Concours d'Aviation de Douai
Douai, France, June 29th - July 18th 1909

Douai 1909 - The world's first multi-day air race meeting


The Blériot XII showing off the huge 2.70 m (9 ft) chain-driven propeller (1)
A great shot of Blériot rounding a pylon (2)
Paulhan taking off in "Octavie No. 3" (1)
The first Breguet plane "in full flight". The plane probably never got much higher. In this photo the plane has large-span upper tail surfaces. (1)
Paulhan flying high (1)
Aviators relaxing at the airfield. From the left: Louis Breguet, Blériot's employee Alfred Leblanc, "de Rue" (Ferdinand Ferber) and Louis Blériot (3)

Douai is an industrial and agricultural town in what was then the coal-mining part of northern France, some 180 km north of Paris. In 1909 it had around 35,000 inhabitants. The Douai branch of the Ligue Nationale Aérienne was one of the earliest, founded on January 10th, 1909. One of the driving forces was Louis Breguet, who was at that time, together with Professor Charles Richet, experimenting with a "gyroplane", a big four-rotor helicopter. In March the town of Douai decided to grant 20,000 francs toward organising a flying competition. The meeting would take place from Monday June 28th to Sunday July 18th, with the main events during the last week included the following competitive events:

  • A 3,000 francs speed competition over 2 kilometres (the Prix du Nord, sponsored by the railway company Compagnie du Chemin de Fer du Nord, the regional council of the Nord department and the town of Douai)
  • A 1,000 francs speed competition over 1 kilometre (the Prix Mahieu, named after its sponsor)
  • A 10,000 francs closed-course distance competition (the Grand Prix de Douai, sponsored by the town)
  • A cross-country distance competition to be contested over the flat fields between Douai and Arras, 25 km to the west
Several additional prizes were offered for flights on different days, in order to ensure that the flying would be spread out over the meeting. The total prize money was 26,000 francs.

The meeting was to be held at La Brayelle, 3 kilometres west of central Douai, where an airfield of 72 hectares had been constructed. The hangars for the participating machines were located in a park of around a hectare, which was enclosed by palisades. Inside that park each aviator disposed an area of 30 by 30 metres for rigging and stationary testing. This enclosed area was reserved exclusively for the aviators and their personnel.

In the last week of April the airfield was struck by a hurricane, which demolished the hangar where the latest (and last) version of the Breguet-Richet gyroplane was housed. The strange-looking twin tilt-rotor canard biplane was destroyed, but Breguet had already started on a new, more conventional biplane. This was only the first time the weather wrought havoc with an air race – several of the 1909 meetings were similarly struck by storms.

The organising committee received entries for twelve machines:
  • Louis Blériot (Blériot monoplane)
  • Louis Breguet (2 Breguet biplanes)
  • Pierre de Caters (Voisin biplane)
  • Germe (Germe biplane)
  • Jean Gobron (Voisin biplane)
  • Lasternas (Lasternas biplane)
  • Hubert Latham (Antoinette monoplane)
  • Louis Paulhan (Voisin biplane)
  • Henri Rougier (Voisin biplane)
  • "F. de Rue"/Ferdinand Ferber (Voisin biplane)
  • Paul Tissandier (Wright biplane)
The weather was superb for the opening of the meeting. Loius Blériot arrived on June 28th, and immediately started flying his new model XII, which was equipped with a 50 hp water-cooled E.N.V. V-8 engine. The Blériot XII was considerably bigger than the model XI of English Channel fame and had the pilot sitting below the wing, which was mounted on top of the fuselage longerons. It was the first plane that was specially designed to carry two passengers, on a bench-like seat beside the pilot. Home-town favourite Breguet made some tests with his new plane, an awkward-looking but more conventional tractor biplane, powered by a 50 hp air-cooled Renault V 8. On the following day Blériot carried a passenger for a lap of the circuit.

