In 1909 Antwerpen (Antwerp in English, Anvers in
French) was Belgium's second biggest town, with a
population of around 280,000. It was a cultural and
industrial centre and its harbour on the river Schelde
was the second biggest on the continent, after
Hamburg's. It was also a strongly fortified town,
with several circles of forts and walls surrounding the
parts of the town that didn't face the river.
The Aero Club of Antwerp was formed on March 8th, 1909. One of the driving forces behind it was Baron Pierre de Caters, Belgium's first pilot and an experienced racer of automobiles and speed-boats. It soon started planning an aviation meeting, which was to be held in the beginning of October and beginning of November, thus being the last competitive meeting of the 1909 season. Partners in the arrangement were the Antwerp Automobile Club and "Antwerpen-Vooruit" ("Anvers en Avant"), a society for the promotion of the town. Prince Albert of Belgium, who would become king when Leopold II died later in the year, served as honorary president of the organizing committee.
It was decided to hold the meeting on the Wilrijkse Plein, a military exercise field south of the city, immediately outside the fortified city walls, which was also used for horse racing. Law and order would be ensured by 100 gendarmes, of which 24 mounted. The airfield would be in constant contact with the Antwerp cathedral, so that people in the centre of the town could be informed whether flying was going by red, black or white flags flown from the tower.
The town of Antwerp donated 60,000 francs for the Grand Prix and a list of fourteen entrants was published. It contained some local hopefuls, but also some experienced flyers, such as Voisin pilots Henri Rougier, Baron de Caters and Henri Brégi, and Léon Molon on a Blériot. It was the competitive debut of Jan Olieslagers, who would become one of Belgium's most famous aces of World War One. Another attraction would be Count Henri de la Vaulx and his airship "Zodiac III".
Focus of the reporting of the meeting was of course on the popular home-town favourite de Caters, who returned from successful meetings in Berlin and Frankfurt. He had a troubled start of the meeting, though, and couldn't finish his preparations until the last minutes. His plane, which was transported from the Frankfurt meeting, was despite his protests held up for three days by the Belgian customs officials, and a new engine was also stuck in transport.
Saturday October 23rd
Wind and rain made flying impossible for most of the opening day, but de Caters made a short flight at around five o'clock. He flew some 600 metres at altitudes of 4-5 metres, to the applause of the crowds, who finally got something in return for their waiting, even though the flight was cut short by the gusty wind. De Caters was not pleased and decided to make another flight. This quickly ended in tears when the plane was caught by a gust. One of its wings was raised by the wind, "like a sign of distress", before the plane crashed to the ground. Officials were rushed to the accident site by cars and two doctors arrived in gallop. Thankfully de Caters had escaped with only a cut nose when the plane flipped inverted and was found standing by the wreckage, lighting a cigarette and contemplating the damages. Mr de Vos, the Mayor of Antwerp, congratulated him and expressed his pleasure that it was an Antwerpian who had made the flight in Antwerp. "The first crash too", replied de Caters… He had a spare plane, so he was not out of the meeting.
Sunday 24 October
This was another rainy day, and in the morning winds of storm force damaged four hangars at the end of the field. In one of them the plane of the Druet brothers was badly damaged. The other four hangars were saved because de Caters and his crew, who were there in order to repair his wrecked plane, saw what was going on and could tie down the tarpaulins that covered the hangars before help could arrive. A cafeteria and some fencing was also destroyed. Workmen and engineer troops were called in to make necessary repairs and clean up the wreckage, and the hangars were rebuilt by the Tuesday. The only action on the field was a couple of ground tests by Olieslagers towards the end of the day, when the weather improved slightly.
Monday 25 October
There wasn't much to cheer for, since this was another windy and rainy day, particularly in the late afternoon. Wilford made a bad start in his Wright and damaged a propeller and a wing. Olieslagers made a flight of 100 metres and also managed to make a turn. The "Zodiac III" made some short test flights without leaving the airfield.
Tuesday 26 October
The fourth day of the meeting started well with some sunshine and light winds, but towards eleven o'clock it got windier again. Olieslagers made a flight, but was caught by a gust and hit a tree stump which had been missed when the field was prepared. His plane was badly damaged. The winds kept getting stronger during the afternoon. De Caters had prepared his second plane and waited for improvement during the afternoon, but after rolling out his plane to check the wind he decided against flying, since another accident would risk his participation later during the meeting.
Wednesday 27 October
In the morning the weather was cloudy, but the temperatures were mild and there was only light wind. The crowd was disappointed, perhaps naturally since the past days had offered so little action. De Caters made three short flights and finally became the first to cover an entire lap of the course. The official figures were 1,141 metres flown in 1:45. This qualified him for a gold medal "grande module" offered by the Aero Club of Belgium to the first member of the club, or an affiliated club, to cover one thousand metres in a heavier-than-air machine in Belgium during 1909. "Zodiac III" made a flight of 45 minutes, carrying M de Montigny, head of the organizing committee, to the city centre and back.
