Updated: Aug 7, 2020
"Blackpool is a show place; and whether it be motor races or flying machine races, it will pay us to be right in the forefront, and to make a bid for the latest attraction, whatever it is"
In October 1909, Blackpool proudly hosted Britain's first official aviation meeting. The majority of people in Lancashire had never seen a 'flying machine' before and the spectacle of it all attracted tens of thousands of people to visit that week.
Blackpool had witnessed flight before 1909, but only by what are described as 'lighter than air' aircraft such as balloons and airships. One such spectacle took place in October 1902, when aviator Stanley Spencer tested his airship in Blackpool. Spencer had his airship on display for a number of days at the Hippodrome and gave lectures. He also flew over Blackpool and achieved a record distance flight to the outskirts of Preston. His flight to Preston was described in the Preston Herald,
'Monday's ascent is a record one. Mr Spencer has never travelled more than thirty miles in his airship, and no other aeronaut has as yet succeeded with his airship in approaching within measurable distance of that feat' - Preston Herald, 25th October 1902
Just over a year after Spencer's success in Blackpool, some big news came from across the pond. The Wright Brothers had achieved the first powered, sustained and controlled flight in an aeroplane. Aviation was changing and although 'lighter than air' aircraft continued to develop, the 'flying machine' or 'heavier than air' aircraft were starting to take off!
The Wright Brothers' achievement took place on the 17th December 1903, where they completed a number of flights at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, USA. Britain would not see this type of success until some years later, especially as the government continued to finance the development of 'lighter than air' options such as Samuel Franklin Cody's war-kites and dirigible balloon.
However, by 1908 Cody (who was a US citizen at this time, but later accepted British citizenship) was able to focus on the British Army Aeroplane No.1. After some initial trials, Cody would achieve the first official flight in Britain on the 16th October 1908 at Farnborough. The flight lasted 27 seconds and covered a distance of 1,390 feet, but unfortunately the flight ended with a crash.
Champagne Flying Week - Rheims August 1909
In Europe, the French had taken to 'heavier than air' aircraft much quicker than the British. However, even the French were surprised at how efficient the Wright Brothers' machines were when Wilbur Wright stayed in the air for around two hours on a visit to France in 1908. At that point, the European times were less than two minutes.
The French rallied to the challenge though and their progress increased rapidly. On the 25th July 1909, Louis Bleriot successfully completed a Channel crossing in his monoplane, making him the first person to do so. Then by August 1909, a competition week was organised at Rheims, which was promoted and financed by the champagne industry.
People were fascinated by the events at Rheims and many records were set during the week. The Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser summed up the event on the 30th August 1909 with their headlines,
'Men-Birds of Rheims, The Romance of Flying, Epoch-Making Achievements'
Although progress had been slow in Britain, Lord Northcliffe saw the potential in flying and had already begun offering prizes through the Daily Mail for pilots to complete various challenges, such as the Channel crossing. Northcliffe suggested that a flying week should be held in Britain to match the success of Rheims and the Blackpool Corporation took on that challenge.
The Mayor of Blackpool and other representatives made a visit to Rheims, which was reported widely in the British press. It was important for the contingent to entice the stars of Rheims to their event. Prize money would become crucial in this endeavour and with this in mind, a prize fund had already been set up.
The Corporation had settled on holding the event that October. Many would say that was a risky month for flying, but the contingent backed up their decision by showing people meteorological data of how the previous five Octobers had proved to be very favourable for flying.
Blackpool Aviation Week - October 1909
It would be a very quick turnaround from Rheims to Blackpool, but the Corporation were determined to succeed in creating Britain's first official air show.
Understandably, people were very excited. The event would see the first flights in Lancashire and for the majority of local people, it would be the first time they had ever seen a 'flying machine' before.
An example of this excitement was shown by two children (aged 8 and 10) who left Blackburn on foot for Blackpool. They did not tell anyone their intentions and had been reported missing, but they were obviously intent on seeing the flying. They were spotted in Wrea Green by a Policeman who after making his enquiries, realised what the children had done and sent them on their way home.
Alongside all of the excitement, the build up to the event presented some issues. Blackpool ended up in competition with Doncaster, who had also promised to put on an air show that same week. It was reported at the time in The Illustrated London News to be a 'New War of the Roses'.
Both towns had already spent considerable amounts on their events and would not back down. The Chairman of the Lancashire Aero Club urged Doncaster to postpone their meeting, but the Mayor of Doncaster replied,
"I feel sure that you cannot have realised the effect, both financially and otherwise, of your request at this late hour to postpone the Doncaster aviation meeting. Arrangements are practically completed, aviators are on the ground, and thousands of pounds are already invested in the undertaking." - Blackpool Herald, 15th October 1909
Doncaster began their event on the 15th October, a few days before Blackpool. However, even though they started earlier, the Aero Club did not give Doncaster their backing. Blackpool would be the first official aviation meeting and fliers competing at Doncaster risked a fall out with the Aero Club.
