the Reims Air races
and the Gordon Bennett Trophy

Bleriot's cross-Channel flight excited Europe as nothing else had.  The City of Reims and the French vintners of the Champagne region decided to sponsor a week of aviation exhibition and competition, putting up large purses in prize money, the most prestigious being the International Aviation Cup, known as the Gordon Bennett Trophy, after its sponsor, James Gordon Bennett, the flamboyant American publisher of the New York Herald and the Paris Herald.  The meet attracted the cream of European society, from royalty and generals to ambassadors and the merely wealthy, to the Betheny Plain outside Reims from August 22 to 29, 1909.  While there were to be many other such meets before and after World War 1, none would match Reims for grandeur and elegance or for sheer excitement. 

The major European manufacturers, all French, entered various events. There were 'planes by Bleriot, Voisin, Antoinette, and Farman, and even several French-built Wrights.  The Wrights themselves had passed on an invitation to race at Reims, which was awkward since the Gordon Bennett Trophy was crowned with a large replica of a Wright Flyer.  The Aero Club of America, which had sponsored the Scientific American trophy won by Curtiss a year earlier, turned to Curtiss.  Curtiss' June Bug was not as well developed a plane as the Wright machines (and possibly the Wrights were hoping to drive this point home if Curtiss failed at Reims) and while it was more maneuverable than the European planes, it was not nearly as fast. 

1909 Voisin

Curtiss worked feverishly to produce a more powerful engine and stripped down his airplane to give it greater speed.  The result was the Golden Flyer, which was a light version of his earlier planes and had a 50-horsepower water-cooled engine.  With virtually no time to test the engine or the airplane, Curtiss packed and was off to Reims.  When he arrived, he found that the accommoda­tions for the aviators set up by their manufacturers were as extravagant as those of the spectators.  Elaborate cooking facilities, decorated hangars, fully stocked machine shops, trunks brim­ming with clothing, spare parts and backup planes, and a retinue of mechanics and helpers, all floated on an ebullient sea of champagne pro­vided by the sponsors.  Curtiss' spartan approach was a simple tent, a single plane, and two scruffily dressed mechanics. So surprised were the French that he instantly became a favorite. 

A brief but heavy rain on the first day turned the field into a muddy plain that was to affect take-offs throughout the meet.  But there were so many aircraft, built by every major manufacturer and flown by every famous aviator, that the crowd was kept enthralled for the entire week.  The early winners included Farman, flying one of his own planes equipped with the newly designed Gnome rotary engine, just beating Latham (flying an Antoinette) and Louis Paulhan (flying a Voisin) for the endurance championship; Latham, who won the altitude championship handily; and Eugene Lefebvre, flying a Wright Model A, who had the best qualifying round for the Gordon Bennett Trophy.  Curtiss, aware that he had only one plane and precious few replacement parts, held back and worked on his aircraft in secret, trying to lighten it and squeeze out more power from the engine.  He knew that his plane was not as fast on the straightaway as the light, single-winged Bleriot XII, which was outfitted with a new 80-horsepower engine, but he had won many a motorcycle race on the turns with inferior machines.  

On the last day of the meet, the race was held for the Gordon Bennett Trophy.  It came down to a contest among Lefebvre, Latham, Bleriot, George Cockburn (a Scott flying a Farman plane), and Curtiss, now flying a machine he called the Rheims Racer, which was in fact a further stripped-down model of the Golden Flyer.  The course consisted of two six-mile (10km) circuits around tall towers, with each plane flying alone and timed.  Cockburn was the only entrant who failed to finish, his aircraft crashing into a haystack after a single lap.  The others thrilled the crowd with their sharp turns and with the drama of the race. During tests, Curtiss noticed that the field, drenched by the rains earlier in the week but now drying, had pockets of updrafts that tossed his lighter plane violently.  He guessed (blindly, but correctly) that these updrafts would increase the efficiency of his propellers and could help carry him forward and keep him steady on the turns.  He abruptly notified the judges that he was going to race (fearing the updrafts would wane as the day grew hotter) and took off.  His flight was a bumpy one as he bobbed up and down trying to catch the updrafts while keeping his plane under control and taking the sharp turns. It was an extraordinary feat of piloting, because when he landed, he had been timed at fifteen minutes and 50.4 seconds.  Lefebvre and Latham did not come close to that time, so French hopes rested with Bleriot, who decided to pilot his own plane, replacing Leon Delagrange, the lighter man who had flown Bleriot's planes throughout the meet.  Delagrange had not flown well and had nearly had a mid-air collision with Paulhan the day before.

Curtiss Reims Racer

During a test run, the powerful Bleriot XII had streaked straight across the sky and completed a lap ten seconds faster than Curtiss, who watched from the sidelines, anticipating a second-place finish.  But during the official run, Bleriot took the turn clumsily and swung wider than necessary.  He cruised to a perfect landing and the crowd, judging the French aviator's speed only on the straightaway, was certain he had won.  But his time was fifteen minutes and 56.2 seconds, 5.8 seconds longer than Curtiss.  Bleriot was left to wonder if his added weight was responsible for those extra 5.8 seconds, while Curtiss was hailed as "Champion Aviator of the World" in headlines from Paris to Dayton.

