1a Grande Settimana d'Aviazione
Palermo, Italy, May 1st - 7th, 1910

Sicily's first aviation meeting: Bad weather, bad finances and little flying

Kinet flying, with the cliffs of Capo Gallo in the background. (1)
Busson's Blériot in front of the grandstands. (2)
Van Riemsdijk in front of his Curtiss. He quit flying after the Palermo meeting. His money had run out and the situation was not helped by not getting paid for his appearance in Palermo. (3)
Gaubert's Wright in its wrecked hangar. (2)
Busson's Blériot and Kinet's Farman after their collision on the ground. The damages were insignificant. In the background the signal mast and the time-keepers' building. (4)
Kuhling in his Blériot passing one of the pylons. (2)
Ravetto must have been lucky to escape from this wreck without injuries. (2)
A narrow escape: This is how close to the water Kinet landed after his last flight. (2)
Rigal was not so lucky and his Voisin overturned. Race number 4 can be seen on the fin. (5)

Palermo is a city on the beautiful north coast of Sicily, with a long history going back to Phoenician, Roman and medieval times. It is the capital of the province with the same name and in 1910 it had around 340,000 inhabitants and the third biggest harbour of Italy, after Naples and Genoa. Although there was some industry it mainly lived from agricultural products and fishery.

In 1860 the province of Palermo became part of the unified Italy and in 1910 the 50th anniversary of this event was celebrated with a big festival. As part of the celebrations, among other events like a historical exhibition, horse races and a football tournament, an aviation week was organized.

One of the leading men behind the aviation week was Vincenzo Florio, a famous industrialist and sportsman and founder of the "Targa Florio" automobile race. Florio had been interested in organizing an aviation event as early as in 1907, but failed because of the few available planes and the difficulties of transporting planes to Sicily. In 1909 he had ordered a Voisin and sent his pilot Clemente Ravetto to France to oversee the construction and receive training.

An airfield was arranged at the Bay of Mondello, which faces northeast and is dominated on the right by the 600 metre Monte Pellegrino and on the left by the hills of Capo Gallo. It was situated around 9 km north of central Palermo, but it was accessible by train and bus, as well as by sea. Today it is a seaside resort, but in 1910 a new-built canal had drained the malaria-infested swamps of the bay, making it possible to develop the area. The canal, roughly parallel to the coastline, actually served as the border of the airfield.

One hangar, of wood and fabric, was built for each competitor, and a brick building for the time-keepers and the signal mast. Grandstands, a restaurant and several bars were also provided. In front of the grandstands were boxes with chairs that could be rented for four lire per day.

A prize fund of 125,000 lire (the same amount in French francs) was raised, making it a relatively rich event. 50,000 lire of prizes were offered for the total distance contest, 40,000 for the longest non-stop flight, 10,000 for the highest flight and 25,000 for different daily contests. Flights were intended to take place on every day of the meeting, between ten o'clock and seven o'clock.

The meeting was not sanctioned by the FAI. The committee had hired the famous French aviation reporter and photographer M. Meurisse to help contract pilots, and the result was that a quality field of eleven pilots, almost all of them experienced from earlier meetings, could be announced:

  • Guillaume Busson (Blériot)
  • Joseph Christiaens (Farman)
  • André Crochon (Farman)
  • Louis Gaubert (Wright)
  • Daniel Kinet (Farman)
  • Louis Kuhling (Blériot)
  • Clemente Ravetto (AVIS/Voisin)
  • Frederick Van Riemsdijk (Curtiss)
  • Victor Rigal (Voisin)
  • Hayden Sands (Antoinette)
  • Louis Wagner (Hanriot)
Sands and Christiaens didn't turn up, but the other planes, together with their pilots and mechanics, were transported to Palermo by the steamer "Entella", which arrived on 29 April.

Probably since it was a non-sanctioned, unsuccessful event in a faraway part of Europe only a couple of brief reports were printed in the aviation press, but here is what can be extracted from those:

Sunday 1 May
The first day of the meeting was somewhat rainy, but a crowd estimated at 25,000 people turned up. At three o'clock the sun finally showed and the white flag announced that there might be flights. At half past four Crochon took off for a short flight at an altitude of 7-8 metres, followed by Busson, who flew two laps at at similar altitude. Then the rain started again and the flyers took cover in the hangars. The disappointed crowds invaded the airfield and had to be driven off by mounted policemen.

At six o'clock the sky cleared again. Wagner, Kuhling, Busson, Crochon and Ravetto all brought their planes out, but nobody managed to take off. Home-town hero Ravetto made a second try and flew a lap before heading for the sea at an altitude of 50 metres. After three minutes the spectators suddenly saw his plane lurch to the side and drop towards the sea. One of the vertical wing "curtains" of his Voisin had broken and destabilised it, but thanks to his cold-blooded manoeuvring he managed to make a safe landing. Rigal and Gaubert also made flights. Shortly before dusk Kinet made the day's longest flight, four laps, but by that time there were few people left at the airfield.

Monday 2 May
Disaster struck: The feared "libecchio" wind from the southwest hit the airfield. The hard winds and the heavy rain made a couple of the lightly built hangars collapse. Gaubert's Wright was reported as reduced to pieces and completely destroyed. Ravetto's Voisin was badly damaged, while several other planes were more or less damaged. The rain made a quagmire of the airfield.

Tuesday 3 May - Friday 6 May
Continuous rain and strong winds made all flying impossible. The weather improved somewhat on the Thursday and the white flag announced that there would perhaps be flying, but it soon turned worse again.

Saturday 7 May
In the morning of the last day of the meeting the winds finally calmed down and the red flag was hoisted. Kuhling was first to take off, followed by Wagner, but the latter immediately crashed. Kinet was next to take off, climbing to 30 metres and completing two laps. During a second flight Kuhling reached 70-75 metres. When Kinet landed his Farman was hit by Busson in his Blériot, who was trying to take off. Thankfully the propellers did not hit anything and the damages were insignificant.

Then Ravetto took off in his repaired plane, to the applause of the spectators. Shortly after the take-off the engine stopped and he tried to glide to a safe landing. Unfortunately the plane hit some telephone lines and crashed to the ground. Florio was one of the first to run to Ravetto's rescue, and thankfully the pilot escaped almost unharmed. When the crowds had recovered from the fear of a tragedy they vented the frustration with the disappointing proceedings by throwing vegetables, and reportedly some stones, at Florio and the committee. As with many other early aviation meetings nobody had bothered to inform the public that all flights were dependent on good weather.

At sunset Rigal and Kinet made the final flights of the meeting. Both had to make forced landings after flying over the sea. Rigal crashed on rocks, damaging his plane, while Kinet had the luck to reach the beach with the smallest of margins.

Kinet won the contest for the longest total distance, while Kuhling won the altitude contest. According to "The Aero" he had reached 360 metres, the highest ever reached by a Blériot, but this is not confirmed from other sources.

The competitive results of the Palermo meeting were of little interest, since nobody got their full prize money, and several of the flyers didn't get anything at all. The meeting had been a financial disaster. The income from the two days of actual flying amounted to 7,500 and 15,000 lire respectively, which wasn't by far enough to even pay the expenses. It was obviously too easy to watch the flying from outside the airfield, since was estimated that 80,000 to 100,000 people had seen the last day's flying, but only a few thousand had actually paid for entrance.

In 1910 flying was still dependent on good weather. Several of the early aviation meetings were hit by bad weather and the ambitious Palermo meeting was certainly one of the worst hit.

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