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Claude Grahame-White was the first to show that a British pilot could compete with French experts



IN FLIGHT AT WOLVERHAMPTON during a Staffordshire aviation meeting in 1910. Grahame-White won the first prize of £1,000 for the greatest aggregate of points. He also flew with distinction and success at other flying meetings held in 1910. At Bournemouth he won the duration prize for having flown more than ninety miles in under three hours.

BLERIOT’S flight from France to England in his little 24 horsepower monoplane marked the beginning of Claude Grahame-White’s vital interest in aviation. At that time Grahame-White was little known in the world of flying. In 1909, when he went to the first air meeting at Rheims — where Bleriot and other Continental champions were competing — he had great difficulty in making his way into the enclosure near the aeroplane sheds. This enclosure was reserved for those who were flying, or who were personal friends of the aviators.

Once inside, Grahame-White lost no time in stating his business. He agreed to buy from Bleriot the racing aeroplane in which that pioneer was flying at Rheims. Fate stepped in, however, to prevent the sale. As Bleriot was making a test circuit of the course at Rheims, his monoplane suddenly caught fire in the air through the breaking of a petrol pipe. The machine landed in flames. Bleriot escaped from this crash, as he had from others. Grahame-White was not daunted by this misfortune. He immediately agreed to buy another machine of the same type directly it could be built in Bleriot’s factory. Moreover, he asked that he might be allowed to enter the factory and watch every stage in the construction of his machine.

Bleriot was doubtful at first about giving his consent. In those days the methods adopted in building pioneer aeroplanes were closely-guarded secrets. Grahame-White insisted; and in the end it was agreed that he should have his way — provided that he carried out the exact daily routine of any ordinary workman, signing on early in the morning and working with the others on the machine till the time came for leaving the factory. At that time few people had any idea of what building an aeroplane entailed. Grahame-White became familiar with every detail in the construction of the machine in which he was afterwards to make his initial flight. Grahame-White’s first flight in this 60 horse-power racing aeroplane was one of the epics of the early days. The aeroplane, after its completion, had been taken out to a shed at the Issy-les-Moulineaux flying ground, on the outskirts of Paris. Here, at dawn one day, Grahame-White had agreed to meet some of the Bleriot mechanics, and to take the machine out to test it on the aerodrome.

Grahame-White and a friend motored out to the flying ground, and arrived in good time. The mechanics, however, were late. Having waited some time, Grahame-White and his friend got the machine out of the shed. Still the mechanics did not arrive. So Grahame-White tied the tail of the monoplane to a fence and, with the help of his friend, started up the engine. Then, having accelerated the engine a little, Grahame-White untied the rope, ran round and jumped into the pilot’s seat as the machine began to move across the ground. At that time he was a complete novice. This was the first time he had ever found himself at the controls of an aeroplane. After having taxied to and fro a few times, he felt such confidence that he took off. He flew straight ahead for a short distance, and brought the machine back safely to earth without having broken a wheel or wire.

Shortly afterwards Grahame-White went from Paris to Pau, in the south of France, where Bleriot had established one of the first of the flying schools.

Typical of the troubles with which aviators had to contend in the early days were Grahame-White’s experiences when his monoplane arrived at Pau from Paris in a large and bulky packing-case. The arrangements at the Pau railway station for unloading were crude and inadequate. There was no crane powerful enough to lift the case, and it was necessary to knock the case to pieces on the railway truck and to collect an army of helpers to assist in lifting the monoplane off the truck.

During this operation disaster occurred. The machine, when it was half off and half on the truck, overbalanced and fell to the ground, because of the difficulty that Grahame-White had experienced in getting the men to carry out his instructions quickly and accurately. A great deal of the woodwork was broken and a considerable amount of the light steelwork was twisted and strained. As soon as the machine had been repaired, Bleriot—true to a promise he had made—arrived at Pau to make a trial flight with Grahame-White in the monoplane. The flight was certainly adventurous.

Bleriot took his place in the driving seat. Then Grahame-White got in beside him and the machine took off. Soon afterwards they were a hundred feet in the air. At the farther end of the flying ground, which was oval in shape, they had to make a sharp turn to avoid a large wood which skirted the whole length of the ground. In trying to make this turn, Bleriot found that the monoplane was not answering to its rudder satisfactorily. This rudder was found, afterwards, not to be large-enough.

