Rheims Air Show 1909

Indianapolis Motor Speedway Founder and President Carl Fisher may have been a Hoosier but he had a global perspective. He also harbored a great deal of patriotic enthusiasm. He was keenly aware of developments in Europe, developments he felt threatened the gorwth of nascent American industries and the economy of the United States. He cast a wary eye on Brooklands, the new concrete-paved closed circuit race track in England, as well as the leadership of France in both automotive and aeronautic design.
Fisher saw the Speedway as first a race track but also a multi-purpose facility. This was especially so with aeronautics. The first competitive event at the track was the 1909 National Championship Balloon Races and Fisher was in regular communication with the Wright Brothers. He had a fascination with emerging technology and especially how its products created business opportunity. This inevitably led to Fisher to plan for an aviation show.
His sense of urgency about this vision spiked when in August 1909 the first great aviation show was staged in Rheims, France - known as the Grande Semaine d'Aviation de la Champagne. This event became the gold standard for air shows for many years to come. Fisher and his co-founders immediately pressed forward with plans despite the huge setback they encountered in their tragic first auto race meet which was also held in August 1909. Five people, including two spectators, lost their lives in two big wrecks that happened on the first and then the last day of the three-day event. The names of the people who lost their lives appear below:

These articles report on the Rheims event and I include them on First Super Speedway for the reasons explained above. These developments have more than a tangential relationship with what went on at the track. They weighed heavily on the mind of Carl Fisher and probably the other founders as well. Fisher took his role in the world very seriously and saw the mission of the Speedway as a crucial ingredient to a successful America - helping automotive and aeronautical companies develop their products, and, in turn, grow successful businesses that helped countrymen prosper.
Attachment Rheims082409 contains an Indianapolis Star article from August 24, 1909 that focuses on the second day of the meet and the top honors won by American Glenn Curtiss and French Aviator M. (Louis) Paulham. Curtiss set a new speed record over the 6.2 mile course with a time of 8 minutes, 35.4 seconds. Paulman soared to the then amazing altitude of 56 kilometers although it is unclear from the article if this was a record.
Curtiss' feat was achieved just under the wire as time was expiring for competitors to take to the air. Earlier that day Louis Bleriot had clipped 16 seconds off Eugene Lefebvre's course record. Curtiss' success with the record made him one of the men to watch in the James Gordon Bennett Cup, the main event coming up that Saturday. The other interesting aspect of the day the article notes is Hubert Latham's flight with an aluminum propeller.
This article reports that hundreds of Americans had made the passage to France to witness the historic event. Among them were Mr. and Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt Jr.; Mr. and Mrs. George Gould; Mr. and Mrs. Nat Goodwin (actor); Actor William H. Crane and Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Kittredge of Cleveland.
Attachment Rheims082709 contains an article originally published in the Indianapolis Star August 27, 1909. This article reports on the third day of the air show and focuses on the accolades heaped on Frenchman Hubert Latham who established a world's record for distance covered in an airplane - 154.65 kilometers or 95.88 miles. This was 15 laps of the course and required 2 hours, 18 minutes and 9.6 seconds to complete. This meant he had an air speed of 43.47 MPH a record for the distance. For that moment in history Latham held almost all the speed, distance and flight duration records with the exception of Paulhan's record for flight duration and Curtiss' one lap speed record.
Much was made of the fact that Latham accomplished his feat in a monoplane (single wing airplane) as opposed to the conventional bi-plane design. Perhaps even more impressive he battled a windy rainstorm for over an hour. His altitude through much of the flight ranged between 150 and 300 feet. The article indicates that their was American pride in the Frenchman's achievement because his engine, called the Antoinette, was the product of American engineer Joseph Adams.
Curtiss staged flights during the day but set no records and his performance was seen as routine. Bleriot made his first appearance at the meet carrying a passenger. Leon Delagrange also made an appearance.
The article reports on how a representative of the Aero Club of Italy was on hand and recruiting the aviators to participate in their airshow at Brescia. This event was attended by one of the most influential authors of the 20th Century, Franz Kafka, who wrote about his experience in a short story titled, "The Aeroplanes at Brescia." The Italian aero club representative had a particular interest in Curtiss and successfully attracted him to take part.
The article also notes that the Unites States Navy was represented. Rear Admiral Raymond P. Rodgers attended and was accompanied by Commander F.L. Champin, the American naval attache at Paris. The early and most obvious applications for airplane technologies were military, especially spying and recognizance.
Bleriot created a scare - even terrified people - when he tired to "hot dog" a landing in front of a crowd of specators. He miscalculated with his imprecise controls to crash through a fence. Some of the people were struck by the plane or debris and were knocked to the ground. Amazingly no significant injuries were recorded. An interesting note is that Aviator Leon Delagrange was riding with Bleriot as a passenger. Neither pilot or passenger were seriously hurt.
The article includes a look at qualifiers for key events. These are listed below with the event name, pilot and the qualifying criteria.
Prix de la Champagne (for endurance measured in kilometers)

*Latham qualified two planes.
Prix de la Vitesse (three laps of the course for speed - presented as time)

The lap speed contest (presented as time)