Despite this setback, Blackpool had attracted a number of professional fliers, many of which had been the stars at Rheims. The excitement was shown in the newspapers, with the Westminster Gazette (14th October 1909) advertising
'Blackpool Aviation Week. Holders of the World's Championships: Latham, Farman, Rougier, Paulhan, and other leading aviators are engaged to compete at Blackpool'.
There would be two types of fliers at Blackpool, the visiting professionals and the British amateurs. The professional fliers would compete for a number of prizes including distance, speed, height and the slowest circuit. The British competitors aimed for the amateur prizes (a Britain flying any make of machine or a Britain flying a British made machine).
Monday 18th October 1909 - Opening Day
The event was organised and set up in less than two months! Squires Gate was chosen as the location for the event and the organisers managed to construct a circuit, fencing, hangars and spectator stands very quickly.
After the gallant efforts of the town to organise this event, Blackpool was rewarded with good weather for the opening day and people flocked to Squires Gate to see the spectacle of flight.
It had been arranged for flags to fly at the top of Blackpool Tower to indicate to visitors the conditions for flying that day:
Black Flag = No flying
White Flag = Flying was probable
Red Flag = Flying imminent or in progress
The opening day was a red flag day, but the crowd had to wait until the afternoon to get their first glimpse of an aeroplane. That honour fell to A.V Roe, who was the first pilot to venture out with his triplane. A.V Roe would go on to become a very successful and well known name in aviation, but on this day in 1909 he failed to even get off the ground.
There were high hopes for the next pilot, as Henry Farman was one of the stars from the flying week in Rheims. He had set a number of records, including distance and carrying passengers. Unfortunately, Farman's Blackpool trip got off to a bad start, as his biplane had gone missing during transport. Luckily, another pilot (Louis Paulhan) had also brought a 'Farman machine' and allowed Farman to borrow it to compete.
Unsurprisingly, Farman would be the one to achieve the first flight at Blackpool,
'A roar went up round the huge course as he became visible all over the Aerodrome, flying with the grace of a bird, soaring, dropping, swerving. It looked as if flying was the simplest thing in the world' - Blackpool Herald, 19th October 1909
This first flight was brief, as Farman soon had to land to make adjustments. However, after he made his adjustments, he went back up into the air again and completed a full circuit of the course to the crowd's delight. Blackpool's Aviation Week had left the ground.
The next pilot out was Louis Paulhan, the pilot who had allowed Farman to borrow his aeroplane. Paulhan was also a very capable pilot, he was the first man to fly over 300 feet high and had also performed well at Rheims. His first flight at Blackpool was a success, as Paulhan become the first person to complete a full circuit of the course without stopping.
Both Farman and Paulhan would take their aeroplane up again later that afternoon to complete much longer flights. Farman would achieve a distance of 17 miles and 712 yards, an average speed of 45mph and stayed in the air for nearly 23 minutes. Paulhan also achieved the same distance, which was 7 laps of the circuit, but slightly slower.
The other successful pilot on the opening day of Aviation Week was Henri Rougier. He was another capable pilot, who had achieved the world record for height at Brescia just the month before Blackpool. On this opening day in Blackpool, Rougier demonstrated his abilities by completing 9 laps, which was a distance of 22 miles and 664 yards in just over 32 minutes.
The only other pilot that day to complete a circuit was Leblanc in a Bleriot monoplane. He completed 1 lap, very low to the ground. However, the crowds were pleased to see this aeroplane as it was very different to the biplanes that had been up before it. This monoplane was described by the Blackpool Herald as 'a huge dragon-fly but all white...the machine darted round the course like a swallow'.
Towards the end of the day, some of the crowd had managed to invade the enclosure, but whilst the Police were dealing with them, Farman and Paulhan decided to bring the day to a close with a demonstration of a passenger flight. They both mounted their aeroplane and completed a circuit together, which was certainly a special way to end the day.
It was clear that the people loved these 'flying machines' and after such a successful first day, the party moved into Blackpool that evening. In the newspaper the following day, the Blackpool Herald declared the opening day of the Aviation Week a 'prodigious and historic success'.
Tuesday - Paulhan Power
After such a successful first day, the Tuesday spectators had high expectations for the day ahead. The weather was fairly pleasant, but the wind had picked up a little compared to the Monday. Some pilots struggled to defeat the wind such as Hubert Latham in his monoplane, Rougier in his biplane and A.V. Roe in his triplane. However, later that day, despite a wind of 20mph, Paulhan took on the challenge.
Despite a tricky take off and constantly battling the wind, Paulhan managed to entertain the crowds by completing 8 laps of the circuit. The Blackpool Herald reported,
'It was amazing to watch Paulhan master his machine in the face of great difficulties...Lap after lap was reeled off, the biplane labouring like a ship in a storm-tossed sea' - Blackpool Herald, 22nd October 1909
Wednesday - Farman Goes Far...
