XIV. RHEIMS, AND AFTER
The foregoing brief--and necessarily incomplete--survey of the early British group of fliers has taken us far beyond some of the great events of the early days of successful flight, and it is necessary to go back to certain landmarks in the history of aviation, first of which is the great meeting at Rheims in 1909. Wilbur Wright had come to Europe, and, flying at Le Mans and Pau--it was on August 8th, 1908, that Wilbur Wright made the first of his ascents in Europe--had stimulated public interest in flying in France to a very great degree. Meanwhile, Orville Wright, flying at Fort Meyer, U.S.A., with Lieutenant Selfridge as a passenger, sustained an accident which very nearly cost him his life through the transmission gear of the motor breaking. Selfridge was killed and Orville Wright was severely injured--it was the first fatal accident with a Wright machine.
Orville Wright made a flight of over an hour on September 9th, 1908, and on December 31st of that year Wilbur flew for 2 hours 19 minutes. Thus, when the Rheims meeting was organised--more notable because it was the first of its kind, there were already records waiting to be broken. The great week opened on August 22nd, there being thirty entrants, including all the most famous men among the early fliers in France. Bleriot, fresh from his Channel conquest, was there, together with Henry Farman, Paulhan, Curtiss, Latham, and the Comte de Lambert, first pupil of the Wright machine in Europe to achieve a reputation as an aviator.
'To say that this week marks an epoch in the history of the world is to state a platitude. Nevertheless, it is worth stating, and for us who are lucky enough to be at Rheims during this week there is a solid satisfaction in the idea that we are present at the making of history. In perhaps only a few years to come the competitions of this week may look pathetically small and the distances and speeds may appear paltry. Nevertheless, they are the first of their kind, and that is sufficient.'
So wrote a newspaper correspondent who was present at the famous meeting, and his words may stand, being more than mere journalism; for the great flying week which opened on August 22nd, 1909, ranks as one of the great landmarks in the history of heavier-than-air flight. The day before the opening of the meeting a downpour of rain spoilt the flying ground; Sunday opened with a fairly high wind, and in a lull M. Guffroy turned out on a crimson R.E.P. monoplane, but the wheels of his undercarriage stuck in the mud and prevented him from rising in the quarter of an hour allowed to competitors to get off the ground. Bleriot, following, succeeded in covering one side of the triangular course, but then came down through grit in the carburettor. Latham, following him with thirteen as the number of his machine, experienced his usual bad luck and came to earth through engine trouble after a very short flight. Captain Ferber, who, owing to military regulations, always flew under the name of De Rue, came out next with his Voisin biplane, but failed to get off the ground; he was followed by Lefebvre on a Wright biplane, who achieved the success of the morning by rounding the course--a distance of six and a quarter miles--in nine minutes with a twenty mile an hour wind blowing. His flight finished the morning.
Wind and rain kept competitors out of the air until the evening, when Latham went up, to be followed almost immediately by the Comte de Lambert. Sommer, Cockburn (the only English competitor), Delagrange, Fournier, Lefebvre, Bleriot, Bunau-Varilla, Tissandier, Paulhan, and Ferber turned out after the first two, and the excitement of the spectators at seeing so many machines in the air at one time provoked wild cheering. The only accident of the day came when Bleriot damaged his propeller in colliding with a haycock.
The main results of the day were that the Comte de Lambert flew 30 kilometres in 29 minutes 2 seconds; Lefebvre made the ten-kilometre circle of the track in just a second under 9 minutes, while Tissandier did it in 9 1/4 minutes, and Paulhan reached a height of 230 feet. Small as these results seem to us now, and ridiculous as may seem enthusiasm at the sight of a few machines in the air at the same time, the Rheims Meeting remains a great event, since it proved definitely to the whole world that the conquest of the air had been achieved.
