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Hubert Latham in his Antoinette plane at Reims

Hubert Latham won prizes for altitude and distance in his Antoinette airplane at the Reims Air Meet in August 1909.

Breguet wreck at Reims

The wreck of Louis Breguet's plane at the Reims Air Meet, August 1909.

Wright plane in air at Reims

This photo shows one of the six planes at the Reims Air Meet that were Wright-type biplanes.

Four planes in air at same time at Reims

Four planes were in the air at the same time in this photo from the Reims Air Meet in August 1909.

Bleriot's accident at Reims

Louis Bleriot's accident at Reims, August 1909.

Eugene Lefebvre in plane at Reims

Eugene Lefebvre, chief pilot for the French Wright Company in 1909-10, was considered the first stunt pilot. He placed second in the speed contest in Reims in 1909, losing to Glenn Curtiss.

Reims Air Meet

From August 22 to August 29, 1909, 22 of the world's leading aviators met at a racetrack on the Betheny Plain outside Reims, France, to compete in the first organized international air meet. Officially known as Le Grande Semaine D'Aviation de la Champagne (The Champagne Region's Great Aviation Week), the Reims Air Meet featured many prestigious contests, including those for the best flights of distance, altitude, and speed. Lucrative cash prizes and impressive trophies enticed the competitors to set new records in nearly every category. As the first competition of its kind, the meet attracted the attention of numerous political and military leaders as well as the public at large. Spectators who watched the various contests throughout the week experienced a wide range of emotions from sheer exuberance when their heroes won, to utter horror when their favorites crashed. In short, the Reims Air Show almost exclusively established aerial competitions as a leading form of entertainment in the early 20th century.

Local French vintners and Reims city officials founded the Reims Air Meet in the spring of 1909 when they agreed to raise prize money and sponsor the air show. In July, one month before the meet, French aviator Louis Bleriot had become the first person to fly across the English Channel, and thanks to the newspaper coverage he received, public interest in aviation was running high. Because of Bleriot's feat, the organizers of the Reims meet were expecting a large turnout at their event. To accommodate the anticipated crowds, they transformed Betheny into a massive aerodrome (the former term for airport) and a mini city. They built barber and beauty shops, telephone and telegraph offices, and a huge grandstand complete with a 600-seat restaurant that overlooked the airfield. To keep people entertained between flights, they hired stilt-walkers and tightrope artists to perform.

Twenty-two aviators came to Reims to compete. All of them, save two, were Frenchmen. Some of the better-known French pilots included Bleriot, Hubert Latham (a rival of Bleriot who had also had been competing to be the first person to fly across the English Channel), Henri Farman, and Eugene Lefebvre. George Cockburn, a Scot, and Glenn Curtiss, an American, were the only foreign competitors. Although most of the pilots were experienced, there were also a few rookies. One was Monsieur Ruchonnet, who had flown his first airplane only two days before the meet. Another was a youngster named Etienne Bunau-Varilla, who had also been flying only a very short time; his plane was a recent high school graduation gift from his father.

Several aviators emerged as crowd favorites during the week at Reims. Farman thrilled his fellow citizens by winning the distance contest, the richest cash prize of the meet at 50,000 francs or approximately $10,000. He captured the event by covering 180 kilometers (112 miles) in a plane of his own design in 3 hours, 4 minutes, and 56 seconds. Then, in a different competition, he won the Prix des Passengers for carrying two spectators a total of six miles in ten minutes. All told, Farman collected 63,000 francs, or more than $12,000, in prizes during the week and became the meet's biggest money winner. Latham and Lefebvre also commanded the attention and respect of the crowd. Latham, who was already on people's minds because of his recent crash while trying to cross the English Channel, won the altitude prize by guiding his plane to a height of 155 meters or 508.5 feet. Lefebvre, on the other hand, put on a daring display of aerial acrobatics and quickly gained a reputation as a daredevil. For many spectators, such feats often deserved more than mere applause and cheers. When Latham won the altitude prize, two women rushed the airfield, jumped onto him, and frantically smothered him with kisses. At another point, after one of Farman's record setting displays, the crowd tore down the grandstand's handrails so that they could greet Farman and tow his plane back to his hanger.

