Magnificent men and flying machines

Col Cody's damaged plane in 1909
Col Cody's damaged plane in 1909
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During September 1909 the Doncaster Gazette excitedly reported there were great times in store for the town. Negotiations were ongoing between the local town council and a continental syndicate for an aviation meeting to be staged on Doncaster Town Moor, home of the classic St Leger race.

Daring flying men of every nationality were to gather there, as they did at Rheims earlier in August. New flying records were expected, beating any that were achieved in the French city.

Prior to the aviation meeting there was a war of the roses spat between Doncaster and Blackpool over which one was to stake their place in history as the first town to stage a public aviation display.

The recently-formed Aero Club joined in by giving its approval to Blackpool. Yet the Yorkshire Aero Club put its weight behind Doncaster, arguing the lie of the land at Town Moor was quite adequate for take-off and landing.

The public scuffle was won by Doncaster after announcing the aviators’ machines were to be assembled on Friday October 15 1909 and competitive flying was to begin on Saturday. This was two days before the start of the Blackpool meeting.

Another tussle followed where rival promoters fought to secure the services of the aviators. Doncaster was fortunate in getting a number of celebrated men to appear: Samuel Franklin Cody, Roger Sommer, Leon Delagrange and Hubert Le Blon. Cups for successful competitive flights were displayed in the windows of Messrs Woodmansey & Son, jewellers, High Street, Doncaster.

On the Friday, the rain set in early but there was little wind blowing, and the crowd waited patiently for men to fly. But none of the machines were ready. For hours not one machine emerged from the sheds as rain fell in torrents.

Late in the afternoon Cody ventured out. In his big bi-plane he managed a flight of less than a mile against a ten knot south-westerly wind. His effort was loudly cheered, but after that he made a quick return to the hangar.

The following day was awash with golden sunshine and drew thousands to the area. It was blessed with a series of flights. Yet, it was not without incident. Cody’s second take-off ended when the front wheel dropped into a hole and reduced the machine to a mass of twisted wire and broken bamboo.

Grazed and bleeding, he crawled out, looked at the mess quizzically and voiced: “Well, how did I get out of that?” The heavy engine was within inches of his back.

Shortly afterwards, Delagrange’s Bleriot monoplane flew around several times to win the Doncaster Town cup and a prize of £50,

On Monday, the band engaged, played La Marseillaise as a greeting for aviator Le Blon. He soared through the rain for 15 laps – a distance of just over 22 miles – in a little over half an hour. During the next day Cody’s repaired machine emerged but met a strong wind, only managing one circuit and rarely lifting its wheels off the grass. Yet, Tuesday was marked by Sommer completing a six-mile flight and there were short flights from Le Blon and Delagrange.

Bad weather on Wednesday, where only Sommer in his Farman biplane made a short flight, was followed by no flying for three days. The committee and promoters agreed to extend the meeting for two more days: Monday October 25 and Tuesday 26. But the aviators showed no enthusiasm and announced none would go up until the previous week’s expenses were paid.

Thereafter, some good flying exhibitions were applauded but Le Blon was involved in a mishap with near tragic consequences as a side wide almost pushed him into the watching crowd and his machine was badly damaged.

On the final day, Delagrange achieved a new world record, averaging 49.9mph on a circuit to lift the Tradesman’s Cup. Sommer won the Chairman’s Cup for flying just over 38 miles and one more effort from him, completing 20 laps, was the best and the last of the meeting.

Several cups were not won, the event incurred a significant loss and the organisers and promoters did not part amicably. Another meeting was staged a year later and was much more successful.

A number of the aviators were later killed flying: Delagrange, 1910; Le Blon, 1910; and Cody, 1913. Sommer however, born in 1877, survived until 1965.