Throughout the week record after record was made and broken. Thus on the Monday, Lefebvre put up a record for rounding the course and Bleriot beat it, to be beaten in turn by Glenn Curtiss on his Curtiss-Herring biplane. On that day, too, Paulhan covered 34 3/4 miles in 1 hour 6 minutes. On the next day, Paulhan on his Voisin biplane took the air with Latham, and Fournier followed, only to smash up his machine by striking an eddy of wind which turned him over several times. On the Thursday, one of the chief events was Latham's 43 miles accomplished in 1 hour 2 minutes in the morning and his 96.5 miles in 2 hours 13 minutes in the afternoon, the latter flight only terminated by running out of petrol. On the Friday, the Colonel Renard French airship, which had flown over the ground under the pilotage of M. Kapfarer, paid Rheims a second visit; Latham manoeuvred round the airship on his Antoinette and finally left it far behind. Henry Farman won the Grand Prix de Champagne on this day, covering 112 miles in 3 hours, 4 minutes, 56 seconds, Latham being second with his 96.5 miles flight, and Paulhan third.
On the Saturday, Glenn Curtiss came to his own, winning the Gordon-Bennett Cup by covering 20 kilometres in 15 minutes 50.6 seconds. Bleriot made a good second with 15 minutes 56.2 seconds as his time, and Latham and Lefebvre were third and fourth. Farman carried off the passenger prize by carrying two passengers a distance of 6 miles in 10 minutes 39 seconds. On the last day Delagrange narrowly escaped serious accident through the bursting of his propeller while in the air, Curtiss made a new speed record by travelling at the rate of over 50 miles an hour, and Latham, rising to 500 feet, won the altitude prize.
These are the cold statistics of the meeting; at this length of time it is difficult to convey any idea of the enthusiasm of the crowds over the achievements of the various competitors, while the incidents of the week, comic and otherwise, are nearly forgotten now even by those present in this making of history. Latham's great flight on the Thursday was rendered a breathless episode by a downpour of rain when he had covered all but a kilometre of the record distance previously achieved by Paulhan, and there was wild enthusiasm when Latham flew on through the rain until he had put up a new record and his petrol had run out. Again, on the Friday afternoon, the Colonel Renard took the air together with a little French dirigible, Zodiac III; Latham was already in the air directly over Farman, who was also flying, and three crows which turned out as rivals to the human aviators received as much cheering for their appearance as had been accorded to the machines, which doubtless they could not understand. Frightened by the cheering, the crows tried to escape from the course, but as they came near the stands, the crowd rose to cheer again and the crows wheeled away to make a second charge towards safety, with the same result; the crowd rose and cheered at them a third and fourth time; between ten and fifteen thousand people stood on chairs and tables and waved hats and handkerchiefs at three ordinary, everyday crows. One thoughtful spectator, having thoroughly enjoyed the funny side of the incident, remarked that the ultimate mastery of the air lies with the machine that comes nearest to natural flight. This still remains for the future to settle.
Farman's world record, which won the Grand Prix de Champagne, was done with a Gnome Rotary Motor which had only been run on the test bench and was fitted to his machine four hours before he started on the great flight. His propeller had never been tested, having only been completed the night before. 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.
The final day of the meeting provided a further record in the quarter million spectators who turned up to witness the close of the great week. Bleriot, turning out in the morning, made a landing in some such fashion as flooded the carburettor and caused it to catch fire. Bleriot himself was badly burned, since the petrol tank burst and, in the end, only the metal parts of the machine were left. Glenn Curtis tried to beat Bleriot's time for a lap of the course, but failed. In the evening, Farman and Latham went out and up in great circles, Farman cleaving his way upward in what at the time counted for a huge machine, on circles of about a mile diameter. His first round took him level with the top of the stands, and, in his second, he circled the captive balloon anchored in the middle of the grounds. After another circle, he came down on a long glide, when Latham's lean Antoinette monoplane went up in circles more graceful than those of Farman. 'Swiftly it rose and swept round close to the balloon, veered round to the hangars, and out over to the Rheims road. Back it came high over the stands, the people craning their necks as the shrill cry of the engine drew nearer and nearer behind the stands. Then of a sudden, the little form appeared away up in the deep twilight blue vault of the sky, heading straight as an arrow for the anchored balloon. Over it, and high, high above it went the Antoinette, seemingly higher by many feet than the Farman machine. Then, wheeling in a long sweep to the left, Latham steered his machine round past the stands, where the people, their nerve-tension released on seeing the machine descending from its perilous height of 500 feet, shouted their frenzied acclamations to the hero of the meeting.
