June 2009


Safer than Icarus' waxen wings



In the first quarter of the twentieth century, one British newspaper caught the public mood and fed its voracious appetite for the new sport of aviation. Between 1906 and 1925, the Daily Mail encouraged pioneers to push the boundaries of flight by offering substantial cash prizes for specific achievements to improve British airmanship and aeroplane construction. One of the most important of these celebrates its 90th anniversary this month while the centenary of another falls next month.


The first Daily Mail prize was offered in 1906 but was not won until 1910 when a French pilot rejoicing in the name Isidore Auguste Marie Louis Paulhan flew from London to Manchester within 24 hours and with no more than two landings en route. Paulan, who that year also became one of the first seaplane pilots, spent four hours and 12 minutes in the air during a journey which took 12 hours overall. His prize of £10,000 equates to more than £570,000 (over €630,000) in today’s money, illustrating the importance of the achievement and possibly the Mail’s presumption that it could never be won.


Punch magazine, incidentally, unimpressed by the Mail’s slick marketing gimmick, promptly offered its own prizes: £10,000 each for the first person to fly to Mars and back, for the first explorer to reach the centre of the earth in a fortnight and for the first athlete to swim the 3,200 miles (5,150 kilometres) from Fishguard in south Wales to Sandy Hook in Connecticut by the end of 1909.


In October 1908, the Daily Mail’s proprietor, Lord Northcliffe, offered a prize of £500 for the first successful flight across the English Channel. The conditions stated that it had to be made between sunrise and sunset in a heavier-than-air machine without the support of gas, and that no part of the aircraft could touch the sea during the journey.


Northcliffe was an avid supporter of aviation and the string of cash prizes which he offered through his newspaper were not only to promote sales of the paper but to highlight what he regarded as Britain’s lack of progress in the new science. His view was that the UK was well behind France and the USA in this respect and that aerial supremacy would be a deciding factor in the war with Germany which by then seemed inevitable. He also hoped that a British flier would pocket the cash, although that turned out not to be the case. However, by February, 1909, nobody had declared an interest in the prize so Northcliffe doubled it to £1,000.


Hubert Latham


The first attempt was made on Monday, July 19, 1909. Arthur Louis Hubert Latham, an aristocratic Englishman living in France, had seen some of Wilbur Wright’s demonstration flights at Le Mans and had decided to invest in flying. By early June, he had learned to fly and held the world time record for monoplane flight by staying aloft for a remarkable 67 minutes. His daring feats and dashing demeanour, plus a trademark checked cap and cigarette, made him one of the most eligible bachelors in Europe.


He was chosen for the channel attempt, flying an Antoinette aircraft developed by Léon Levavasseur, the engineer who designed the world’s first patented V-8 petrol engine. The Antoinette, although difficult to fly, was designed to combine agility with strength and artistic flair. One reporter described its flight like that of, “a giant dragonfly skimming with iridescent wings through the summer air”. The aircraft was dismantled at Levavasseur’s Paris factory and taken by rail to Calais, and then by horse and cart to Sangatte where it arrived on July 11.


However, the weather was not favourable for several days and the team was forced to wait in frustration, most kicking their heels in modest local accommodation while Hubert Latham stayed at the finest hotel in Calais. With them, ready to witness the historic flight, was Daily Mail reporter Harry Harper who had arranged to receive weather reports from Dover by wireless, so creating another first for science.

On the morning of the 19th, all seemed set fair so the Antoinette was taken 2.5 kilometres overland from Sangatte to Cap Blanc Nez from where Latham took off at 6.30am. A French torpedo destroyer was standing by to rescue Latham if he had to ditch, but not seeing him and fearing he had already come down closer to shore, she began to head back to port – only to be passed by Latham aboard the Antoinette travelling in the opposite direction, a remarkable 1,000 feet above them.


The vessel turned round but the flight had already ended with engine failure forcing the aircraft down just 10 kilometres short of Dover. Latham was able to land horizontally on the surface where the Antoinette floated and where, in Latham’s own words, “I swung my feet up onto a cross bar to prevent them from getting wet. Then I took out my cigarette case, lit a cigarette, and waited for the torpedo destroyer to come up. There was nothing else to be done.”


Watching Latham’s attempts to win the prize was a French engineer who had already made his fortune by inventing car headlights and establishing a successful business manufacturing them. Now, three weeks after his 37th birthday, Louis Blériot was about to make history after spending the previous nine years building, testing and crashing several of his own designs. The Blériot XI was the model chosen for the prize attempt, even though it had never previously flown for more than 20 minutes, which would take it only about half way across the channel.


