© Wonders of World Aviation 2015-18  | site map  | Contact us at info@wondersofworldaviation.com

Wonders of World Aviation

French and English Rivals in a Contest for £10,000


CLAUDE GRAHAME-WHITE took up flying in 1909

CLAUDE GRAHAME-WHITE took up flying in 1909. A year later he competed for the prize of £10,000 offered by a London newspaper to the first aviator to fly from London to Manchester within twenty-four hours, with no more than two landings. A Frenchman, Louis Paulhan, was also competing, and thus the event became a race.

THE spirit of competition in aviation was well established in 1910. New types of machines were appearing almost every week, and aviators by the dozen were being added to the list of pioneers.

After Louis Bleriot had won in 1909 the Daily Mail prize for the first aeroplane flight across the English Channel, that journal offered a cash prize of £10,000 for the first aviator to fly from London to Manchester.

Several men announced their intentions of competing, but as the months passed and nothing happened it was generally thought that the undertaking was beyond the powers of man and machine.

According to the rules governing the offer, a start had to be made from a place within five miles of the Daily Mail’s London office, and the finish had to be within a similar distance of the newspaper’s Manchester office. The flight had to be completed within twenty-four hours, and only two landings were allowed, for fuel and any necessary adjustments to the machine or engine.

A young man named Claude Grahame-White said that he had decided to compete for the prize. Few people knew of him. Who was he? What had he done? What machine was he going to fly?

It was not surprising that this young man was then virtually unknown. Less than a year before he had scarcely bothered to look twice at an aeroplane; he was far more interested in motor cars. Then Bleriot flew the Channel, and at once Grahame-White was interested. He went over to France a month or so later, met Bleriot, and in a sudden burst of enthusiasm agreed to buy one of the famous Frenchman’s latest machines.

Grahame-White was told by Bleriot that he had designed a newer and faster machine than that which had flown the Channel. It was a two-seater monoplane, powered by a fifty horsepower Gnome rotary engine, and it was entered for the Rheims Air Meeting. Grahame-White said he would buy the machine at the close of the display.

Like many other machines, the Bleriot XII never saw the end of the display. It caught fire in the air and nearly burned its creator and pilot to death. In those days, however, a crash, no matter how serious, was looked upon as part of the business, and in no way deterred aviators or enthusiasts.

Bleriot was flying again within a few days, and Grahame-White was as keen as ever to acquire one of the “dangerous” machines. Bleriot’s accident turned out to be a fortunate one for Grahame-White. His machine had to be built anew, and Bleriot allowed him to work in his factory; this enabled Grahame-White to follow the details of construction, and to acquire an invaluable insight into all that went on behind the scenes. Grahame-White had been trained as an electrical and mechanical engineer, and what he learned during the three months of hard work (for he was obliged to adhere strictly to factory rules and hours) gave him a sound background of knowledge. The monoplane was finished in November 1909, and Grahame-White immediately learned to fly it.

The structure was extremely light - as all aircraft then had to be if they were to fly at all - and the engine was powerful, heavy, and rotary, tending to twist the machine. The aeroplane flew at between 50 and 60 miles an hour - an amazing speed for those times - and its landing speed was high.

After only half an hour’s ground instruction Grahame-White flew the machine capably.

He at once took the machine to Pau, France, and put in several weeks of intensive practice. Then he bought another type of aeroplane, a Henri Farman biplane, and began to learn all he could of that.

Grahame-White’s announcement that he intended to try for the London-Manchester prize was quite unexpected. He had heard that Louis Paulhan was also to compete, and he intended to anticipate Paulhan by winning the prize.

Against Grahame-White’s enthusiasm, however, Paulhan could boast nearly a year of experience. Grahame-White was a comparative novice, for Paulhan had flown with great distinction all over France, and had even taken his machine with him to America; Grahame-White had been flying a bare four months. Here, however, were two men after the same rich award, and it seemed only a matter of time before one or the other captured it. Strangely enough, both decided to use the same make of machine for the great attempt - the Henri Farman biplane.

PAULHAN LEAVING HENDON, his starting point in the attempt to win the prize for the first London-Manchester flightWhether Grahame-White heard that Paulhan was planning a rapid attack, or whether the reverse was so, is not clear. But Paulhan came back from America at the earliest moment, and Grahame-White arranged for his machine to be shipped to England with all urgency. Thus it came about that a prize which had been on offer for a long while became suddenly the cause of a dramatic race; though none knew then quite how dramatic it was going to be.