The Second Gordon Bennett Race

When Glenn Curtiss won the first Gordon Bennett Race, it became the duty of the USA to stage the second, which was soon scheduled as the feature of the first major air race in America, October 22-30 at Belmont Park, Long Island, New York.  By scheduling the meet so late in the year and on an island jutting into the Atlantic, cold and windy conditions were guaranteed.

The Gordon Bennett Race was for 20 laps around the 5-km./3.1-mi., pylon-marked course.  Claude Grahame-White, of England, set the pace in his new, modified  French 100 hp Bleriot XIbis monoplane, with a total time of 1:10:04.74 and a speed of   61.0 mph, which was a new world record for the distance.  Next to fly was Alfred LeBlanc, of France, in a stock Bleriot XI.  Each of his lap times was faster than Grahame-White’s, and all were much more consistent.  By the end of Lap 19, LeBlanc was leading by more than five minutes

Then, racing luck intervened when LeBlanc ran out of gas on the last lap.  While making a dead-stick landing, he smashed into a telegraph pole, demolishing his airplane, but escaping with minor injuries.  Almost an hour back in second place was American John Moissant, whose Bleriot XI averaged 33.7 mph.

The meet ended on a sour note as the rules for the race to the Statue of Liberty and back became embroiled in a dispute, and many of the pilots boycotted the awards banquet.  But it had demonstrated the rapid advances in airplane performance to the world.    

The Third Gordon Bennett Race

The race was held July at Eastchurch, England, and provided the closest finish in any race to date, along with the first race-modified airplane seen.  Gustave Hamel’s Bleriot had its wings severely clipped, with the major result being to reduce the effectiveness of his wing-warping roll control.  He failed to complete his first pylon turn, slamming into the ground and demolishing his airplane, while escaping with no serious injuries. 

The surprise winner was Charles Weymann, an American born in Haiti, whose clean 100 hp Nieuport completed the 25 laps of the 6-km./3.7-mi. course in 1:11:36.2 for an average of 78.11 mph.  Close behind was last year’s hard-luck pilot, Alfred LeBlanc, in a Bleriot, who was clocked in 1:13:40.2 for 75.91 mph.  Third was Edward Nieuport in one of his own airplanes in 1:14:37.2 and 74.98 mph.  

The formula for long-term success in air racing was taking shape: more horsepower and less aerodynamic drag.

The Fourth Gordon Bennett Race

The second Gordon Bennett Race to be held in America was on September 9 at Clearing, near what is now Chicago’s Midway Airport.  The race was for 30 laps of the 4.14-mile course.  A small crowd was on hand, due in part to the poor location, and to advance publicity which predicted a runaway win by the French. 

The great hope of the American Team was the “Defender”, which looked like an improved Bleriot.  When it wasn’t ready in time, only Paul Peck and his Columbia biplane remained, and they were stuck at the starting line with a flat tire.

The French completed the expected clean sweep.  First was Jules Vedrines, in a slick Deperdussin monoplane, in 1:01:51 for a record speed of 105.5 mph.  Maurice Prevost was second in an identical airplane, in 1:15:25 for 103.8 mph.  Andre Frey, flying a Hanriot monoplane, dropped out late in the race while averaging 94 mph.

Speed flying was fast becoming the preserve of the French, who held most of the important world records and trophies. 

The Gordon Bennett Race

Gordon Bennett Trophy

The race was held on September 29 at Reims, site of the historic first race in 1909.  Eight of the nine entries flew monoplanes, and only Henri Crombez, a Belgian, interrupted what would have been an all-French field after Great Britain, Germany and the USA had withdrawn. The race consisted of 20 laps of the 10-km./6.21-mi.) course for a total of 124 ¼ miles. 

The 14-cylinder, 160 hp Gnome-powered Deperdussins dominated a very close race, with Maurice Prevost winning at a record 124.78 mph to become the first to fly 200 km. in less than one hour.  Barely a minute behind him at the finish was Emile Vedrines, the brother of Jules, in a Ponnier at 122.53 mph.   Just as close behind him was Eugene Gilbert in a second Deperdussin at 118.51 mph.  Bringing up the rear was Crombez in a third Deperdussin, at 106.73 mph.  The superiority of this type of wonderfully streamlined monoplane was proven beyond question.    

The Sixth James Gordon Bennett Race 

It was held September 28, for three round trips of a 62-mile straight course between Etampes and Gidy, France.  There were starters from the USA, Great Britain and France.  Most interesting was the Dayton-Wright RB-1, a private, custom-built American racer featuring a flush canopy, fully retractable landing gear and a wing with both leading-edge and trailing-edge flaps. 

Four of the six pilots dropped out with mechanical trouble, though George Kirsch had a first lap at 178 mph.  The winner, at an average of 168.732 mph, was Sadi Lecointe, in a Nieuport 29V.  In second was Bernard de Romanet in a SPAD S.20bis; his average speed of 112.851 mph would have been much higher if not for a stop.  Howard Reinhart’s race in the RB-1 ended on lap 1 when his rudder cable broke. 

When the French won the trophy for the third time in a row, they retired it and the Gordon Bennett Race series ended.