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In Paris on Nov. 12, 1906 a Brazilian gentleman named Alberto Santos-Dumont took off in a huge box kite mounted on bicycle wheels, flew 15 feet into the air and then traversed the stupendous distance of 722 feet. "England is no longer an island," intoned Lord Northcliffe, owner of the mass-circulation London Daily Mail.
Several days later the Mail announced that it would further "aeroplane aviation" by paying £10,000 to the first man to drive a flying machine from within five miles of the paper's London office to within rive miles of its Manchester bureau, 183 miles away, in less than 24 hours, stopping no more than twice for fuel.
Three years later Louis Blériot made his now famous flight across the English Channel, and Northcliffe gave him a special award of £1,000, but the press baron's earlier offer was not taken up until April of 1910, when Motorist Claude Grahame-White declared in a letter to the Royal Aero Club in London his intention to fly his Farman biplane to Manchester that month.
Northcliffe was delighted. His award to Louis Blériot had netted large circulation dividends. The possibility of a British pilot winning a much greater prize for a much greater feat could only do proportionately greater things for the Mail. His lordship may also have felt that his money would stay in the bank, for 31-year-old Claude Grahame-White was no veteran aviator.
Only a year earlier Claude had gone to France to train in the Blériot workshops. One day he had roped a flying machine to a tree, started its engine, climbed aboard and signaled to a friend to cut him loose, thus making his maiden flight.
Properly licensed, Claude first bought a biplane from Henri Farman to open his own flying school in France, then decided to return home to build the first all-British flying machine. To show the skeptical Farman that he was capable of a long-distance flight, Claude took his own mother up in his biplane and remained aloft for more than an hour. Farman was very impressed.
Fleet Street liked Claude Grahame-White's charm and nerve, and the fact that he was British. The newspapers praised his plan to have 100 yards of main-line railroad ties whitewashed at each place along the route where tracks branched off, to point him to Manchester. They reported approvingly that fast cars would accompany him, that cars would also be stationed at his undisclosed stopping places, carrying not only mechanics and flying-machine fuel and oil but propellers, wires, stays, landing skids and other replacements for the parts he would almost certainly smash each time he landed.
"I shall not start," he told reporters, "unless the weather is favorable....
"Wind? Well, it must not be high or gusty. A quiet breeze I do not mind, particularly should it be from the southeast.
"Would a rainstorm bring me back to earth? No. But if rain began to fall persistently, it might get in my eyes and prevent my seeing my way."