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The Gordon Bennett Air Race, July 1st 1911, Eastchurch, Kent.


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Evening All,

 

The Gordon Bennett air races for land planes were established by the millionaire Gordon Bennett in 1909. The rules of the races were similar to the Schneider Trophy for floatplanes:
1.The races were open to all nationalities and would be held annually in the country of the previous year’s winner.
2.The first nation to win the race for three consecutive years would win the trophy outright and the races would cease.

 

    The first race was held in Paris in 1909 and was won by Glenn Curtis from the USA, the second in 1910 was won by C. Grahaeme-White for Britain. Consequently the third race in 1911 had to be held in Britain, where the flying ground of the Royal Aero Club and new factory site of Short Brothers at Eastchurch in Kent was chosen:

 

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(copyright Eastchurch Aviation Museum. Published with kind permission of the museum trustees)

 

The poster above is displayed in Eastchurch Aviation museum but has several errors: only one Wright baby biplane took part and the Bleriot types are wrong - two type XXIII took part, not type XI as shown.

 

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(copyright Eastchurch Aviation Museum. Published with kind permission of the museum trustees)

 

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(copyright Eastchurch Aviation Museum. Published with kind permission of the museum trustees)

 

The race attracted a large crowd, (some estimate up to 10,000 but a figure of 5-6,000 is probably more realistic), and was held on 1st July.

 

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Originally there were 12 entrants to the race, but 5 withdrew before the start: D. Graham Gilmore withdrew on the day because his Bristol monoplane had not been completed:

 

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(copyright Eastchurch Aviation Museum. Published with kind permission of the museum trustees)

 

The course was a circuit of 6 km and each aeroplane had to complete 20 laps.

 

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(copyright Eastchurch Aviation Museum. Published with kind permission of the museum trustees)

 

Score boards were set up to allow the spectators to see how the race was progressing:

 

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(copyright Eastchurch Aviation Museum. Published with kind permission of the museum trustees)

 

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The turning points on the polygonal course were indicated by four towers:

 

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(copyright Eastchurch Aviation Museum. Published with kind permission of the museum trustees)

 

       The competitors and their aircraft were:


1. Alexander Ogilvy flying a Wright Baby biplane with a 50hp NEC 4 cylinder two stroke engine:

 

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(copyright Eastchurch Aviation Museum. Published with kind permission of the museum trustees)

 

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Ogilvy had bought this aeroplane from the Wright brothers in 1910 and had competed in the previous year’s race at Belmont Park, New York. The Short brothers had installed the engine and partially rebuilt the centre of the aeroplane for the race, in one of many rebuilds and modifications of the machine. Olgivy had to stop to refuel during the race so his average speed was reduced to 51.2 mph (82.4 kph). He was placed fourth.

 

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2. Charles Weymann was an American who was flying a Nieuport IV monoplane powered by a 100 hp Gnome Omega Omega rotary engine which was two rotary engines bolted together to a common drive shaft.In this photo he is sitting in the centre of the group:

 

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(copyright Eastchurch Aviation Museum. Published with kind permission of the museum trustees)

 

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Weymann achieved an average speed of 78.1 mph (125.7 kph) and thus won the race:

 

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(copyright Eastchurch Aviation Museum. Published with kind permission of the museum trustees)

 

5. Gustav Hamel (in white hat) was a German born naturalised Englishman who flew a Bleriot XXIII monoplane:

 

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(copyright Eastchurch Aviation Museum. Published with kind permission of the museum trustees)

 

The engine was also a Gnome Omega Omega 100hp rotary. The original wingspan was greater than on the day of  the race in July: the span had been reduced by approximately 1/3 to approximately 17 feet (5m), after he found that he was approximately 5 seconds slower per lap than one of the competitors, the Nieuport II, against the advice of L. Bleriot himself.

 

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(copyright Eastchurch Aviation Museum. Published with kind permission of the museum trustees)

 

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 This caused the editor of The Aeroplane to comment that the aircraft looked more like: “the latter half of a dogfish with a couple of visiting cards stuck on them than anything else”! Hamel crashed and did not complete the race: some sources say that it happened when turning around a pylon on the first lap, another stated that he crashed when flying low in front the crowd before the race. Fortunately he escaped almost unhurt although the aeroplane was wrecked:

 

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(copyright Eastchurch Aviation Museum. Published with kind permission of the museum trustees)

 

6. Alfred Leblanc who flew the second Bleriot XXIII, also had the wingspan reduced.

 

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Like the Wright Baby these machines were built as racing aeroplanes: in May 1911 Leblanc had set a new world speed record in Paris and he had been a favourite to win in this race. However following the reduction in the wingspan of his aeroplane and the crash of Hamel he seems to have been more cautious and did not push the aircraft to its limits: he came second in the race with an average speed of 75.9 mph (122.1 kph).

 

11. Eduard Nieuport competed in an aeroplane of his own design: the Nieuport II with a 70 hp Gnome rotary engine:

 

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 This engine was larger and of a different shape to engines fitted to earlier models of the Nieuport II so the nose had to redesigned with a cowling. Although the machine had been designed as a racer it was not fast enough to catch the 100hp powered aircraft, so he came third with an average speed of 74.9mph (120.6 kph).

 

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12 Louis Chevalier also flew a Nieuport II but with a 28 hp flat twin cylinder engine of Nieuport design:

 

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 Chevalier actually flew two aircraft in the race but neither finished because of engine failure. In May 1911 one of these aircraft had set a speed record of 74 mph (119 kph), so if he had been able to finish he would certainly have beaten Ogilvie and may have had a small chance of being third in place.

 

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   The Gordon Bennet races stopped in 1920 after France won in three successive years (1912, 1913 and 1920). Short Brothers moved their factory to Rochester in 1917. Eastchurch airfield was requisitioned by the Royal Navy after the outbreak of the first world war in 1914 because it had been used as a training ground and base by the Naval Air Service from 1912. In 1920 the Admiralty bought the site from the Royal Aero Club and it remained in military use until 1947 when it closed. Today there is a small aviation museum on the site where the above display can be seen.

 

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The model aircraft, sheds, score board and pylon were scratch built, the figures were Langley Models Victorian/Edwardian standing figures and Dart Castings. There are build logs for the aircraft models. Individual build logs for the aircraft models can be found in the "Under construction" section of this site.

 

Thanks for looking.

 

P

 

Edit 5. 4. 24: After I had handed the above display to the museum I realised that I had made serious errors with the models of the Bleriot XXIII's. I have explained the problems in the thread on these models in the work in progress section of this site and will not repeat them in full here, but these models were based on photographs and published data as there are no plans available. In short the wingspan was too narrow and I have corrected this - hence the discrepancy between some of the photos of the museum display. The photos of the individual models and those in the display showing the longer spans are correct. In addition I have added the guards on the leading edges of the wings which protected the pilots from oil and exhaust fumes: these were not clear on the photos that I had when I made the original pair of models. They only became clear when the museum showed me the photo of Hamel in front of his machine (above), after I had made the original pair of models.

 

Edited by pheonix
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Beautiful little racers in a lovely setting! Thanks for the history write-up - very informative and perfectly matching the presentation.

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Brilliant scratch building work (great collection of lovely models) and a wonderful display too.

 

Brilliant historical background to the air race as well.

 

Regards

 

Dave

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