PAULHAN LEAVING HENDON, his starting point in the attempt to win the prize for the first London-Manchester flight. Grahame-White was starting from Park Royal, a few miles away, but both aviators were delayed by bad weather. At 5.20 p.m. on April 27, 1910, Paulhan, taking advantage of a lull in the wind, took off without even so much as a preliminary test flight. Half an hour passed before Grahame-White heard the news of his rival’s start.

While Paulhan was on his way to England, Grahame-White began to make rapid preparations for his flight. He arranged with the Farman factory to deliver his machine to London, and he himself searched for a suitable field for a take-off. He finally decided upon Park Royal (near Acton). Grahame-White approached the London and North Western Railway Company (now part of the L.M.S.) for permission to “survey” the route from their line, and they allowed him to ride on the footplates of engines, so that he could take notes of all possible useful landmarks. The railway company also agreed to whitewash the sleepers for a hundred yards on the north side of all junctions, so that the aviator could not lose his way, and they helped him still further by placing their signal boxes at his disposal as emergency telegraph stations. Henri Farman himself, and two mechanics from the Gnome motor works travelled to England to assist him.

Grahame-White, comparatively unknown, was suddenly one of the most talked-of men in England. Crowds hundreds strong flocked to the sheds at Park Royal where his machine was being assembled, and the newspapers echoed the excitement, which spread rapidly all over the country.

The flight was to be made under the control of the Aero Club (now the Royal Aero Club), so the young aviator made arrangements for an official, Mr. Perrin (now Commander H. E. Perrin, C.B.E.), to note his start. On Friday night, April 22, 1910, the machine was ready, and at 5 a.m. the following morning Grahame-White prepared to take off. It was a miserable morning, but in spite of that, and the early hour, a crowd of at least two hundred turned out to cheer him. The Gnome engine roared out, and the machine taxied across the grass through the patches of mist.

“He’s off!”

Rising gracefully into the air, the biplane slowly gained height, turning towards the big gasholder, where, perched precariously on the metal framework, Mr. Perrin waited, flag in hand, to signal him on his way. The flag dipped. The machine headed north. Mr. Perrin clambered down, leaped into one of the official cars and drove along the road in pursuit.

The news that Grahame-White was on his way spread rapidly. Crowds collected at points along the railway line, cheering as he passed overhead. At Rugby, people ran along the roads and across the fields, cheering and waving sheets to show him where to land, for this was to be his first stop. He came down, blue with cold, teeth chattering, after his long trip in the unenclosed machine, damaging the undercarriage and a wing in landing.

Fatal Decision

Repairs were made immediately, and within an hour Grahame-White was on his way again. With 83 miles out of the 186 behind him, and with a good twenty-one hours still in hand, it looked as though victory were certain. But the wind increased, and the engine began to give trouble. When only thirty miles from Rugby the aviator was forced to land again.

Running to the nearest signal box, he telegraphed, asking for the cars which were following to be stopped, and in a short time the Gnome mechanics were busy with his engine. The machine was soon ready for the air again, but the wind had grown stronger. Huge crowds had collected, and the owner of the field turned this to advantage by making a small charge for admission. Hour by hour the crowd grew larger, and it was not until 3 a.m., when the aviator realized that it was impossible to complete the remaining 70 miles in time, that the enthusiastic spectators began to go home. They had seen little, but they were well satisfied; Grahame-White had failed this time, but his was the finest cross-country flight made in England up to that time.

Far from being over, however, the real excitement was still to come. It was Grahame-White’s intention to fly on to Manchester the next day, and to make a new start from that end; but the machine was overturned by a gust of wind during the night, and so badly damaged that it had to be sent back to London for repairs.

THE HENRI FARMAN BIPLANE in which Claude Grahame-White attempted to make the first flight from London to Manchester

THE HENRI FARMAN BIPLANE in which Claude Grahame-White attempted to make the first flight from London to Manchester, in 1910. The photograph shows the aeroplane overturned by the wind, after Grahame-White had been forced down by bad weather He made an unparalleled flight by night between Northampton and Lichfield, Staffordshire, to try to make up the lead which Paulhan had gained.

