Blackpool, "Mecca of the Lancashire holiday makers"
according to "Flight" magazine, was the biggest resort in
north-western England. Among the attractions were eleven kilometres of
sandy beaches, the promenade with its piers and amusements, three
theatres, an aquarium, the Winter Garden entertainment complex and the
158 metre Blackpool Tower, modelled on the Eiffel Tower. In 1909 the
town's population was around 50,000, but the number of visitors was
estimated at three millions per year.
It was natural for the leading people of such an enterprising town to look for new attractions, and what could be more natural than an aviation meeting. A delegation from the town, including the Mayor, visited the "Grande Semaine d'Aviation" of Reims in August 1909 and in the beginning of September it was decided to go ahead with the planning.
A prize fund of over £6,000 was quickly raised, the main contributors being the Blackpool Corporation (which ran the trams and other services), Lord Northcliffe and Sir Thomas Lipton. The owners of the Blackpool Tower offered a prize of £500 for a flight round the tower, which was turned down on safety grounds. In order not to frighten visitors away by overcharging, the Blackpool Corporation agreed with the hotels and boarding-houses in the town that their charges during the week should not be more than five per cent higher the usual rates.
The Lancashire Aero Club was formed and arranged the lease of the airfield, which was situated on a golf course some three kilometres south of Blackpool, and built a clubhouse, hangars and repair shops. Their ambition was to "create an English edition of Port Aviation". The famous French pilots Henry Farman, Louis Paulhan, Hubert Latham, Henri Rougier and Alfred Leblanc were engaged, no doubt attracted by the appearance money, which was generous, although not as high as at the Doncaster meeting. Some less known British flyers were also entered, as was the France-based Spaniard Antonio Fernandez in a plane of his own design. Preparations apparently ran smoothly and the installations were ready for the opening day.
Monday 18 October
The weather on the opening day was perfect, with sunshine and only a light breeze greeting the 60,000 spectators. The first pilot to make an effort, shortly after noon, was A. V. Roe in his triplane. He had lots of problems getting his JAP V-twin engine started. When it finally ran, a bracing wire came loose after a long ground run in the underpowered plane and it had to be hauled back to its hangar for repairs. Soon afterwards Farman made the first successful flight, completing a test hop and then a lap in Paulhan's new "Gypaète". They shared Paulhan's plane during the meeting, since Farman's own was reported to be held up somewhere on the French railways. Then Paulhan took over the plane and flew another lap. At 15:20 Farman returned and took to the air in order to go for the "Daily Sketch" three-lap speed prize. He flew seven laps in just under 23 minutes, the last lap at a speed of 59.98 km/h. His speed over the best three laps was 58.54 km/h (36.38 mph). While he was flying Rougier made a test flight. After landing to repair his rudder he then took off for what turned out to be the day's longest flight. He covered nine laps in his slower Voisin, totalling 28.8 km in 34 minutes. Towards the end of his flight Paulhan started for a six-lap flight, but he couldn't beat Farman's times, his best lap being 54.37 km/h (33.79 mph). Leblanc flew a single lap in his Blériot, as required by his contract. This was his only flight during the meeting, and it didn't count for any of the events, since he didn't pass the start line correctly. The last flight of the day was made by Farman, with Paulhan as passenger.
Tuesday 19 October
The day started a little windier than the day before, and the wind from the sea got stronger and gustier during the day. Farman and Paulhan were busy fitting a larger fuel tank, so Latham was the first to make a flight, at around 12:15. He had covered less than half a lap when his front skid hit a mound. The tail flipped high in the air after the impact, but Latham managed to hang on to his seat. The rough landing resulted in a ripped-off skid, a broken wheel and a bent propeller. Roe made a new effort, with slightly better results, but he only managed two short jumps. Towards the afternoon Paulhan flew eight laps, staggering and lurching in the gusts, but due to the stronger wind, by now some 7 m/s, he could not improve on the times of the day before. Rougier had also brought out his plane, but decided against flying in the strong wind. Fernandez also brought his plane out, but didn't manage to leave the ground.
By four o'clock increasing winds and a heavy rain shower forced the black flag to be flown, signalling the end of a disappointing day for the 30,000 spectators. On the Tuesday it was announced that the FAI had decided that course lengths should be measured from pylon to pylon, along the inner line of the course. This meant that the distances and speeds, which had previously been based on the distance along the middle of the course, had to be recalculated. The new course length was given as 3.197 km (3496 yards).
Wednesday 20 October
After a very rainy night the morning broke fine and the wind was not too bad. Singer brought out his new Voisin, but the tail was rigged with too much incidence and repeatedly made the nose hit the ground. A Blériot recently bought by the Blackpool Councillor Mr A. Parkinson was also briefly tested on the ground. Fernandez brought out his plane at around 10, but only made an unsuccessful attempt, after noon. Farman brought the "Gypaète" out at around one o'clock and immediately started to fly like clockwork, with almost identical lap times and at constant minimum altitude. While he was flying Paulhan marked the length of the flight by laying a white handkerchief on the ground for each fifteen minutes flown. After 1 h 32:16.8 and 24 laps, and presumably six handkerchiefs, he landed, complaining of cramp and hunger, having set a new British endurance record. The wind increased again, forcing Rougier to abandon a flight after only 12 minutes. Then Paulhan took off, but landed after only one lap to replace an aileron which had been broken when the plane was caught by gust during the take-off. After the repairs the wind was again reaching 11-12 m/s in the gusts and he withdrew to the hangar after half a lap. Latham brought his repaired Antoinette out, but landed before the first turn. Roe also made an unsuccessful start in his underpowered triplane and Fournier's Voisin was seen outside his hangar for the first time. Soon after four o'clock the black flag was flown again.