Attachment Rhiems082809, containing an article originally published in the August 28, 1909 Indianapolis Star discusses the events of August 27 at the air show. The big event is referred to as the Grand Prix de la Champagne (referred to as such because champagne producers financially supported the events) for endurance in terms of distance. The winner was Englishman Henri Farman (also referred to as "Henry") who officially recorded 160 kilometers (111.78 miles) in three hours, four minutes and 56.4 seconds (3:4:56.4).
Farman's triumph was reportedly an upset as aficionados expected Hubert Latham to shine with his monoplane. Apparently Louis Paulham was the hot tip until he was "fouled" by Paul Tissandier's in morning warm-ups. The two must have made some contact, probably on the ground and Paulham's machine was damaged. Both Latham and Tissandier withdrew from the contest at 111 kilometers with mechanical problems. Other aviators had been forced out by a variety of technical issues and were gathered in a hollow soon dubbed "aeroplane graveyard."
Farman was the only pilot to run to the conclusion of the event at 7:30 PM. He actually continued in the air for 10 minutes after officials had packed their gear to head home for the evening. Enthusiastic spectators swarmed Farman's plane when he at last landed. He was helped out of his seat apparently exhausted. French Minister of Public Works Alexandre Millerand who would later serve his country as both president and prime minister was on hand to formally congratulate the winner.
"I did so," said Millerand, "not only for the wonderful achievement you have accomplished, but as a brave man and for the example you have set for others."
The Grand Prix de la Champagne purse was 100,000 francs ($19,310) divided into six prizes of 50,000; 25,000; 10,000 and three awards of 5,000, again, all in francs. The finishers behind Farman with their plane's fundamental design characteristic and distance covered in kilometers are covered in the article and appear below:

  • Latham, monoplane No. 29, 154K
  • Paulhan, Voisin biplane, 131K
  • Lambert, biplane, 116K
  • Latham, monoplane No. 13, 111K
  • Tissandier, biplane, 111K
  • de La Grange, monoplane, 50K
  • Bleriot, monoplane, 40K
  • Curtiss, biplane, 30K
  • Lefebvre, biplane, 21K

The article also summarizes Farman's elapsed time from lap six through 17. The article also notes that Cortlandt F. Bishop, president of the Aero Club of America, and Roger Wallace, president of the Aero Club of Great Britain were in attendance at the event.
Attachment Rheims082909 contains an extensive article published August 29, 1909 in the Indianapolis Star. It reports on the marquee event of the multi-day air show, the August 28 competition for the James Gordon Bennett Cup won by American Glenn Curtiss.  It occurred to me that while an American never won - or was even competitive - in Bennett's original cup for automobile competition Curtiss claimed the trophy in its initial offering for airplane competition. The event was for the fastest time recorded over 20 kilometers or 12.42 miles which was two laps of the air course.
Curtiss covered the distance in 15 minutes, 50.6 seconds putting him 5.6 seconds faster than second place French aviator Bleriot. Bleriot became a legend only weeks earlier on July 25, 1911 when he became the first man to fly a heavier than air machine acorss the English Channel. Bleriot was reportedly disadvantaged by a hasty repair job to damage to his fastest plane that occurred in an accident earlier in the meet. At the advice of Brazilizn aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont Bleriot tried two different propellor configurations - one with two blades another with four - before settling on a four blade configuration.
Curtiss had assessed weather conditions and decided to stage his official run during morning hours. Shortly after 10 AM he staged a one lap trial run and set a new world's speed record for 10 kilometers at seven minutes, 55.2 seconds. The article does an excellent job of describing the skill Curtiss put on display as he banked his craft in the turns and gently built altitude so he could call on the forces of gravity by swooping downward toward the finish line. On this second of the two laps during his official run he broke his own record set just moments earlier with a lap time of seven minutes, 53.2 seconds.
It was not until nearly seven hours later when two French pilots, Bleriot and Latham, at nearly 5:30 PM mounted to the sky. Bleriot's first lap was nearly identical to Curtiss' initial tour but instead of gaining speed he slowed and the American was declared the winner. Interestingly, the French were great fans of the Wright Brothers and that affection apparently transferred to other Americans. Their enthusiasm for Curtiss' victory was quite strong and evidence that if a Frenchman could not previal their next favorite was an American pilot.
Curtiss enjoyed a hero's celebration. French officials played the Star Spangled Banner and the American Ambassador to France Henry White had Curtiss escorted to his private viewing box where the pilot was officially congratulated. Attending with White was the former First Lady Edith Roosevelt and her sons Quentin (his name is misspelled in the article) and Archie. Quentin Roosevelt was quoted as having said, "It was bully!" The comment drew laughter throughout the box. No one can know when Quentin developed an interest in flying but he was destined to perish over France as an American military pilot in  World War I.
Later White and Roosevelt family took a tour of Curtiss' "shed" where his plane and equipment were stored. Curtiss spent time with them answering their questions and explaining the workings of his aircraft. When talking with reporters Curtiss shared that the ride was not particularly smooth with choppy turbulence on the back of the course.
Despite the late hours other ascensions continued by Bleriot, Lefebvre, Delagrange and Bunau-Varilla. At dusk Berliot took a modicum of luster off Curtiss' day by breaking his world speed record with a lap at seven minutes, 47.8 seconds. Henri Farman also garnered some attention by carrying two passengers around the course in his mechancial bird. Delagrange narrowly diverted disaster when the propellor of his planed broke away from the drive shaft and he abruptly crashed to the ground. Fortunately he was only about 25 feet in the air and while he was badly bruised and shaken up he did not suffer broken bones or internal injuries. The frame of his plane undoubtedly absorbed much of the energy of the impact.
This attachment also contains sidebar articles to the August 29 piece obviously published in the paper the same day. There were four of these very brief items and they are reviewed here in order of their appearance following the conclusion of the primary article.