Meanwhile, almost simultaneously with news of this fresh misfortune, came news of Paulhan’s arrival at Hendon. He had found a suitable field, and announced his intention of setting out after the prize as soon as his machine was assembled.

Grahame-White at once gave the necessary twenty-four hours’ notice for another attempt, and repairs were urgently carried out at Park Royal, only a few miles from his rival’s camp. The damaged Farman machine did not arrive back in London till late on Monday, but by Wednesday, before Paulhan’s aeroplane was ready, Grahame-White’s was in order once more.

By that time public interest had turned into excitement, and the whole world was eagerly waiting for news. Paulhan was a popular figure, and, as holder of the world record for a cross-country flight, was an easy favourite; nevertheless, sympathy was with the comparatively unknown British pilot, who met his misfortunes so well. On the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday increasing crowds flocked to the two fields, where the mechanics and pilots were at work. Grahame-White’s machine was ready for the air by 2 p.m. on Wednesday, and was cheered by thousands as it was wheeled from its shed; but the weather was unfavourable, and the wind gusty and fierce; Grahame-White decided to have a few hours’ sleep after his four almost sleepless days. This decision proved to be a fatal one.

Paulhan’s machine was ready, and at 5.20 p.m. on April 27 he seized the opportunity of a momentary lull in the wind. He took off without so much as a preliminary test flight, and the news did not reach Grahame-White until half an hour later.

First Night Flight

Grahame-White’s supporters had begun to drift homewards when he came running from his shed, having only just awakened. The machine was wheeled out at once, and the engine started as the crowd came surging back, running and cheering. At 6.30 p.m. he took off - an hour and ten minutes behind his rival - and circled off in the direction of Wormwood Scrubs.

A spectacular flight had become a race - Britain versus France. Two machines were racing through the air for £10,000. The news spread along the railway line, and once more thousands of cheering people rushed out from their houses to see first one aviator, then the other, pass overhead. They did not know which was which. They did not care. Both were cheered equally. At ten minutes to eight, Grahame-White passed Wolverton, Buckinghamshire. At five minutes to eight he landed in a field about six miles south of Northampton, intending to spend the night there, and to take off again at dawn.

No sooner had he arrived, however, than he heard that Paulhan had landed at Lichfield (Staffordshire) - with a lead of nearly sixty miles. If he waited until dawn he might just as well not go on at all. There was only one thing to do. Grahame-White decided to fly by night.

It was madness, of course; everybody said so. The night was cloudy, but at one a.m., Grahame-White announced that he would start as soon as the moon rose. Car lamps were placed to mark the boundaries of the field, and final adjustments were made. At 2 a.m. the moon showed through the clouds. The aeroplane taxied across the grass - and vanished into the darkness.

With the lights of cars streaming along the road below him, Grahame-White flew on towards Rugby, on the first night flight on record. Today, pilots have floodlit aerodromes, radio bearings and reliable instruments to help them on such occasions. Grahame- White had none of these things. Even his compass was primitive. But it was the weather which proved his undoing - not the darkness. When only six miles from Lichfield he was forced to land once more. The Frenchman took off as his rival landed.

Humour followed rumour, and at first the crowds who were gathering at Manchester did not know what to believe. It was barely dawn of April 28, but excitement grew and grew with the passing minutes.

THE WINNER of the £10,000 prize for the flight from London to Manchester in 1910 was a Frenchman, Louis PaulhanAt last, as the speck of an aeroplane was sighted on the horizon, a cheer went up. But there were many who did not know whom they were cheering. The speck grew larger, and the roar of the engine vibrated overhead. Then it died away as the nose of the machine dipped. It taxied across the grass, slowed, stopped.

Out stepped Paulhan. Frozen - but smiling, and victorious.

Grahame-White had failed, but it was a glorious failure. The London-Manchester race will always be remembered as one of the most thrilling events in a thrilling year of aviation.

THE WINNER of the £10,000 prize for the flight from London to Manchester in 1910 was a Frenchman, Louis Paulhan. He had gained much experience of flying in France and in America before he came to England to compete for this prize. The aeroplane he used was a Henri Farman biplane, similar to that entered by Grahame-White.

[From Part 13, published 31 May 1938]

You can read more on “The First Aviator to Fly the Channel”, “The First British Pilot” and “The Influence of Air Racing” on this website.

The London - Manchester Race