They may have been the first major UK aviation event, but the Doncaster air races in October 1909 weren’t the first time that the county had wondered about the potential of aviation.
Sir George Cayley, owner of Wydale Hall, in North Yorkshire, had a passion for engineering, and in particular, the science of flight. Even when he was at school – he was born in 1773 in Scarborough – his notebooks were filled with sketches which show his many theories about getting a machine, and a machine with a man in it, into the air.
Cayley examined every facet of the possibility of getting airborne. It may seem self-evident to us today, but he realised that components had to be lighter than light and that string and sealing wax and bits of balsa wood would not be enough. Cayley invented lightweight wheels, well before the modern bicycle came along. He gave much thought to stabilisers, to moveable fins, to just about every aspect of aeronautics. And he was a realist enough to admit that powered flight would be possible only when some sort of engine was developed to run the machine.
However, Cayley did manage to get one of his servants into an early glider and send the chap across Brompton Dale in 1853. No-one recorded who the world’s first pilot was, but it may have been his footman, John Appleby.
Fast forward 50 years and a pair of brothers across the Atlantic were experimenting with flying machines. They had developed an internal combustion engine and fitted it to a crate, which they called (maybe with a lack of invention in this department) the Wright Flyer. On December 17, 1903, four miles south of the small community of Kitty Hawk, in North Carolina, Orville and Wilbur Wright got airborne, for all of 120 feet.
Word of this amazing development soon spread. One of the UK’s national newspapers decided to get in on this new craze, and offered a handsome prize of £1,000 to the first person to fly across the English Channel. The French aviator Hubert Latham took up the challenge on July 19, 1909 but was forced to ditch in the Channel. Six days later, his compatriot Louis Bleriot made the full crossing, won the cash and winged his way into the history books.
“Flying-mania” gripped the public imagination, and within a few days of Bleriot’s triumph several British towns and cities were pushing themselves to the forefront of a competition to stage the first UK air races, including Doncaster.
The name of the bright spark who came up with the initial idea is lost in the mists of time. But the local council also threw its support behind the project and a special Aviation Committee was formed. There were no advisory reports, no consultation documents and no regard for any health and safety regulations – they just said “yes”, and put additional funding in the pot to provide the silver trophies for the daring young men in their flying machines.
“It was quite extraordinary that it happened with such speed”, says Alan Beattie, chairman (and treasurer) of the South Yorkshire Aircraft Museum in Doncaster. “Today, it would take months, maybe more, to even get Civil Aviation Authority approvals”.
There was the added incentive that Blackpool was considering air races of its own. The resort wanted to steal a march on Yorkshire. It was not to be. The races started on October 15 and were extended to finish on October 26, because of atrocious weather. The first few days were plagued with lashing rain and high winds.
One of the advantages that Doncaster had over other towns that wanted to stage a similar event was that it already had buildings at the ready – the grandstands at the racecourse. It also had the land, within the lines of the racetrack itself. The surrounding area was pretty much flat, and there were no tall properties or industrial chimneys anywhere nearby. The racecourse was also used to handling vast crowds – after all, it was home to one of the best-attended racing events of the year, the St Leger. The air races were quickly nick-named “the aeroplane St Leger” and became a vast public relations exercise for both Doncaster and Yorkshire.
The races became part of the largest movement of people into and around the North. Doncaster’s railway station – right in the heart of the town – was in the middle of a complex network of converging lines, and GNR exploited its contacts to offer scores of excursion trains from around the country. As a result, huge crowds descended on the town.
GNR’s commercial art department was put on alert to produce a striking image to advertise the October meeting, and created a vivid poster depicting a soaring plane and the racecourse stands. In the South Yorkshire Aircraft Museum, on Dakota Way – on the site of the old and long-vanished Doncaster RAF base – there’s a full-sized replica of a Bleriot plane which flew at the event, and alongside that iconic poster, there is more air races memorabilia.
Mr Beattie says the museum hosts around 20,000 visitors a year these days, though during the air races it’s said 50,000 attended on one single day alone. “You look at those early machines, and you have to think, ‘How the heck did they even leave the ground?’” he says. “One of the pilots crashed during take-off, came to a halt, did some repairs with wires and the equivalent of today’s duct tape, and then tried again. I marvel at that.”
Today, health and safety regulations wouldn’t have let him anywhere near his plane. “They wore ordinary street clothes and trilby hats. A pair of goggles was about their only concession to personal safety,” says Mr Beattie.
“Many people in South Yorkshire and Doncaster know nothing about this major event in aviation history – our aim is to change all that.”
The route for the pioneer aviators was over one- and-a-half miles, the same as the St Leger. French airman Roger Sommer (who won the Doncaster Cup in his Farman biplane) also took his son up with him, and the lad is believed to have been the youngest ever person to fly. Sommer went on to smash many other speed records during his long career. And the boy? He was Raymond, just three, and he went on to be a Grand Prix driver.
One of the dozen airmen who took part in the races was the American showman (he was known for his Wild West extravaganzas) Colonel Samuel Franklin Cody. Cody tried convincing the British Army about the potential of planes in warfare. However, he was reportedly told at the time that they had no future.
Cody was reputedly offered $10,000 to appear in Doncaster – and actually took out British citizenship papers in a ceremony in front of the crowds, while the band played God Save the King. This wasn’t entirely a patriotic gesture, for the prize money was dependent on the flier being a British subject, in a British plane. Cody knew on which side his bread was buttered.
In the end, for all the crowds, it proved a financial failure, but there was plenty of courage, skill, a friendly rivalry and camaraderie.
Historian Ian Reed, long associated with the Yorkshire Air Museum at Elvington, once wrote that it “overcame many barriers and resulted both in the advancement of aeronautics and the inspiration of tens of thousands of people in this new-found science”.
And, years later, it also gave inspiration elsewhere. One of the most popular beers from the new Doncaster Brewery is called First Aviation. It is, according to Alison Blaylock, a partner in the business, “a really lovely pale ale”. Colonel Cody would almost certainly have approved.
South Yorkshire Aircraft Museum, Dakota Way, Airborne Road, Doncaster. For more details call 01302 761616.