Glen Curtiss
Alexander Graham Bell
Fort Meyer Trials
Louis Blériot
Reims air race
the first U.S. airshows
Santos Dumont
squaring up for war
the first bomb run
the amazing Dreadnought 1

Reims: the first air race

Henri Farman (who died in 1958) examining one of his planes in 1908. The vertical flaps Farman used for structural stability also provided aerial stability in ways Farman did not understand.

Blériot's cross-Channel flight excited Europe as nothing else had.  The City of Reims and the French vintners of the Champagne region decided to sponsor a week of aviation exhibition and competition, putting up large purses in prize money, the most prestigious being the International Aviation Cup, known as the Gordon Bennett Trophy, after its sponsor, James Gordon Bennett, the flamboyant American publisher of the New York Herald and the Paris Herald.  The meet attracted the cream of European society, from royalty and generals to ambassadors and the merely wealthy, to the Betheny Plain outside Reims from August 22 to 29, 1909.  While there were to be many other such meets before and after World War 1, none would match Reims for grandeur and elegance or for sheer excitement. 

The major European manufacturers, all French, entered various events. There were 'planes by Bleriot, Voisin, Antoinette, and Farman, and even several French-built Wrights.  The Wrights themselves had passed on an invitation to race at Reims, which was awkward since the Gordon Bennett Trophy was crowned with a large replica of a Wright Flyer.  The Aero Club of America, which had sponsored the Scientific American trophy won by Curtiss a year earlier, turned to Curtiss.  Curtiss' June Bug was not as well developed a plane as the Wright machines (and possibly the Wrights were hoping to drive this point home if Curtiss failed at Reims) and while it was more maneuverable than the European planes, it was not nearly as fast. 

Curtiss worked feverishly to produce a more powerful engine and stripped down his airplane to give it greater speed.  The result was the Golden Flyer, which was a light version of his earlier planes and had a 50-horsepower water-cooled engine.  With virtually no time to test the engine or the airplane, Curtiss packed and was off to Reims.  When he arrived, he found that the accommoda­tions for the aviators set up by their manufacturers were as extravagant as those of the spectators. 

Elaborate cooking facilities, decorated hangars, fully stocked machine shops, trunks brim­ming with clothing, spare parts and backup planes, and a retinue of mechanics and helpers, all floated on an ebullient sea of champagne pro­vided by the sponsors.  Curtiss' spartan approach was a simple tent, a single plane, and two scruffily dressed mechanics. So surprised were the French that he instantly became a favourite. 

The designer-pilot team of Hubert Latham (at left) and Leon Levavasseur  confer at Reims in 1909.

A brief but heavy rain on the first day turned the field into a muddy plain that was to affect take-offs throughout the meet.  But there were so many aircraft, built by every major manufacturer and flown by every famous aviator, that the crowd was kept enthralled for the entire week.  The early winners included Farman, flying one of his own planes equipped with the newly designed Gnome rotary engine, just beating Latham (flying an Antoinette) and Louis Paulhan (flying a Voisin) for the endurance championship; Latham, who won the altitude championship handily; and Eugene Lefebvre, flying a Wright Model A, who had the best qualifying round for the Gordon Bennett Trophy. 

Curtiss, aware that he had only one plane and precious few replacement parts, held back and worked on his aircraft in secret, trying to lighten it and squeeze out more power from the engine.  He knew that his plane was not as fast on the straightaway as the light, single-winged Blériot XII, which was outfitted with a new 80-horsepower engine, but he had won many a motorcycle race on the turns with inferior machines.  

On the last day of the meet, the race was held for the Gordon Bennett Trophy.  It came down to a contest among Lefebvre, Latham, Blériot, George Cockburn (a Scott flying a Farman plane), and Curtiss, now flying a machine he called the Reims Racer, which was in fact a further stripped-down model of the Golden Flyer.  The course consisted of two six-mile (10km) circuits around tall towers, with each plane flying alone and timed.  Cockburn was the only entrant who failed to finish, his aircraft crashing into a haystack after a single lap.  The others thrilled the crowd with their sharp turns and with the drama of the race. During tests, Curtiss noticed that the field, drenched by the rains earlier in the week but now drying, had pockets of updrafts that tossed his lighter plane violently. 

He guessed (blindly, but correctly) that these updrafts would increase the efficiency of his propellers and could help carry him forward and keep him steady on the turns.  He abruptly notified the judges that he was going to race (fearing the updrafts would wane as the day grew hotter) and took off.  His flight was a bumpy one as he bobbed up and down trying to catch the updrafts while keeping his plane under control and taking the sharp turns. It was an extraordinary feat of piloting, because when he landed, he had been timed at fifteen minutes and 50.4 seconds.  Lefebvre and Latham did not come close to that time, so French hopes rested with Blériot, who decided to pilot his own plane, replacing Leon Delagrange, the lighter man who had flown Blériot's planes throughout the meet.  Delagrange had not flown well and had nearly had a mid-air collision with Paulhan the day before.

The pusher (propeller in the rear) was the design of choice as long as the pilot was exposed to the wind. Geoffrey de Havilland’s No. 2 was nimble, but slow

The powerful Blériot XII streaked straight across the sky and completed the first lap ten seconds faster than Curtiss, who watched from the sidelines, anticipating a second-place finish.  But Blériot took the turn clumsily and swung wider than necessary.  He cruised to a perfect landing and the crowd, judging the French aviator's speed only on the straightaway, was certain he had won.  But his time was fifteen minutes and 56.2 seconds, 5.8 sec­onds longer than Curtiss.  Blériot was left to wonder if his added weight was responsible for those extra 5.8 seconds, while Curtiss was hailed as "Champion Aviator of the World" in headlines from Paris to Dayton.