'For certainly "Le Tham," as the French call him, was the popular hero. He always flew high, he always flew well, and his machine was a joy to the eye, either afar off or at close quarters. The public feeling for Bleriot is different. Bleriot, in the popular estimation, is the man who fights against odds, who meets the adverse fates calmly and with good courage, and to whom good luck comes once in a while as a reward for much labour and anguish, bodily and mental. Latham is the darling of the Gods, to whom Fate has only been unkind in the matter of the Channel flight, and only then because the honour belonged to Bleriot.
'Next to these two, the public loved most Lefebvre, the joyous, the gymnastic. Lefebvre was the comedian of the meeting. When things began to flag, the gay little Lefebvre would trot out to his starting rail, out at the back of the judge's enclosure opposite the stands, and after a little twisting of propellers his Wright machine would bounce off the end of its starting rail and proceed to do the most marvellous tricks for the benefit of the crowd, wheeling to right and left, darting up and down, now flying over a troop of the cavalry who kept the plain clear of people and sending their horses into hysterics, anon making straight for an unfortunate photographer who would throw himself and his precious camera flat on the ground to escape annihilation as Lefebvre swept over him 6 or 7 feet off the ground. Lefebvre was great fun, and when he had once found that his machine was not fast enough to compete for speed with the Bleriots, Antoinettes, and Curtiss, he kept to his metier of amusing people. The promoters of the meeting owe Lefebvre a debt of gratitude, for he provided just the necessary comic relief.'--(The Aero, September 7th, 1909.)
It may be noted, in connection with the fact that Cockburn was the only English competitor at the meeting, that the Rheims Meeting did more than anything which had preceded it to waken British interest in aviation. Previously, heavier-than-air flight in England had been regarded as a freak business by the great majority, and the very few pioneers who persevered toward winning England a share in the conquest of the air came in for as much derision as acclamation. Rheims altered this; it taught the world in general, and England in particular, that a serious rival to the dirigible balloon had come to being, and it awakened the thinking portion of the British public to the fact that the aeroplane had a future.
The success of this great meeting brought about a host of imitations of which only a few deserve bare mention since, unlike the first, they taught nothing and achieved little. There was the meeting at Boulogne late in September of 1909, of which the only noteworthy event was Ferber's death. There was a meeting at Brescia where Curtiss again took first prize for speed and Rougier put up a world's height record of 645 feet. The Blackpool meeting followed between 18th and 23rd of October, 1909, forming, with the exception of Doncaster, the first British Flying Meeting. Chief among the competitors were Henry Farman, who took the distance prize, Rougier, Paulhan, and Latham, who, by a flight in a high wind, convinced the British public that the theory that flying was only possible in a calm was a fallacy. A meeting at Doncaster was practically simultaneous with the Blackpool week; Delagrange, Le Blon, Sommer, and Cody were the principal figures in this event. It should be added that 130 miles was recorded as the total flown at Doncaster, while at Blackpool only 115 miles were flown. Then there were Juvisy, the first Parisian meeting, Wolverhampton, and the Comte de Lambert's flight round the Eiffel Tower at a height estimated at between 1,200 and 1,300 feet. This may be included in the record of these aerial theatricals, since it was nothing more.
Probably wakened to realisation of the possibilities of the aeroplane by the Rheims Meeting, Germany turned out its first plane late in 1909. It was known as the Grade monoplane, and was a blend of the Bleriot and Santos-Dumont machines, with a tail suggestive of the Antoinette type. The main frame took the form of a single steel tube, at the forward end of which was rigged a triangular arrangement carrying the pilot's seat and the landing wheels underneath, with the wing warping wires and stays above. The sweep of the wings was rather similar to the later Taube design, though the sweep back was not so pronounced, and the machine was driven by a four-cylinder, 20 horse-power, air-cooled engine which drove a two-bladed tractor propeller. In spite of Lilienthal's pioneer work years before, this was the first power-driven German plane which actually flew.