While the Latham team was preparing for another attempt, Blériot suddenly took off at 4.41am on July 25, 1909, despite suffering a badly burned foot after a fuel line ruptured during a trial run in his Blériot VII aircraft. He throttled the engine up to 1,200 revs to gain enough height to clear telegraph wires at the end of the runway then cruised at about 75 metres travelling at 65 kilometres per hour.


The Latham crew did not realise that Blériot was not simply making another test flight until it was too late. He had gone, and despite the weather closing in and strong winds blowing him off course, he landed, albeit heavily, in Northfield Meadow near Dover at 5.17am, having covered the 36.6 kilometres in under 37 minutes and taken the £1,000 prize. Latham, undeterred, made a second attempt two days later and again was forced to ditch with engine trouble, this time just 2.5 kilometres from British soil. Despite that, he became a national French hero of the time, although his exploits are all but forgotten exactly a century later.

In the following years, the Daily Mail continued to offer cash prizes for aviation advancement until on April 1, 1913, they announced the big challenge: £10,000 (£360,000 or over €400,000 in today’s terms) to “the aviator who shall first cross the Atlantic in an aerop’ane (sic) in flight from any point in the United


Louis Blériot

States, Canada, or Newfoundland to any point in Great Britain or Ireland, in 72 consecutive hours. The flight may be made either way across the Atlantic.” Only one entry had been received before the outbreak of The Great War forced the suspension of the competition.


When the contest was relaunched in 1918 after four years of hostilities and wartime aircraft development, some of the rules had changed. “Ocean stoppages” were now ruled out as were “machines of enemy origin”.


Interest was intense and first away on May 18, 1919, was Harry Hawker and navigator Kenneth Mackenzie Grieve who left Newfoundland in a Sopwith biplane but came down after fourteen and a half hours with engine trouble. They were picked up by a Danish freighter and awarded a £5,000 consolation prize by the Mail. Hawker later co-founded the firm bearing his name which went on to produce a series of successful military aircraft including the Hurricane, Hunter and Harrier.


Then, on May 27, 1919, Lt. Commander Albert C. Read of the US Navy became the first person ever to fly across the Atlantic when he touched down an NC-4 flying boat in Lisbon, 23 days and five stops after leaving Rockaway Beach on Long Island.


Alcock and Brown


Finally, at 1.45pm on Saturday, June 14, 1919, the aircraft which was to win the Daily Mail prize lifted off from Lester’s Field in St John’s, Newfoundland. The pilot was an English RAF officer from Manchester, John Alcock, and his navigator was Arthur Whitten Brown, a Scottish-born American engineer who was also brought up in Manchester. They flew a wartime Vickers Vimy bomber, specially converted for the attempt, which is now displayed in the London Science Museum.


Their journey was hazardous. Brown had to climb out onto the wings four times to remove ice from the engine’s air intakes while the cockpit filled with rain, hail and snow. For a time they flew blind through fog, then an exhaust pipe split and naked flames melted the metal sending white-hot drops onto the controls. Even the batteries which heated their flying suits ran out and they froze. For comfort, they had only a few sandwiches, made by Miss Agnes Dooley at St John’s, plus some whisky, a bottle of beer and some coffee.


As they approached Connemara on Ireland’s west coast, the men searched for somewhere to land and identified a suitable green field. It was only as they reached the ground at 8.40am on June 15, 1909, they realised that they had come down in a bog. The aircraft’s nose immediately ploughed its nose intro the soft ground of Derrygimlagh Moor near the town of Clifden, leaving Alcock and Brown suspended by their safety belts. When local people ran up to rescue them and asked where they had come from, the pair replied, “America” – and the crowd broke into laughter.


The aircraft was seriously damaged but neither of the triumphant aviators was injured after completing

the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean. They covered the 3,187 kilometres in 16 hours 27 minutes at an average speed of 185 kph and at heights of up to 3,700 metres, although at one point they found themselves less than 20 metres above the water.


The pair received their £10,000 prize from Winston Churchill and immediately gave a share of it to the mechanics who had worked with them. A few days later, during an audience with King George V, each received a Knighthood.


In 20 years, the Daily Mail gave away £49,130 in 16 competitions which, along with the impetus of wartime, are credited with advancing the course of aviation in the early 20th century. When the first contest launched in 1906, the Mail wrote prophetically that it would, “prove that aviation is an accomplished fact, and that the modern aeronaut has discovered safer appliances than Icarus’s waxen wings”.