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The Fastest Man In The Air

March 2023
2min read

Glenn Curtiss’ triumph at the first international aviation contest, held at Rheims, France, evoked accolades for him from around the world, as well as this description of the event by Augustus Post in The Century Magazine of November, 1910.

When James Gordon Bennett offered an International Aviation Trophy for the fastest machine to fly over a course of 20 kilometers to be raced for at Rheims, France, in August, 1909, Courtland Field Bishop, president of the Aero Club of America, urged Curtiss to enter and represent his country. With some deliberation, Curtiss decided to build a machine for that event. There were only a few days in which to prepare. It meant night and day work for every one in the factory. Two motors were built together, an improved frame was constructed and packed up without being completely assembled, and the motor was hardly run before it was boxed and put on the steamer. In a few days Curtiss was in France. In order to reach Rheims in time to qualify he had to take his aeroplane with him on the train as personal baggage. The machine was assembled, but by an awkward mishap Curtiss sprained his ankle slightly and it looked pretty dark for America with only one injured man and one machine, that had never been thoroughly tried out, against the foremost men of Europe with long records of achievement and world-wide fame, even with cross-channel flights and other wonderful performances to their credit.

A few trial flights were made. The races opened Sunday. The French elimination trials were held and Lefebre, Latham, and Blériot were chosen to represent France. For the first four days, Curtiss kept out of racing, taking no chance of wrecking the machine before the Gordon Bennett race set for Saturday. Some of the American spectators severely criticized his strategy. Furthermore, he was penalized one-twentieth of the time he would actually make for each day that the start was delayed. During the meet he made only ten official flights, from six to eighteen miles each, and was the only amateur to land at his starting point after every flight. Sometimes there were as many as twelve aeroplanes stranded about the course.

Saturday, August 28, 1909, was the last day for the “Tour de Piste,” or one-lap speed contest. Curtiss determined to try for it, and if everything was favorable, to make his run for the Coupe International immediately afterward, only one preliminary trial being allowed to each representative in that event. His time in the Tour de Piste was 7 minutes, 55 seconds, which was the fastest made by any of the machines. The air, as it seemed, was boiling, and the hot air rising from the ground, mixing with the cooler air, gave rise to a theory in Curtiss’s mind that the conditions were best for fast speed. The gasolene tanks were refilled, the officials were informed of his purpose and the machine was tested to see that no wires were broken. The propeller was again started and he was off. The course was twice around, altogether 20 kilometers. The first round was made in 7 minutes and 58 seconds, and the second in 7 minutes and 52 seconds, the fastest speed recorded, which made a total time of 15 minutes and 50 seconds, or 46½ miles an hour. Cheers and congratulations proclaimed Curtiss a sure winner, but it was not yet decided. All day Blériot had been trying one machine after another and testing his best propellers, and Latham had yet to show his speed. Just before five o’clock, Blériot brought out his big Number 22, fitted with a large four-bladed propeller. On the first lap he whirled by a few seconds faster than the time made by Curtiss, and everyone of the American contingent felt pretty downhearted at this splendid performance. The second lap was made at what seemed to be terrific speed, but there was an ominous silence in the judges’ stand. Suddenly Mr. Bishop, president of the Aero Club of America, who was in the stand, gave an excited cheer and it was announced that Blériot had lost by 6 seconds. A more impressive scene to the Americans present can hardly be imagined than the hauling down of the French flag and the hoisting of the Stars and Stripes to the top of the flag-pole on that field.

Ambassador White, accompanied by Mrs. Roosevelt, visited the hanger and showered congratulations upon Curtiss. …

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