Doncaster is a modest size industrial settlement in the north of England, known outside the locality mainly for its racecourse and a lower-league football team. But 108 years ago, the eyes of the world were focussed on the town, when the first ever air races held in Britain took place.
With £5,000 sponsorship from Doncaster Town Council and the organising expertise of Frantz Reichel, the sporting editor of the French newspaper “Le Figaro”, prizes for the event included the Doncaster Cup for the pilot flying the longest total distance, the Great Northern Railway Cup for the greatest distance flown, the Doncaster Tradesmen Cup for the longest time in the air, the Chairman’s cup for the highest speed over two laps and other cups for height, passenger-carrying, the best cross country journey, and the best flight by a British aviator. Cash prizes were also given.
There was poor weather on the opening day of the meeting, with no flying. The only notable event being the structural failure of Captain Walter Windham’s monoplane, which collapsed when it was caught by a gust of wind and the fuselage couldn’t stand the weight of the pilot. Day two saw the first real action, with aviators Le Blon, Cody, Sommer and Delagrange making some test flights. In the morning Samuel Cody suffered a mishap when he took evasive action to avoid a pylon and landed his aircraft nose down. He was thrown out, but escaped with only cuts and bruises. Leon Delagrange flew out to the scene of the incident and performed the world’s first ever airborne rescue operation. Later in the day there were some significant flights made by the French pilots in their Bleriots, and another crash, this time Louis Schreck seriously damaging his Wright aircraft after a very unstable 100 metre flight.
The following day was Sunday and a day of rest. Then on the Monday, Hubert Le Blon won the Bradford Cup for the fastest ten laps (20min 22sec). He bravely continued in poor weather for a further five laps, but stopped because of the physical pain of the rain hitting him. Captain Windham had another go at taking off, having repaired his plane, but to his great embarrassment it collapsed again when he hit a vehicle while taxying. Tuesday’s principal action saw the intrepid Le Blon make the longest flight of 22.4km in strong winds which saw him blown far off course, over the heads of spectators. Wednesday, another windy day, saw only limited flying and the first appearance of a competitor for whom the description “aviator” was a misnomer. Edward Mines produced his own designed biplane, but to nobody’s surprise it failed to take off. The next three days saw no flying at all because of the bad weather.
The meeting resumed the following Monday. Leon Delagrange won the Nicholson Cup, Roger Sommer took a very brave / stupid passenger for a ride, returning unharmed, then the heroic Hubert Le Blon performing an exhibition flight was again blown off course, this time crashing in front of one of the viewing stands. He wasn’t hurt, and neither were any of the spectators, although some had their hats blown off. The aircraft had a damaged propeller and landing gear however.
On the final day, Roger Sommer won the Chairman’s Cup before Leon Delagrange in his Gnome-engined aircraft set what was claimed to be a world speed record of 49.9 mph (80.3 kph). Sommer then took the final prize for the greatest distance in the air. He flew for 44min 53sec over 20 laps before being forced down because he couldn’t stand the cold.
More than 160,000 people turned up to watch this event, many seeing history being made, others seeing nothing but wind and rain. But as comical as some of the antics of these early pilots may seem to us now, they were brave men without the likes of whom there would be no aviation business today. Some things don’t change though - a century on, the weather in Doncaster is no better now than it was then.