Over the course of the Tuesday evening, there were heavy downpours. The showground was left with many pools of water in a variety of sizes and workmen had to lay down planks to create bridges over the worst parts. The Blackpool Herald reported,
'There were miniature lakes, hundreds of them, and as one facetious individual remarked, "They ought to have submarine races today, instead of aerial flights!" - Blackpool Herald, 22nd October 1909
Although flying seemed doubtful that Wednesday morning, the weather improved somewhat, which allowed for something special to happen.
Farman would be the one to dazzle the crowds that day by achieving a flight of 47 miles 1,184 yards. This was a record breaking distance in Britain. Farman stayed in the air for 1 hour and 32 minutes and said that he only came down as his arms and legs were tired!
Again, there were no successful British flights. It was noted in the Staffordshire Sentinel that,
'It is rather humiliating in the presence of all these Frenchmen-aviators, journalists, and visitors - to find that our own flying men are mostly making their first trials here. Such experiments are better conducted in private' - Staffordshire Sentinel, 21st October 1909
Thursday - Grounded
On the Thursday, it was clear that flying would be impossible and the black flag flew from Blackpool Tower. It was just too windy.
The organisers decided to help ease the disappointment of those visiting Blackpool that day, by offering an up close view of the machines. For one shilling, visitors were allowed to enter the hangars, which had not been allowed on the previous days.
That evening, there was a dinner party held, at which Hubert Latham promised (he made the promise to the Grand Duke Michael of Russia and his wife the Countess of Torby) that he would fly tomorrow no matter how bad the weather was.
This was a brave promise, as only the week before, Latham had been in an accident at Juvisy where his new monoplane suddenly fell to the ground from 35 feet and ended up smashed in two. Fortunately, Latham escaped the incident with only a few bruises and made it to Blackpool.
Friday - Heroic Flight
After a day of no flying on the Thursday, everything was crossed for flying to resume on the Friday.
At this point some people doubted the potential of flying, as it appeared that these machines would never be able to conquer the weather. However, as a man of his word, Latham rose to the challenge.
Despite the strong winds continuing on the Friday, Latham set off to conquer the skies in his monoplane. People were in disbelief that anyone would try to fly that day, but Latham surprised everyone with a successful flight.
'Latham saved Friday for Blackpool, and threw all superstition about the day to the winds by making a brilliantly successful flight of four or five miles in a gusty gale' - Blackpool Herald, 26th October 1909
For this flight, Latham received a prize of £300 for merit.
Saturday - British Weather
After the struggles of Thursday and Friday, the British weather continued by pouring down with rain on the Saturday. There would be no flying and the deluge had caused flooding across the grounds.
'After the gale of Thursday and Friday came the deluge of Saturday, and Blackpool's great Aviation Week closed amid scenes of flood and swamp' - Blackpool Herald, 26th October 1909
The only relief for the spectators visiting that day was to view the machines in their hangars. The Blackpool Herald explained how 'Excursionists found a good deal of satisfaction in gazing upon M. Latham's graceful monoplane. They would, at least, be able to say that they had seen the machine that had ridden the gale so nobly the day before' (Blackpool Herald, 26th October 1909).
Although some pilots would stay on and attempt some flying on the Monday, the official week was over. The Mayor of Blackpool invited the aviators, press and other delegates to a banquet at the Hotel Metropole on the Saturday evening. This marked an official end to the Aviation Week.
Prizes were handed out, in the form of a cheque to:
Farman - £2,400 (£2,000 was for the longest distance flown)
Rougier - £820
Paulhan - £530
Latham - £400
The gold medal of the Aero Club was presented to Farman and Latham 'the only others who hold this medal are Santos Dumont, the brothers Wright, and Bleriot'. (Jersey Independent and Daily Telegraph, 30th October 1909).
It is difficult to measure the success of Blackpool's Aviation Week. On one hand, it must be applauded how quickly the whole event was pulled together and that Blackpool attracted a number of well-known aviators. The first flight in Lancashire had been achieved, visitor numbers were high and the demand was such that a Flying Carnival took place the following year.
The attraction of Aviation Week even resulted in a funny incident in the town of Matlock where it was reported that,
'Blackpool aviation week was responsible at Matlock last night for the abandonment of a meeting of the District Council convened to consider the most important town scheme put forward within the last forty years...So many members had gone to Blackpool that a quorum could not be obtained' - Northern Daily Telegraph, 22nd October 1909
However, it cannot be ignored that only a handful of pilots actually completed a circuit at the event and that there were a couple of days where no flying took place at all. What started off with such promise on the opening Monday, turned into a typical battle with the British weather. Maybe October wasn't the best idea? But then again, when has the British weather ever been predictable?
Although, it must also be remembered how new this all was:
'The fact must not be forgotten that every time an aviator mounts his machine and rises into the air he takes his life in his hands, and also that, although aviation has come on by leaps and bounds in recent years, it is yet comparatively in its infancy, and the men are at the mercy of the elements' - Northern Daily Telegraph, 22nd October 1909
With this in mind, I think a few things can be forgiven. The first official air show had taken place in Britain. It was new, it was exciting and it was in Blackpool!
Written by Hayley, Heritage Assistant