55hp 8-cyl. Renault engine.
Klutymans. Klutymans.
Fernandez. Fernandez. 50hp 8-cyl. Antoinette engine.

L. Bleriot. Bleriot. 40hp Vcyl. Anzani engine.
L. Bleriot. Bleriot. 50hp 8-cyl. E.N.V. engine.
L. Bleriot. Bleriot. 25hp 3-cyl. Anzani engine.
L. Delagrange. Bleriot. 25hp 3-cyl. Anzani engine.
H. Latham. Antoinette. 50hp 8-cyl. Antoinette engine.
Demanest. Antoinette. 50hp 8-cyl. Antoinette engine.
Buchonnet. Antoinette. 50hp 8-cyl. Antoinette engine.
Bailly. Antoinette. 50hp 8-cyl. Antoinette engine.
R. Esnault-Pelterie. R.E.P. 35hp 5 cyl. R.E.P. engine.
R. Esnault-Pelterie. R.E.P. 35hp 5 cyl. R.E.P. engine.
M. Guffroy. R.E.P. 35hp 5 cyl. R.E.P. engine.
E. Laurens. R.E.P. 35hp 5 cyl. R.E.P. engine.

See Also


Sources of Information

  • Flight magazine of 28th August and 4th September 1909