Record Flight with a Passenger

As they were now rapidly approaching the wood, Bleriot decided that they must land quickly before reaching it. There was insufficient space left, however, and Bleriot had to bring the monoplane down in a dive. They hit the ground within a few feet of the hedge which skirted the wood. The landing was made so abruptly, and with such force, that the machine was damaged badly, but Bleriot and Grahame-White escaped without injury. Grahame-White was much disappointed at this new disaster, but he telegraphed immediately to Paris for spare parts and for mechanics to come down to Pau and repair the machine. After about ten days it was ready again for the air, with a larger rudder and all defects eliminated. Bleriot, with Grahame-White again as his passenger, then took the monoplane up and made what was then a world record flight with a passenger. He flew about twenty miles at a speed of about sixty miles an hour.

Soon after this Grahame-White took steps to obtain an official certificate of proficiency as an aeroplane pilot. He was the first Englishman to do so. Learning to fly was a real adventure in those days. Once, while near the ground, Grahame-White’s monoplane sideslipped and he found himself, a second or so later, lying in the bed of a shallow stream on the edge of the aerodrome.

Another time his engine stopped suddenly while he was over Pau. Streets, shops and houses lay below him; but he just cleared the roof of a house and made a forced landing in the garden.

MECHANICS HOLD THE TAIL of one of Grahame-White’s Bleriot monoplanes

MECHANICS HOLD THE TAIL of one of Grahame-White’s Bleriot monoplanes while he tests the engine before a flight. The first machine bought by Grahame-White was a Bleriot, and he worked with the firm as a mechanic during the construction of his machine. He thus learnt a great deal about the design and building of aircraft.

Directly he had become a certificated aviator, he decided to compete for the £10,000 prize for a flight from London to Manchester. For the purpose of this competition, he bought a Henri Farman biplane. His adventures are described in the chapter “The London-Manchester Race”.

Although Grahame-White was unsuccessful in this contest, he became none the less a great public hero in England. This was largely because of the sporting nature of his effort, because of the gallantry of the night flight he had made in an endeavour to overtake Louis Paulhan, and because he was the first to show that there was an Englishman who could enter into competition with a Frenchman in this new art of flying.

The immediate result of Grahame-White’s popularity was that his services were greatly in demand for flying displays, which he gave in London, at Ranelagh and at the Crystal Palace, in Yorkshire at Halifax, and elsewhere.

In the British flying meetings of 1910, Grahame-White flew with distinction and success. At Wolverhampton (Staffordshire) he won the first prize of £1,000 for the greatest aggregate of points. At Bournemouth he won the duration prize, for having flown more than ninety miles in under three hours. At the Blackpool (Lancashire) meeting he made a flight round the Blackpool Tower and demonstrated the possibilities of military dispatch-carrying by aeroplane.

Exhibition flights were given also at Penzance (Cornwall) and at Torquay (Devonshire), where Grahame-White made a flight round the royal yacht.

In August 1910 Grahame-White left England on his first American tour. At the Harvard-Boston meeting he won the first prize on aggregate points. He was the winner, also, of the contest round the Boston Light, having flown a distance of thirty-three miles in thirty-four minutes. Then followed an exhibition flight at Brockton (Massachusetts) in a storm of wind and rain, which Grahame-White made, at considerable personal risk, to avoid disappointing a crowd of more than 120,000 spectators.

After this, while giving displays at Bennings, near Washington, he flew one day over the city, gliding down without accident into Executive Avenue. There he left his machine while he paid a call on President Taft at the White House. Having returned to his machine, he succeeded in rising from the street, and in returning safely to the flying-ground at Bennings.

Gordon-Bennett Race Winner

At the Belmont Park Meeting, New York, which followed soon afterwards, Grahame-White, flying against such champions as Latham and Leblanc, won for Great Britain the Gordon-Bennett international aeroplane race- of 1910. His speed in a special 100 horsepower racing Bleriot was a little over sixty miles an hour.