The Gordon Bennett Cup Race, or speed contest as it was commonly known, was the most important event of the Reims Air Meet, or at least the one that everyone wanted to see. Despite its comparatively meager prize money of 25,000 francs or approximately $5,000, most spectators considered it the premier event of the week because of their growing interest in speed. American James Gordon Bennett, the famous publisher of The New York Herald newspaper and a longtime fan and sponsor of various speed contests, lent his name to the race by putting up the prize money and offering a trophy. Bleriot, Europe's most celebrated aviator, was favored to win, but as Glenn Curtiss, the lone American and a celebrated pilot in his own right, would make clear, the Frenchman was going to have to fight for the cup.

Early in the summer of 1909, Curtiss, determined to put together a plane that could beat Bleriot in the speed race, began working day and night on a new engine. He knew the Frenchman was building a special monoplane for the competition with an eight-cylinder, 80-horsepower (60-kilowatt) motor. Curtiss, on the other hand, was designing a biplane with a 50-horsepower (37-kilowatt), eight-cylinder engine; essentially, he was going to be using a new motor in a stripped down version of his Golden Flyer, a plane with which he had recently won the Scientific American Trophy. Although Bleriot would have the more powerful engine, Curtiss still believed that he stood a fighting chance.

By Saturday, August 28, the day of the speed race, the field of competitors had narrowed considerably due to several crashes. At one point during the week, there had been at least a dozen disabled or wrecked planes on the field. Curtiss, fearing just such a disaster, had refused to enter his plane, called the Reims Racer, in any other contests besides the Gordon Bennett Cup. All told, because of the high attrition rate, only five pilots stood ready to race for the cup--Curtiss, Bleriot, Latham, Lefebvre, and Cockburn. Curtiss was the first to fly the two laps around the 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) course. He averaged 46.5 miles per hour (75 kilometers per hour) and established the benchmark time of 15 minutes, 50 seconds. Then Latham, Lefebvre and Cockburn each tried to beat his mark, but they could not. It was up to Bleriot, the last person to fly. On his first lap, Bleriot led Curtiss by four seconds and was averaging 47.75 miles per hour (almost 77 kilometers per hour). But on his second lap, he slowed considerably, and when he crossed the finish line, Curtiss's time was still the fastest by six seconds. At first the French crowd was stunned by Bleriot's loss, but they eventually started cheering for Curtiss and proclaimed him the new "Champion Aviator of the World." As anticipated, the speed race had been the highlight of the week.

Between 300,000 and 500,000 spectators witnessed the races and contests during the week. Of the 38 planes originally registered to compete, only23 went aloft, and of those, 15 were biplanes and eight were monoplanes. In all, the pilots completed 87 flights during the competition. For most of the people who attended the event, the Reims Air Meet showed that aviation competitions were a tremendously exciting form of entertainment. As one spectator, David Lloyd George, the future prime minister of Great Britain, noted, the meet also proved that "flying machines are no longer toys and dreams…they are an established fact." For those who had any doubts about the future of aviation, the Reims Air Show not only legitimized the importance and significance of flight, but also set the standard by which people would measure all future air meets.

--David H. Onkst

Sources and further reading:

Baker, David. Flight and Flying: A Chronology. New York: Facts on File, 1994.

Casey, Louis S. Curtiss: The Hammondsport Era, 1907-1915. New York: Crown Publisher, Inc., 1981.

Friedlander, Jr., Mark P. and Gene Gurney. Higher, Faster, and Farther. New York: William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1973.

Gibbs-Smith, Charles Harvard. Aviation: An Historical Survey from its Origins to the end of World War II. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1970.

Harris, Sherwood. The First to Fly: Aviation's Pioneer Days. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970.

Jablonski, Edward. Man with Wings: A Pictorial History of Aviation. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1980.

Johnston, S. Paul. Horizons Unlimited: A Graphic History of Aviation. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1941.

Miller, Francis Trevelyan. The World in the Air: The Story of Flying in Pictures. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons. 1930.

Prendergast, Curtis. The First Aviators. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1980.

Whitehouse, Arch. The Early Birds: The Wonders and Heroics of the First Decades of Flight. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1965

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International Technology Education Association

Standard 4

Students will develop an understanding of the economic and political effects of technology.

International Technology Education Association

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Students will develop an understanding of the attributes of design.