Concours d'Aviation de Douai
Douai, France, June 29th - July 18th 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 aeroplane. In this photo and others believed to be taken at the Douai meeting it had large-span upper tail surfaces, which were later removed. (3)
The Breguet "in full flight". It probably never got much higher. The hinged central top wing panel was used for pitch control, apparently synchronized with the lower horizontal tail surface. (1)
Paulhan flying high in the evening sky. (1)
Aviators relaxing at the airfield. From the left: Louis Breguet, Blériot's employee Alfred Leblanc, "F. de Rue" (Ferdinand Ferber) and Louis Blériot. (4)
Blériot in flight... (5)
... and on the ground. With only two machines making any significant flights it's difficult to find different photos... (1)
The photographer from "La Vie au Grand Air" managed to catch Paulhan passing the height reference balloon during his record flight - at the airfield or in the darkroom... (2)

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 the organisation a flying competition. The meeting would take place from Monday June 28th to Sunday July 18th. The main events were held during the last week and included the following contests:

  • The Prix du Nord, a 3,000 francs speed contest over two kilometres. It was sponsored by the railway company "Compagnie du Chemin de Fer du Nord", by the regional council of the department of Nord and by the town of Douai.
  • Prix Mahieu, a 1,000 francs speed contest over one kilometre. The prize was named after its sponsor.
  • The Grand Prix de Douai, a 10,000 francs closed-course distance contest, sponsored by the town of Douai.
  • A cross-country distance contest 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 fund 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 aviation meeting – several of the 1909 meetings were similarly struck by storms.

The organising committee received entries for twelve machines:
  • Louis Blériot (Blériot monoplane)
  • Louis Breguet (two 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)
Monday 28 June
The weather was superb on the opening day of the meeting. Louis Blériot arrived at the airfield at noon, and immediately started flying his new model XII, which had arrived two days before. It 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 later English Channel fame and had the pilot sitting below the wing, which was mounted on top of the fuselage longerons. It was one of the first planes that was specially designed to carry two passengers, on a bench-like seat beside the pilot.

At 17:40 Blériot made a flight of 2,5 kilometres at a height of some twenty metres, thus winning the first of the five prizes of 2,000 francs posted by the town of Douai for the first pilots to make a flight of one kilometre. He also made a passenger flight of one lap. Home-town favourite Breguet made some tests with his new machine, a rather awkward-looking tractor biplane, powered by a 50 hp air-cooled Renault V-8.

Tuesday 29 June
On the following day Blériot carried a passenger for a lap of the circuit, but not much else happened.

Wednesday 30 June
During the three weeks of the meeting Blériot was extremely busy, travelling between different airfields in order to test different machines. He left Douai for the first time on on the Wednesday, going to Paris in order to test his new model XI at Issy-les-Moulineaux.

Friday 2 July
Blériot was back at the airfield after a rather fruitless trip to Issy. On the first evening it had been too windy make any flights, and on the day after he twice had to give up and land, drenched in castor oil because of lubrication problems. At La Brayelle he immediately made several flights. This was the day for the "Prix de la Corderie" (1,000 francs), for a closed circuit flight of one and a half kilometre. He took of at five o'clock in he afternoon and easily completed the required lap. Since the weather was fine he then decided to make an effort for the "Grand Prix", the distance prize. He completed four laps, but then the engine started misfiring and he had to land. Breguet continued his tests. He was not very successful and only managed some short hops, without gaining much height.

Saturday 3 July
Around ten o'clock in the morning Blériot made another test flight. After the takeoff he quickly climbed to some 30 metres of altitude and aimed his machine eastwards, towards the church tower of Douai, some three kilometres away from the airfield. He neatly rounded it and returned for a safe landing.

Around four o'clock in the afternoon Blériot made a second effort for the "Grand Prix", this time with better results. He completed 23 laps, covering 47.277 kilometres in 47 minutes 17 seconds. 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 engine block and the water mantle of the engine, causing a great cloud of white smoke to the alarm of the spectators. Blériot's shoe was by then completely burned through. 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 leaving for Paris in the evening for more flying.

Sunday 4 July
On July 4th Blériot was at Port-Aviation south of Paris, where he made a flight of 50 minutes in his model XI, winning the "Prix Archdeacon". Ferdinand Ferber, competing uinder the name "F. de Rue" was also there, winning the "Prix Lagatinerie" for the fastest three kilometres at an altitude of at least 15 metres. He immediately disassembled his machine for transport to Douai.

Monday 5 July
Paulhan had still not turned up at La Brayelle. He was at Issy-les-Moulineaux, trying to win one of the Aéro-Club's prizes for a 500 metre flight. After failing because because of engine troubles he too made preparations for transporting his machine to Douai.

Tuesday 6 July - Wednesday 7 July
De Rue and his machine arrived on the Tuesday evening. Blériot was again busy elsewhere, preparing for a cross-country flight between Étampes and Orléans, but the weather was too bad for flying.

