In Paris on Nov. 12, 1906 a Brazilian gentleman named Alberto Santos-Dumont took off in a huge box kite mounted on bicycle wheels, flew 15 feet into the air and then traversed the stupendous distance of 722 feet. "England is no longer an island," intoned Lord Northcliffe, owner of the mass-circulation London Daily Mail.
Several days later the Mail announced that it would further "aeroplane aviation" by paying ¬£10,000 to the first man to drive a flying machine from within five miles of the paper's London office to within rive miles of its Manchester bureau, 183 miles away, in less than 24 hours, stopping no more than twice for fuel.
Three years later Louis Blériot made his now famous flight across the English Channel, and Northcliffe gave him a special award of ¬£1,000, but the press baron's earlier offer was not taken up until April of 1910, when Motorist Claude Grahame-White declared in a letter to the Royal Aero Club in London his intention to fly his Farman biplane to Manchester that month.
Northcliffe was delighted. His award to Louis Blériot had netted large circulation dividends. The possibility of a British pilot winning a much greater prize for a much greater feat could only do proportionately greater things for the Mail. His lordship may also have felt that his money would stay in the bank, for 31-year-old Claude Grahame-White was no veteran aviator.
March 15, 1971
Only a year earlier Claude had gone to France to train in the Blériot workshops. One day he had roped a flying machine to a tree, started its engine, climbed aboard and signaled to a friend to cut him loose, thus making his maiden flight.
Properly licensed, Claude first bought a biplane from Henri Farman to open his own flying school in France, then decided to return home to build the first all-British flying machine. To show the skeptical Farman that he was capable of a long-distance flight, Claude took his own mother up in his biplane and remained aloft for more than an hour. Farman was very impressed.
Fleet Street liked Claude Grahame-White's charm and nerve, and the fact that he was British. The newspapers praised his plan to have 100 yards of main-line railroad ties whitewashed at each place along the route where tracks branched off, to point him to Manchester. They reported approvingly that fast cars would accompany him, that cars would also be stationed at his undisclosed stopping places, carrying not only mechanics and flying-machine fuel and oil but propellers, wires, stays, landing skids and other replacements for the parts he would almost certainly smash each time he landed.
"I shall not start," he told reporters, "unless the weather is favorable....
"Wind? Well, it must not be high or gusty. A quiet breeze I do not mind, particularly should it be from the southeast.
"Would a rainstorm bring me back to earth? No. But if rain began to fall persistently, it might get in my eyes and prevent my seeing my way."
Claude would have to set out very soon. A man the newspapers called "the Russian flying genius Efimoff" intended to try for the prize, and the thrill-seeking aperitif manufacturer, Emile Dubonnet, said he would fly his Tellier monoplane from London to Manchester. A second Frenchman, a 26-year-old onetime circus bareback rider and tightrope walker who had been breaking flying records in Europe and America for several years, Louis Paulhan, would soon reach England with a newer, faster Farman than Claude's.
At 4 o'clock on Saturday morning, April 23, 1910, wearing thick windproof woolen flying clothes he had designed for the day, Claude left his Kensington apartment. Ominously high winds had risen the night before, but London's early-morning air was now still.
Claude chain-smoked as his car rattled out toward Park Royal, the suburb where his flying machine waited, surrounded by autos, hansom cabs and 5,000 wildly cheering people. After kissing his mother and sister goodby and promising them not to fly too low, he buckled on his leather helmet, climbed onto the wooden chair on the front of his Farman's lower wing and fixed his route map to the footboard. At 5:18 a.m. he waved to Henri Farman to spin the propeller, and at 5:19 his mechanics let his machine lurch across the grass.
The Gnome engine roared evenly behind Claude's head as he worked the control levers, causing the ground to drop away. Then—panic. Would he find his way across London in the dawn mist?
He glanced left and breathed again. The Gas Light and Coke Company's 160-foot gas storage tank at Kensal Rise stood above the mist. He worked the levers to turn his flying machine toward the tall, fat cylinder. The mist was breaking now, and he could see people pouring into the streets to look up and cheer. All he could hear was his engine's roar, but he waved.