Thursday 21 October
In the morning the wind registered 13 m/s, and during the day it increased to more than 20 m/s in the gusts. Flying was of course impossible, but the organisers put up fences in front of the hangars and charged one shilling for access, so the spectators were at least able to see the machines being worked on at close distance. The Antoinette crew made a dynamometer test, anchoring the machine to a post and measuring the thrust, which was found out to be around 1200 N (265 lbs). During the afternoon L. Lumb from Blackpool and Jack Humphreys from Wivenhoe brought their respective machines in to be displayed, but they would take no part in the meeting.
Friday 22 October
The wind had decreased slightly, but it rained and was very humid. The local shoe shops made good business in selling rubber boots, which were needed in order to navigate the sodden grounds. Nobody expect any flying, but those who braved the weather got to see a flight that was for a long time regarded as one of the most daring of all time. Around one o'clock, with the wind speed reaching 13 m/s (30 mph) in the gusts, the red flag was suddenly hoisted and a horse pulled Latham's Antoinette out on the starting ground. His first effort failed when the wind caught one of the wings and made the opposite wing tip touch the ground. The tail flipped high in the air before falling back again. Undeterred, Latham made a new try, this time with mechanics holding the plane down until he had it under control. The plane immediately rose to around 20 meters and after narrowly avoiding a collision with the first pylon and crossing the wind at the second pylon he was driven with the wind from behind at a speed which was speculated to reach at least 100 km/h. After an agonizingly slow flight against the wind he again had the wind from his side on the front straight, and spectators and officials screamed to him to come down. He didn't, but continued and completed on more lap, working the two control wheels frantically as the plane was thrown this way and that by the gusts, "tossed around like a cork in a cataract", before landing safely after a flight of eleven minutes. The other flyers carried him off to a lunch where Fournier proposed a toast to Latham's health. He said that Latham's flight was "the most wonderful ever attempted" and that he was "clearly the first man in aviation". Latham's first lap of 40.4 km/h won him the slow flight price. The second lap was even slower, but he was blown too far off the course, so the time was disallowed. It has been stated that he made the flight in order to honour a promise made to the Countess of Torby, wife of Grand Duke Michael of Russia, during a dinner the night before.
During the afternoon it was announced that the meeting would be continued on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday for the benefit of British competitors.
Saturday 23 October
The rain continued to fall during Friday night and Saturday morning, turning the hangar area into a lake. Some hangars could only be reached by planks. Under those circumstances nobody took the risk of any flights. During the afternoon the wind increased again. The international part of the meeting was concluded by a dinner at the Metropole Hotel, offered by the mayor of Blackpool, where the prize cheques were handed to the winners. The passenger prize and the altitude prize were not awarded, and the competitions for British pilots all fell through since they were intended to start on the Wednesday and coincided with the arrival of the bad weather. No flying was planned for the Sunday.
Monday 24 October
The weather didn't improve, so at ten o'clock the committee decided to call off the rest of the meeting. Soon afterwards the wind decreased slightly, but the field was still very wet. During the afternoon some of the British aviators tested their planes. Roe had by now fitted a 24 horsepower engine to his triplane and was the only one to leave the ground, but only for 40-50 meters. Creese's plane had apparently been damaged by water in his hangar and his plane wouldn't leave the ground. Saunderson and Neale did not manage to make any flights.
The 1909 Blackpool meeting can hardly be called a success, even though Farman's and particularly Latham's flights went into the history books. All in all, only four pilots managed to fly a complete lap during the meeting, and this includes Leblanc's single flight. The total distance flown during the meeting was around 186 kilometres.
It was natural to compare the Doncaster and Blackpool meetings. It appears naïve to organise anything that requires good weather in England in the end of October, and attendance at both meetings was badly hit by the rain and wind. The controversy and competition between the meetings certainly harmed both. Painful as it must have been for the Royal Aero Club, it appears that the Doncaster meeting was more popular with the spectators. It was held at a pre-existing horse race course where infrastructure such as restaurants was already at hand. The Blackpool airfield with its temporary installations was in an exposed position, only a couple of hundred meters from the windy Irish sea, and the proximity of the holiday centre of Blackpool with its hotels, restaurants and nightlife, and trams running to the airfield gates, could not compensate for this disadvantage. Blackpool was also criticised for the high number of policemen and for the attitude of the officials. The British aviator John Neale wrote a very critical letter to the "Daily Mail" about the leaky hangars and the way the British flyers were treated by the organisers.
The Blackpool meeting also lost money, but not as much as the Doncaster meeting. The appearance money paid to the pilots was considerably lower, £ 4,200 compared to £ 11,600, which certainly helped.