Grahame-White had one thrill in that race that he is not likely to forget. While he was flying round the course at full speed, smoke began to pour back from the front of his machine and he could smell burning wood. To alight would have meant losing his chance; so he kept flying, expecting any minute that his racing monoplane might catch fire in the air. He found out afterwards that the heat of the engine, running at full throttle, had caused some adjacent woodwork to smoulder. Nothing caught fire, and Grahame-White completed the course to win the race. In recognition of the distinction he had conferred on British aviation by the winning of this great international prize, Grahame-White was presented with the Gold Medal of the Royal Aero Club. He received also, from the hands of Earl Roberts, the Gold Medal of the Aerial League of the British Empire.

At Belmont Park, in addition to his success in the Gordon-Bennett race, Grahame-White won the prize for a flight round the Statue of Liberty.

On his return to England, after his American tour, Grahame-White motored out one day to Hendon. Sitting in his car near the church he looked down over an expanse of ground which he decided to acquire. On this ground, soon afterwards, he established an aerodrome, which was to become famous for the Royal Air Force Displays (see the chapter “The Hendon Royal Air Force Pageant”).

CLAUDE GRAHAME-WHITE at the controls of one of his machines

AT THE CONTROLS of one of his earliest machines; Grahame-White’s activities in aviation first took the form of model building. But when Bleriot flew the English Channel in 1909, Grahame-White was so much impressed that he went to France to buy a machine from Bleriot at the first Rheims meeting, held in that year.

Grahame-White saw something more in aviation than sporting or spectacular flying. He was, from the first, keenly alive to its military significance. As soon as he had found himself in a position to do so, he organized at Hendon Aerodrome an event which was unique of its kind. This was a demonstration, which was carried out before Government Ministers. Members of Parliament and many military and naval experts, of the possibilities of the aeroplane in scouting, dispatch-carrying and bomb-dropping.

The demonstration took place one summer afternoon in 1911. One of Grahame-White’s feats that afternoon was to take up a number of dummy bombs with him and to drop these from his Farman biplane on to a target marked out on the aerodrome to represent the deck of a battleship. With bomb after bomb Grahame-White hit his target, but the officials did not take this lesson sufficiently to heart.

Soon afterwards, Grahame-White put before the Government a complete scheme for the creation of a volunteer air force. He also advocated, on every possible occasion, the spending of official funds on the creation of a properly-equipped Government flying corps. But when he was heard to declare that £1,000,000 should be found, immediately, for the establishment of a British air force, his proposal was regarded as fantastic.

At the beginning of the war of 1914-18 Grahame-White placed all the resources of his London aerodrome at the disposal of the authorities. He himself became a Flight Commander in the Royal Naval Air Service, and took part in one of the first bombing raids which were carried out on German positions on the Belgian coast.

While he was on this raid a snowstorm overtook him above mid-Channel. He was forced down into the water, but a patrol boat saw him and he was rescued.

In the early days of the war, in connexion with the air defence of London, Grahame-White made some of the first patrol flights by night over London. On one occasion he passed over Piccadilly in a Henri Farman biplane at a height of about 7,000 feet. This was before the night-lighting had been reduced. He was impressed by the spectacle of London, lying illuminated below him. Every main street and square was so defined by its rows of lights that it could be easily recognized.

First Air-Mail Experiment

Soon after this it became necessary to increase the production of aircraft. Grahame-White relinquished his piloting to devote his organizing abilities to the task of producing aeroplanes from his Hendon factory.

The Hendon factory grew rapidly. The demand was for more and more aeroplanes, and somehow or other that demand was met. At the same time the Grahame-White designers were busy with plans for new types of aircraft. The work of designing aircraft was carried on from the war years into the period immediately succeeding the Armistice. The Grahame-White establishment was one of the first, as soon as hostilities ceased, to prepare schemes for a number of aircraft, including a fast mail-carrying machine, a twin-engined touring type of “air-car” and a big multi-engined passenger-carrier.