Now he saw Harold Perrin, the Royal Aero Club's secretary, perched on the tank's rim, dipping a white flag three times, officially signaling him on his way to Manchester.
Newspapers were already printing extra editions as Claude, 300 feet above London, wheeled back toward Willesden Junction to pick up his first set of white railroad ties.
Over the suburban towns of Harrow and Pinner, and on toward Watford. The railroad tracks disappeared into a tunnel before King's Langley. Would he pick them up again when they surfaced? His Farman carried no navigating instruments, and the icy wind was making his eyes water.
Stationmasters telegraphed his progress up the line, and at each station porters waved from the roofs of coaches. Rigid with cold, Claude waved back. Even though he sped along at a brisk 45 miles an hour, his automobile escort was still with him.
Twice more the train tracks disappeared into tunnels, but both times he managed to find them again. Then, over Bletchley, where the whitewashed ties kept him from branching off toward Oxford, he tasted acid in his throat and felt giddy. Air sickness. He hiccuped, gasped chilly air and took a hand from a lever to wave yet again at the faces below. He felt better and sipped from his brandy flask.
Near Rugby he circled and found the bed sheets marking his landing field. He'd been in the air an hour and 56 minutes and was nearly 100 miles from Manchester. The autos from London had actually beaten him to the field.
At 8:15, warmed by food and hot coffee, his engine overhauled and its three brass fuel tanks topped up, he took off for Crewe, just 34 miles from downtown Manchester.
Brisk side winds began to lift his Far-man. The winds stiffened, kiting him far off course; soon he would lose sight of the railroad tracks altogether. He was in the Leak Valley now, said to be England's windiest. Alone there. The autos had shot ahead, no doubt expecting him to catch up.
Below, a clear field. Better to land there than crash elsewhere. When the wind eased, he would take off again.
Altogether that day he had flown three hours and six minutes—a world record—and had less than 70 miles to go. The automobile escort took nearly an hour to find him—alone in the field, fighting wearily to keep the flying machine from blowing away.
His mechanics replaced a fractured landing skid and pronounced his machine fit for takeoff. But while they were having lunch it blew loose from its mooring. Now it would have to be shipped back to London to be rebuilt.
I have been beaten in what one might call the first round with the wind," Claude wrote in the next morning's Daily Mail, "and now we will wait to see the result of my second bout with the enemy."
All night gas flares lighted Claude and his mechanics as they worked on the Far-man in a cathedral-shaped "airship garage" at Wormwood Scrubs, London. Louis Paulhan, his face a vivid green from a particularly rough Channel crossing, had arrived in London, and Claude stopped work long enough to telegraph: STILL HOPE TO GET MY MACHINE REPAIRED AND READY FOR MAKING A SPORTING CONTEST WITH YOU.
By Wednesday, April 27, Claude's Farman had been reassembled. Its engine was checked, but the crowds and the turbulent winds prevented a flight test, so he sent most of his mechanics home, then went to a nearby hotel to sleep.
Shortly after 6 that evening frantic banging on his door awakened him. "Paulhan has started! He's well on the way, flying high!" An hour before, the Frenchman had sent word that he would take off at 5:10, but that message inexplicably hadn't arrived.
Paulhan was by now far northwest of London, at 600 feet racing the railway locomotive and caboose in which newspapermen and his mechanics sat amid cans of fuel and oil and flying machine parts. A special race edition of the Mail was already on the streets. The sun was setting.
Friends begged Claude not to fly till morning. "If Paulhan is ready to break his neck," he told them, "then I'm going to break mine, too!"
"Don't go!" a friend pleaded. "The wind is blowing too high!"
Claude was impatient to get away.
"Don't worry me!" he snapped. "Leave me alone. I'm going. That's all there is to be said."
When his Farman faced into the wind, someone suggested a flight test. Calmer now, Claude refused: "I'm afraid there's no time for that now." At 6:29 p.m., as he rode into the sky on a gust of wind, a mechanic came running from the airship garage yelling and waving the board with the flight map tacked on it.