  • With a dateline of Berlin, August 28, there is a short report about Americans in the German city being invited to inspect a Wright Brothers plane being prepared for exhibiton flights at the Tempelhof parade grounds. Among the American guests were Ambassador to Germany David Jayne Hill and his wife Juliet Lewis Packer Hill; Third Secretary of the American Embassy Gustave Scholle and his wife; Mrs. Arthur Nevin and Mrs. Sutro.
  • Dateline New York, August 28 - Curtiss' success was big news in New York and civic leaders prepared for a hero's welcome. Curtiss was raised in New York state in the city of Hammondsport, in the middle of "vineyard country." This article notes his success setting motorcycle speed records at Ormond Beach. The story shares that Curtiss practiced with his biplane on in Mineola on Long Island and came to the conclusion to outfit the machine with a more powerful motor. The article also mentions Augustus M. Herring, Curtiss' partner in the Herring-Curtiss Company, an early aircraft company. Curtiss had already sold his practice plane to the Aeronautical Society and was flown by E. Foster Willard.
  • With a dateline of Paris, August 28 we find a prophetic story through the predictions of French Minister of Public Works Alexandre Millerand who shared his opinion that the world was entering a revolution in transportation and communication. He asserted that flying would rival transportation with automobiles and trains.
  • The final sidebar had a dateline of Corning, New York and reports that the Wright Brothers were suing Curtiss and the Herring-Curtiss Aeroplane Company. The claim was infringement of patented intellectual property.

Attachment Rheims083009 - published in the August 30, 1909 Indianapolis Star - contains an article about more success for Curtiss on the closing day of the airshow. For the first time the article mentions the name of Curtiss' plane, the "Golden Flier," as it reports on the pilot setting another world speed record in the Prix de la Vitesse conducted on August 29, 1909 over the Betheny Aviation Field.
The Prix de la Vitesse was a speed run for three laps of the 10 kilometer (6.21 miles) course. The contest came down to a battle between Curtiss and Latham after an accident by Bleriot. While making his first run in the Prix de la Vitesse the rudder on Bleriot's plane failed, spinning the plane throught three revolutions before crashing to Earth and bursting into flames. Amazingly, Bleriot suffered minor burns but no serious injuries. However, his plane destroyed, he was finished for the meet.
Both Curtiss and Latham made two trials for the trophy with Latham first out. The American started four minutes after the Frenchman and steadily gained on him. Latham then switched from his No. 29 plane to No. 13 and posted a time one minute, 14.1 seconds faster than Curtiss. Undaunted, a highly motivated Curtiss had another go and posted the best time of the event. The results presented by time in minutes and seconds in the article appear below:

  • Curtiss, 23:49.4
  • Latham (No. 29), 26:33.2
  • Tissandier, 28:59.2
  • Lefebvre, 29:0.0
  • Lambert, 29:02
  • Latham (No. 13), 29:11.4
  • Paulhan, 32:49.8
  • Bunau Varilla, 42:25.4
  • Sommer, 1:19:33

Despite Curtiss' best efforts Bleriot came away with the fastest lap of the meet with a time of seven minutes, 48.4 seconds. The purse for the Prix de la Vitesse was 20,000 francs, the equivalent of $4,000.
Latham exacted some satisfaction by topping the charts for another contest, the Prix de l'Altitude. He soared to a height of 155 meters or 490 feet. Second was Farman at 110 meters, Paulman third at 90 meters and Rougler fourth, 55 meters.
A passenger carrying contest called the "Prix des Passeagers" was also staged. This was won by Farman who did a lap of the course with two newspapermen at a time of 10:39. He took a single passenger, the Marquis de Polignac, and recorded a time of 9:52.8. Lefebvre carried Herbert Ward, the sculptor. There was also a speed competition for dirigibles called the Prix des Aeronauts.  It was won by Colonel Renard who toured the course five times or 50 kilometers at a time of 1:14:49.00.
As a result of the airshow Glenn Curtiss became an international celebrity. He was inundated with telegrams from everyone from his wife to complete strangers. Prominent organizations such as the Hudson-Fulton Celebration committee (note that the article in the attachment misspells "Hudson" as "Hurson") - a group organized to mark the 300th anniversary of the discovery of the Hudson River and the 100th anniversary of Robert Fulton’s first successful commercial application of the paddle steamer - reached out with congratulations. Officials and dignitaries of England, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Russia invited him to be their guests.

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