Friday 9 July
This day was marked by a visit of the "Commission d'Aviation" of the French Sénat and a delegation of 30 members of the Russian Douma. Blériot was back at La Brayelle and made several successful short flights in front of crowds that despite some rain were estimated to 20,000. De Rue's machine was ready for flight and he made a short test flight during the evening. In the evening the mayor of Douai offered a "vin d'honneur" and a dinner, before the guests returned to Paris on a chartered train.

Saturday 10 July
The weather was still rainy, but there was still some flying. Blériot made two magnificent flights during the afternoon. Louis Paulhan had arrived and made the first practice flights in his Gnôme-powered Voisin "Octavie III" at eight o'clock in the evening, when the rain had stopped. He covered two kilometres and easily won the second of the one-kilometre prizes. Then Blériot took off for a flight of three laps, banking spectacularly in the turns. After landing he took off again with Alfred Leblanc in the passenger seat.

Both De Rue and Breguet made some short tests, the former suffering from engine problems. Neither of them appears in the reports of the following days, so they probably didn't achieve much more. This was the opening day of the 5,000 francs altitude prize, offered by the "Société Douaisienne d'Aviation", but nobody tried to claim it yet. This prize would go the flyer who first passed above a balloon anchored 120 metres above the ground. At the end of the day Blériot left again to try to make his cross-country flight.

Tuesday 13 July
On the previous two days there was apparently no action at the airfield, but on the Tuesday Paulhan made some successful flights. He first went for the speed prize and then tried to go for the distance prize. He covered 12 kilometres in a flight that lasted over 15 minutes, but he had to land because night was falling.

Meanwhile, Blériot finally managed to complete the 41 kilometre cross-country flight between Étampes (50 km south of Paris) and Orléans, winning the French Aéro-Club's "Prix du Voyage". Apart from everything else, the busy Blériot was of course also preparing for his English Channel flight, which would eventually take place on the 25th, one week after the end of the meeting.

Wednesday 14 July
Paulhan, who had only made his first flight two weeks before, astounded the reporters by audaciously leaving the airfield and making a flight over the houses at the village of Esquerchin, almost at the gates of Douai and more than two kilometres northwest of the airfield. He was celebrated by a "delirious" crowd after returning and making a perfect landing.

Thursday 15 July
The weather was very windy, so there was no flying until the evening, when the winds had calmed down. At 19:45 Blériot was first to roll out his machine. He made two short test flights to fine-tune his engine, which didn't run well. At 19:56 Paulhan took off, in front of an estimated 15,000 patient spectators who had stayed at the airfield despite the high winds and the lack of action. He made a flight of 26 laps (48.178 km) at altitudes up to 70 metres. He was in the air for 1 h 17:19, only forced down by running out of fuel. This flight would win him the 6,000 francs "Grand Prix de Douai". After landing he was carried in triumph and he was congratulated by Blériot, who had arrived during the afternoon. During the evening Paulhan fitted an extra fuel tank, hoping to go for even longer distances.

Friday 16 July
It rained the whole day, forcing the flyers to take a day off.

Saturday 17 July
There was no flying. Blériot and Paulhan spent the day preparing their machines for the last day, when the altitude, speed and distance contests would be decided.

Sunday 18 July
On Sunday July 18th, the last day of the meeting, in front of a huge crowd, 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" contest. The powerful monoplane of Blériot predictably won the speed prize with a time of 1:09, in front of Paulhan's 1:37. Blériot also took the 2-kilometre "Prix du Nord", with a time of 2:29. He was suffering badly from his burned foot and therefore decided not to make any effort at the other contests, which required longer flights. This meant that Paulhan's first place in the distance contest was under no threat.

Paulhan had his sights set on the world altitude record, which since 18 December 1908 was held by Wilbur Wright at 110 meters. After circling the airfield several times, progressively climbing higher and higher and reaching 80 metres, he seemed to aim the machine southwestwards towards Arras, going for a cross-country flight. He turned back after five or six kilometres though, having climbed even further. Coming back to the airfield he easily flew above the balloon that was anchored 120 metres above the ground. His altitude was officially recorded as 150 meters - a new world record! After another perfect landing he was "crazily celebrated", but he was soon in the air again, going for the endurance record. The new Gnôme engine, one of the first examples of the famous rotary, performed perfectly, but after 57 minutes he had run out of oil and had to give up.

Monday 19 July
The day after the official closing of the meeting Paulhan made his promised cross-country flight to the neighbouring town of Arras. He took off already at half past five in the morning, but had to land in a field already after one kilometre, troubled by heavy fog and a misfiring engine. After spending half an hour checking his engine he made a 22-minute flight and landed in a field in Saint-Nicolas, some six kilometres northeast of central Arras. He was celebrated by a delegation including the mayor and Louis Blériot, who had followed the flight in his automobile. They were accompanied by a lot of locals, who had been woken up in the morning by church bells that announced that Paulhan had taken off. He started the return flight at half past seven, but he had to land three kilometres 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 use road transport to bring the machine back to the airfield.

Blériot, Breguet, Paulhan and de Rue were the only flyers to make any flights at all. 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 organized 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 in 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, which was being assembled at the airfield but didn't fly.

Paulhan's Voisin, slightly bent after his encounter with a fence during the return flight from Arras. (6)
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