Eleven months after the Rheims meeting came what may be reckoned the only really notable aviation meeting on English soil, in the form of the Bournemouth week, July 10th to 16th, 1910. This gathering is noteworthy mainly in view of the amazing advance which it registered on the Rheims performances. Thus, in the matter of altitude, Morane reached 4,107 feet and Drexel came second with 2,490 feet. Audemars on a Demoiselle monoplane made a flight of 17 miles 1,480 yards in 27 minutes 17.2 seconds, a great flight for the little Demoiselle. Morane achieved a speed of 56.64 miles per hour, and Grahame White climbed to 1,000 feet altitude in 6 minutes 36.8 seconds. Machines carrying the Gnome engine as power unit took the great bulk of the prizes, and British-built engines were far behind.
The Bournemouth Meeting will always be remembered with regret for the tragedy of C. S. Rolls's death, which took place on the Tuesday, the second day of the meeting. The first competition of the day was that for the landing prize; Grahame White, Audemars, and Captain Dickson had landed with varying luck, and Rolls, following on a Wright machine with a tail-plane which ought never to have been fitted and was not part of the Wright design, came down wind after a left-hand turn and turned left again over the top of the stands in order to land up wind. He began to dive when just clear of the stands, and had dropped to a height of 40 feet when he came over the heads of the people against the barriers. Finding his descent too steep, he pulled back his elevator lever to bring the nose of the machine up, tipping down the front end of the tail to present an almost flat surface to the wind. Had all gone well, the nose of the machine would have been forced up, but the strain on the tail and its four light supports was too great; the tail collapsed, the wind pressed down the biplane elevator, and the machine dived vertically for the remaining 20 feet of the descent, hitting the ground vertically and crumpling up. Major Kennedy, first to reach the debris, found Rolls lying with his head doubled under him on the overturned upper main plane; the lower plane had been flung some few feet away with the engine and tanks under it. Rolls was instantaneously killed by concussion of the brain.
Antithesis to the tragedy was Audemars on his Demoiselle, which was named 'The Infuriated Grasshopper.' Concerning this, it was recorded at the time that 'Nothing so excruciatingly funny as the action of this machine has ever been seen at any aviation ground. The little two-cylinder engine pops away with a sound like the frantic drawing of ginger beer corks; the machine scutters along the ground with its tail well up; then down comes the tail suddenly and seems to slap the ground while the front jumps up, and all the spectators rock with laughter. The whole attitude and the jerky action of the machine suggest a grasshopper in a furious rage, and the impression is intensified when it comes down, as it did twice on Wednesday, in long grass, burying its head in the ground in its temper.'--(The Aero, July, 1910.)
The Lanark Meeting followed in August of the same year, and with the bare mention of this, the subject of flying meetings may he left alone, since they became mere matters of show until there came military competitions such as the Berlin Meeting at the end of August, 1910, and the British War office Trials on Salisbury Plain, when Cody won his greatest triumphs. The Berlin meeting proved that, from the time of the construction of the first successful German machine mentioned above, to the date of the meeting, a good number of German aviators had qualified for flight, but principally on Wright and Antoinette machines, though by that time the Aviatik and Dorner German makes had taken the air. The British War office Trials deserve separate and longer mention. In 1910 in spite of official discouragement, Captain Dickson proved the value of the aeroplane for scouting purposes by observing movements of troops during the Military Manoeuvres on Salisbury Plain. Lieut. Lancelot Gibbs and Robert Loraine, the actor-aviator, also made flights over the manoeuvre area, locating troops and in a way anticipating the formation and work of the Royal Flying Corps by a usefulness which could not be officially recognised.
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