Paulhan, a full hour and two minutes ahead, cupped a cigarette in his left hand while working a control lever with the right, singing lustily. By 8:10 he had flown 117 miles. Drenched by a 20-minute blinding rainstorm, his hands numb because he had forgotten his gloves in London, he still felt fine. He dodged a brewery's tall chimney to glide down softly in the darkness, having just used his last gas. Someone then drove him to a hotel in Lichfield where Madame Paulhan waited.
The sky now quite black, Claude, also rain-soaked, landed at Roade, only 60 miles northwest of London.
Paulhan ate his first full meal in 24 hours, and at 10 o'clock, asking to be awakened at 3, went to sleep.
Claude Grahame-White did not go to bed. Instead he asked friends to line their cars alongside the field and switch on their headlights. His mother begged him not to fly into the moonless black. "It's all right, ma'am," a police sergeant checking the crowd tried to console her. "It'll be light before long. He won't come to any harm."
As the propeller was about to be spun, Mrs. Grahame-White called out anxiously, "If you can't see, you will come down, won't you?"
Claude nodded. "Yes, darling, I will."
In the air at 2:45 a.m., he could recall no one in the entire history of aviation who had ever made a night flight. Then he looked around and wondered where he was. He worked the levers, racing the Farman higher, then began to circle. None of the lights below meant anything to him.
The engine suddenly died. He had no idea why. He didn't realize that his sleeve had caught on the ignition switch. The Farman dropped into a dive, and—as accidentally as before—he again tripped the ignition switch. The engine restarted. But where was he?
As promised, a friend had parked his car at a country pub, pointed it at a wall and switched on the leadlights. Now Claude dived toward that glare. When he was within 100 feet of it, the car trundled out onto the road. He then flew close behind the headlights for a mile until he saw a freight train heading for Rugby. He heeled away and kept with the train till daybreak.
Paulhan was still comfortably ahead—but also comfortably asleep in his hotel bedroom in Lichfield.
Claude passed Nuneaton, only 20 minutes behind the Frenchman. Then Atherstone, 15 minutes behind.
Someone at last awakened Louis Paulhan. Pausing only to borrow a pair of light gloves, he hurried to his aircraft. From the driving seat he gestured for the engine to be started, but a young woman ran out of the crowd to stand just in front of him. "He's coming now!" she shouted. "Grahame-White is nearly here! Wait and race! That is the thing to do! Wait and race!"
Paulhan shrugged. He did not understand English. The young woman stood her ground until someone told her that her own conduct was unsporting.
Airborne at last, Paulhan felt a following wind, forcing his speed up to 60 miles an hour. The Frenchman shot past his train, then missed a set of Grahame-White's markings on the railroad ties and had to double back as far as Crewe. No matter. He was still ahead of the Englishman.
Far ahead at Didsbury, just south of Manchester where both machines were to finish the race, crowds stared into the sky. No matter now which Farman won, a flying machine was actually going to arrive from London, having set out less than 12 hours earlier.
In the Trent Valley Claude felt the tail wind pushing him on. Then he felt his machine buck. It didn't respond properly to the levers. He looked back over his shoulder and saw that the previous night's rain had slackened the fabric on the elevators. The cloth now billowed like pillowcases on a wash line. Soon it would be ripped away. And so at 4:14 a.m. he landed in an open field where he waited alone, wrestling the near gale that was cruelly trying to snatch away his flying machine.
At quarter after 6 his mother arrived in a Daily Mail automobile. "Oh, Claude, you know how sorry I am!"
Understanding, he climbed onto the back seat of the car and shouted to the crowd, "Paulhan's got there! He's the greatest aviator the world has ever seen! I'm only a novice!"
Paulhan received the ¬£10,000, and a public subscription made Claude's flight financially worthwhile, too. The race did much more: it demonstrated to the entire world that "aeroplane aviation" would now have to be taken seriously. As a direct result, the Germans switched much of their military flying from dirigibles to heavier-than-air machines, and within 7½ years were to hit London from bombers bigger than any they used in World War II. The British and the French started their own air forces, and so did the U.S.
Lord Northcliffe offered ¬£10,000 for the first London-to-Paris flight, but aviation moved so swiftly after the Manchester race that this award went unclaimed. And so the frolic his lordship envisaged did not occur for more than half a century, and then in an entirely fictional movie, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.