The years from 1909 through 1939 were the most exciting in aviation history. This was partly because the art was so young and was growing so fast; but more particularly because the men involved in it, more or less by accident and with a good deal of luck, hit upon the most direct and effective method of cultivating it. The method was air racing.
During this 31-year period (with the exception of the war years) virtually every new development in aeronautics was first tried out on racing or record-breaking aircraft. The results were often immediate—sometimes triumphant, sometimes tragic—but it was by such means that aviation raised itself from the status of an intriguing novelty to the enormously elaborate science it is today. In 1946, after the tremendous strides made in the aeronautical sciences during World War II, attempts were made in the United States to recapture the glory of the prewar years, but to just about everybody's surprise the essence was gone. Flying the deadly offspring of World War II—Corsairs, Lightnings, Mustangs, etc.—brave and skillful men still gambled against the same odds, some winning, some dying, but the old sense of contributing to the advancement of aviation had disappeared.
The world's first international air races were held in late August of 1909 on the historic plain of Betheny, northeast of Rheims, where the troops of Joan of Arc had camped in 1429. News of this great event had spread all over Europe, and by the middle of August the population of this beautiful city had swollen to more than twice its normal figure. Overjoyed proprietors of quaint inns and restaurants were gratefully skinning the visitors for all they were worth, and hotel rates were 10 to 20 times the normal amount.
On the whole, however, the visitors could take it. Princes, ambassadors, actresses, producers, Roosevelts, Goulds, Vanderbilts and ordinary millionaires were everywhere, and somewhere among them were the pilots.
It was only to be expected that Europe's finest aviators would be there, headed by the great Louis Bl�riot himself. (Bl�riot's famous flight from France to England had been made only a few weeks before on July 25.) Among the others were Hubert Latham, Eug�ne Lefebvre, Count Charles de Lambert, English-born Henry Farman and one lone American named Glenn Curtiss.
Altogether, some 28 pilots had entered a few or all of the races scheduled, and the largest number of aircraft ever brought together (38) were being made ready in nearby buildings or tent-like hangars—which at that time were called "aerodromes."
There were six events for aeroplanes scheduled to cover the eight-day meet: the Grand Prix de Champagne, for the longest flight without alighting, with prize money totaling $20,000 donated by the local champagne growers; the Prix de l'Altitude, for the competitor reaching the greatest height during the week, $2,000; the Prix de Passagers, for the entrant carrying the greatest number of passengers around one lap of the circuit, $2,000; the Prix du Tour de Piste, a sustaining prize for the fastest lap around the course each day, $1,500; the Gordon Bennett Trophy, donated by James Gordon Bennett Jr., publisher of the New York Herald, for the fastest speed around two laps of the course, $5,000 plus a trophy; and the Prix de la Vitesse, for the fastest speed over three laps of the course, $4,000.
These last two events, along with the Grand Prix de Champagne, were the big ones, and there was no doubt in anybody's mind that new distance and speed records would be set. If anyone had suggested at the time that none of them would be won by a Frenchman, he most probably would have been challenged to a duel or at least locked up somewhere. No one, of course, did.
On the morning of the first day, Sunday, Aug. 22, the great air meet was declared open, and more than 100,000 visitors showed up to watch—in the rain! The weather was miserable, a layer of sticky, white mud covered the airfield and all roads leading to it, and local farmers were soon doing a healthy business hauling Rolls-Royces and Daimlers out of the muck. But the spectators bore the indignities willingly. They were well aware that they were about to witness the making of history.
The first day was devoted to qualification trials for the Gordon Bennett, the daily lap-speed prize and a three-lap, 30-km. event. Shortly after 10 a.m. Maurice Guffroy made the first attempt to get away. His little red R.E.P. monoplane furiously sputtered and struggled across the gummy field. Back and forth it went, but despite the roars of encouragement from the huge crowd, it wouldn't come unstuck. Guffroy retired in disgust when his 15-minute limit was up.