Thursday 28 October
The weather on the sixth day of the meeting was relatively good, but misty. Rougier used the favourable conditions to full effect, making three flights, each longer than the previous. The longest flight, made during the afternoon, was officially credited as 49.665 kilometres in 1 h 16:08. One lap was not counted, because he flew inside a pylon. His other flights lasted 9 minutes and 36 minutes respectively. In the afternoon Molon put his Blériot on its nose and caused some damage.
Meanwhile de Caters, who was disappointed with the performance of his plane, travelled to Paris in order to get a new propeller. He returned in the evening to hear the news of the great flight of his competitor. "Zodiac III" again made a 45-minute flight over Antwerp, circling the cathedral, then a second shorter flight.
Friday 29 October
Rain and high winds resulted in a completely wasted day. De Caters had mounted his new bigger propeller and made some short ground tests to measure its thrust, but that was all that happened.
Saturday 30 October
Ideal weather and light winds meant that lots of spectators came to the field. The day's action started soon after ten o'clock, when Crahay made a short flight in his Blériot, crashed and was lightly injured when the plane flupped inverted. Rougier made an effort at the altitude prize and took the lead with a flight of 120 metres. Olieslagers had repaired his plane and made a flight of three laps. De Caters had finally sorted out his spare plane and made a nineteen-minute flight covering almost fourteen laps. Rougier tried to improve his lead in the distance contest, but had to land after six laps. At two o'clock Olieslagers made another flight, but crashed at the third pylon and again damaged his plane. Afterwards de Caters and Rougier tried to improve their marks. De Caters made a flight of six laps, touching the ground once or twice. His plane was obviously still not in perfect trim and the engine didn't run well. Rougier equalled his altitude of 120 meters.
The airship "Zodiac III" made a flight over the city centre and circled the cathedral tower, then continued to Mechelen (Malines) to do the same thing before returning. The 60 km flight took one and a half hour. Prince Albert visited the airfield and made a short flight in "Zodiac III" during the afternoon. His uncle, King Leopold II, didn't approve of this irresponsible risk-taking and reportedly sentenced him to eight days of room arrest.
Sunday 31 October
Strong winds of 25-40 km/h made all flights impossible. The indefatigable Olieslagers had repaired his plane enough to make some ground rolls.
Monday 1 November
This was All Saints' Day and a public holiday, so large crowds gathered at the airfield. Most of flyers thought the weather was too windy, but it improved enough for de Caters to make two one-lap flights at noon and two o'clock, no doubt eager to please his home-town fans. Brégi had arrived with Louis Paulhan's old Voisin "Octavie No. 3" and made some tests. Between three and four o'clock the winds calmed down a little and Rougier and de Caters made flights of six and two laps respectively. "Zodiac III" made three trips.
Tuesday 2 November
The last day of the meeting was full of action. The first to fly was Brégi, who took off soon after ten o'clock and completed sixteen laps in twenty minutes. While he flew de Caters took off and flew six laps. As he landed Rougier took off. De Caters immediately took to the air again, so the crowd was treated to the "magnificent spectacle" of three planes in the air at the same time. De Caters completed nine laps and Rougier eleven. Soon before noon Olieslagers again wrecked his plane after a flight of 300 metres. Wilford, who had repaired his plane tried to take off, but failed to gain any height.
During the afternoon de Caters made a flight in relatively strong wind. He took off, then landed immediately again, then took off for a second time, but crashed from an altitude of 30 meters when he lost control during a turn and flew into the trees and fencing at the edge of the field. That was his second plane wrecked, but again he escaped unharmed, and fortunately his engine too. Anxious to make a good impression in his home town he lost no time in buying the airframe of the similar Voisin of his German competitor Schlüter, who hadn't flown during the meeting. He immediately set about to fit it with the surviving Vivinus engine and promised to have it flying during the day!
Rougier broke the official altitude record by reaching 270 meters. After the landing he was carried to the tribunes, where he was congratulated by the Mayor of Antwerpen while the band played the Marseillaise.
In the afternoon Brégi flew two laps. Around four o'clock Molon flew first one, then three laps. During these flights he scored the fastest lap of the meeting, 1:14. During the day Comte de la Vaulx and the "Zodiac III" flew from Antwerp to Brussels and back. The 100-kilometre flight was carried out at an altitude of 100 to 150 metres and took two and a half hours. As a farewell gesture they made a last flight at around four o'clock, during which hundreds of flowers were thrown to the crowd. Finally, towards the end of the afternoon, de Caters flew two laps in his new plane - not somebody to give up easily! He also brought a passenger, even though it was discouraged by the officials, who thought the field was too small for such adventurous stunts.
The Antwerp meeting was badly hit by the poor weather, which is perhaps only what could be expected at that time of the year so close to the North Sea. Rougier's official altitude record was of course the high point of the meeting, even though everybody knew that Count Charles de Lambert had flown much higher during his famous Eiffel Tower flight two weeks earlier.
According to the aviation press, the most impressive performance of the meeting was that of the little airship "Zodiac III". It proved the practicality of such a small airship, only 1,400 cubic metres compared to other ships of more than three times the volume. It made twelve flights and on a couple of days it was the only aircraft to fly. All in all it carried 41 different persons during the meeting.