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 riske