Many of Grahame-White’s ideas for the operation of commercial air lines, and particularly for the carriage of mails in fast specially designed machines, were explained by him in a lecture he gave, just before the end of the war, before members of the Royal Aeronautical Society. It was particularly appropriate that he should concern himself in this direction, because it had been at the Blackpool Meeting of 1910 that he had carried out the first experiment in England in mail-carrying by aeroplane. He had flown with a small bag of letters for seven miles across country in a Bleriot monoplane (see the chapter “Advance of the Empire Air Mail”).


GRAHAME-WHITE IN A MONOPLANE closely resembling the one in which Bleriot flew the Channel. At the beginning of the war of 1914-18 Grahame-White did a considerable amount of flying, but later he gave up active piloting to concentrate his abilities on aircraft production.

The experiment of 1910 paved the way for a considerably more ambitious test, which was made in 1911, and for which the pilots and aeroplanes were provided by Grahame-White’s company. Those 1911 trials formed a part of the celebrations in connexion with the Coronation of King George V. Grahame White pilots and aircraft carried more than 100,000 letters and postcards between Hendon and Windsor. This was the first aerial experiment in mail-carrying to be sanctioned officially by the British Postmaster-General. Details of this experimental air service are given in the chapter “Advance of the Empire Air Mail”.

In referring to these successful mail-carrying experiments by aeroplane, Grahame-White predicted that the time would come when all mails would be carried by air as a matter of routine. He pointed out that it was the duty of the Post Office to send public correspondence by the fastest available means of transport. Such a prediction was, at that time, greeted with polite incredulity; but today Grahame-White has seen his prophecy come true in the great scheme for the carriage of first-class mail without surcharge on the Empire air routes (see the chapter “Air Mails of the Empire”).

There are two other directions in which Grahame-White must be regarded as a great pioneer. One of these is in long-distance ocean flying. The other is in the noteworthy development of aviation in its popular aspects from the point of view of the light aeroplane club. Before the war Grahame-White had given serious attention to the problems involved in making a non-stop flight across the North Atlantic. In consultation with his technical department, he made plans for a multi-engined seaplane type of aircraft which embodied many of the features to be seen in long-range aircraft today. But before this machine could get farther than the drawing-board stage, the war broke out and the scheme had to be abandoned under the pressure of more urgent work.

Early Light Aeroplane Clubs

In the development, of small, low-powered types of aircraft, and in the encouragement of light aeroplane clubs, Grahame-White was kept busy. He worked out designs for essentially popular types of light aircraft; but in that period there were many difficulties to be encountered. One of these difficulties was that of obtaining a suitable power plant.

Immediately after the war Grahame-White resumed his encouragement of popular flying. At Hendon he established a flying club which was the first of its kind. Moreover, in founding this club, he paved the way for all later developments in this direction. Grahame-White has seen the realization of dreams for the conquest of the air. He has not only played a vital part in it himself, but has known personally all the other great pioneers.

One of the developments he has always advocated has been the adoption of an engine-room inside the fuselage of large aircraft, rather than the placing of engines out on the wings. One of the advantages of the central engine-room is that mechanics would be able to carry out running repairs while a big machine was in flight, cutting out any particular unit temporarily and overhauling it, while the other engines were speeded up somewhat to maintain the aircraft in normal flight. Here, however, designers have to devise suitable means for transferring power through gearing from an engine-room to airscrews out on the wings. During certain phases of design, such problems may be apt to appear serious; but the story of air progress shows that they are generally overcome.

One development suggested by Grahame-White long ago is the “flying wing”— a machine in which the fuselage becomes merged in one deep-section hollow wing. This “flying wing” contains passenger quarters, engine-room, pilot’s cabin and everything save the necessary external control-surfaces and the airscrews driving the craft.

Grahame-White is shown in the cockpit of a seaplane in which he flew from Paris to Putney

SEAPLANES AND OCEAN FLYING always had a particular interest for Grahame-White. Before the war he evolved a design for a multi-engined seaplane to cross the North Atlantic non-stop. The war, however, caused the project to be abandoned. In this photograph Grahame-White is shown in the cockpit of a seaplane in which he flew from Paris to Putney, London, where he alighted on the Thames.

You can read more on “Advance of the Empire Air Mail”, “The First Air Meeting at Rheims” and

“The London-Manchester Race” on this website.

Claude Grahame-White: A Leader of British Aviation