During the three weeks of the meeting Blériot was extremely busy travelling between different airfields. He left Douai on June 30th for testing his model XI at Issy-les-Moulineaux in Paris, but returned on July 2nd and immediately made several flights, even venturing outside the airfield, only stopping when the engine started misfiring. Breguet continued his tests. His plane was not very successful and only managed some short hops, without gaining much height.

On July 3rd Blériot flew around the church tower in Douai, some three kilomtres awy from the airfield. He then made a flight of 47 minutes, covering 47 kilometres. Fifteen minutes into the flight the asbestos heat insulation of an exhaust pipe close to his foot worked loose and fell off. Despite the pain of his foot being roasted he flew on for another 30 minutes. He was only forced down when a rod broke and went through the cylinder and the water mantle of the E.N.V. engine, causing a great cloud of white smoke to the alarm of the spectators. Blériot's shoe was completely burned through and he had received third-degree burns that made doctors fear than he would get gangrene. The painful burns would disable him for two months – but didn't discourage him from flying.

On July 4th Blériot was at Port-Aviation south of Paris, where he made flight of 50 minutes in his model XI, winning the Prix Archdeacon. On July 9th he was back in Douai, making several successful flights in front of crowds that despite some rain were estimated to 20,000, before leaving again on the evening of July 10th. On July 13th he won the French Aéro-Club's "Prix du Voyage" for a 41 km town-to-town flight between Étampes (50 km south of Paris) and Orléans in his model XI. While all this was going on he was also preparing for his English Channel flight, which would eventually take place on the 25th.

The Antoinette-powered Voisin of "F. de Rue" (pseudonym for Capitaine Ferdinand Ferber) arrived on July 5th, but it seems that he only made some short flights during the meeting.

July 9th was marked by a visit of the Commission d'Aviation of the French Sénat and a delegation of 30 members of the Russian Douma. Louis Paulhan arrived well after the start of the meeting with his Gnôme-powered Voisin "Octavie III" and made his first flights on July 10th. He quickly established himself as a future star and made several good flights in Douai. He flew again on July 13th and 14th, but his longest flight was made on July 15th, in front of 10,000 spectators. It lasted well over an hour, during which he covered 26 laps of the course before he ran out of fuel, and it won him the 6,000 francs Grand Prix de Douai.

On Sunday July 18th, the last day of the meeting, a world's first occurred – the first time that two aircraft actually raced each other on a course! The pilots were Blériot and Paulhan, who happened to be in the same place while competing for the 1-kilometre Prix Mahieu race. On the same day Paulhan broke the world altitude record, previously held by Wilbur Wright at 110 meters. He easily flew above a balloon that was anchored at 120 meters and reached an estimated 150 meters.

The day after the official closing of the meeting Paulhan made a cross-country flight to the neighbouring town of Arras. He had to stop after one kilometre to check his engine, but then flew the 20 kilometres to a field outside the town, where he was celebrated by a delegation including the mayor. On thereturn flight he had to land 3 km from La Brayelle because of engine problems and strong wind. During the landing he hit an unseen barbed-wire fence which damaged the elevators. Since there was no time for repairs he had to truck the plane to the airfield.

Blériot, Breguet, Paulhan and de Rue were the only flyers to actually turn up. Latham was expected to arrive on July 12th, but he was busy elsewhere – his plans for a Channel crossing were constantly being reported in the press and after some delays he made the first of his two failed efforts on July 19th, the day after the Douai meeting ended. Gobron and Rougier had just started flying and probably didn't consider themselves ready. Tissandier was contracted for the Vichy meeting, which was organised by his employers Ariel and immediately followed the Douai meeting. Belgium's first pilot Baron Pierre de Caters appears to have been in Germany at the start of the meeting and during the last week of the meeting he was preparing for flight demonstrations in Ostend, Belgium. The Wright-inspired Anzani-engined Germe biplane didn't fly until August, and little is known about the Voisin-inspired biplane built by the Douai science teacher Lasternas.

Paulhan's Voisin, slightly bent after his encounter with a fence during the return flight from Arras (4)