St. Petersburg Aviation Week / Санкт-Петербургская Авиационная Неделя
Saint Petersburg, Russia, May 8th - 15th, 1910

Rain, wind and controversy at the first aviation week in Russia

The Julian calendar was still used in Russia in 1910, so the dates were different from those used in western Europe.
Visitors in front of Baronesse de Laroche's hangar. (1)
Léon Morane posing in his hangar while his machine is being prepared. (2)
Edmond's Farman. "Edmond" was a pseudonym, his real name was Edmond Morelle. (2)
Edmond in front of his Farman - note the big fan shroud of the air-cooled Renault V-8. (2)
Joseph Christiaens in front of his Farman. (3)
Popoff's Wright has been placed on the starting rail and is being prepared. "Nicolas Popoff" was the name used in the Western press, his given name was Nikolai Popov (Николай Попов). (1)
Morane, Popoff and Christiaens flying at the same time against an unsettled sunset sky, probably on Wednesday 11th. Christiaens' Farman in recognizable by the short lower wing panels. (4)
Eugen Wiencziers in the cockpit of his Antoinette. (1)
Christiaens striking a relaxed pose in front of the "cockpit" of his Farman. The three tanks are a characteristic feature of his machine. (1)
Edmond's Farman in front of Wiencziers' crashed Antoinette. (1)
De Laroche as passenger in Edmond's Farman. (5)
Popoff. (2)
Baronesse Raymonde de Laroche, in the cockpit of her Voisin but hardly dressed for flying... The "baronesse" also flew under pseudonym, her real name was Élise Deroche. (1)
Christiaens and de Laroche arm in arm, accompanied by Morane. (1)

In 1910 St Petersburg was the capital of the Empire of Russia, and after Moscow its second biggest town. The population had doubled during the last thirty years and reached around 1.9 million. It was an administrative, commercial, industrial and cultural centre. It was also an important harbour and naval base, despite the icy winters when the river Neva and the Baltic were often covered by thick ice.

The aviation week of May 1910 was organized by a specially formed Aviation Committee under the auspices of the Imperial All-Russian Aero Club. The venue selected was the Kolomyazhsky racecourse, which was situated north of the city centre. It had been used for flying since 1908, and in November of 1909 the French automobile racer and pilot Albert Guyot displayed his Blériot there.

The meeting was an invitation event and six flyers were contracted. Since aviation wasn't very advanced in Russia at the time the majority were foreigners:

  • Joseph Christiaens (Belgium), Farman
  • "Edmond" (France), Farman
  • "Raymonde de Laroche" (France), Voisin
  • Léon Morane (France), Blériot
  • Nicolas Popoff (Russia), Wright
  • Eugen Wiencziers (Germany), Antoinette
Christiaens, Popoff and Edmond had all participated successfully in the Cannes meeting one month earlier. "Baroness" de Laroche had participated in the Heliopolis and Tours meetings, but in all fairness not really achieved much there. Morane was to become a famous pilot and constructor, but he had only been granted his licence the month before and this was his first meeting. The situation was similar with Wiencziers, who shortly before the meeting had made a spectacular flight over Strasbourg, circling the cathedral.

In the weeks before the meeting there were some preliminary events. The first flights were made already on the evening of April 25th, when Nicolas Popoff flew several laps. He flew also on the 27th and the 28th, particularly on the first day in sunny weather and in front of big crowds. On May 4th Hubert Latham, who was contracted to appear at the clashing Lyon meeting, displayed his Antoinette, but without much success. A huge crowd had gathered, but Latham only managed to get into the air at the fourth effort. After flying for around a minute one of the wings hit an earth mound left after track maintenance work, causing the machine to crash to the ground. The damages made further flights impossible and the spectators had to leave unsatisfied.

Sunday 8 May
The opening day of the meeting was attended by the grand duke. Before the opening the aeroplanes were blessed by a priest who sprinkled holy water on them, but it apparently didn't help much, since the day was windy and a light rain was falling.

The first flight was made by Christiaens, who only made a short jump before touching down again. It was followed by a three-minute flight by Edmond and a seven-minute flight by Morane, who reached an altitude of 120 metres. Christiaens followed, with a seven-lap flight of eleven minutes. Edmond took off again, and soon disappeared from the airfield, to everybody's surprise. Where was he going? Morane made another flight, of ten minutes. Around five o'clock the rain had stopped, but the wind increased to 10 m/s, forcing the white flag to be flown. There was still no sign of Edmond and people were anxiously speculating over what could have happened to him.

Towards the end of the afternoon the wind dropped to a more manageable 5 m/s and the flights were possible, but the six o'clock curfew was very close. Popoff's crew, headed by Melvin Vaniman, the American explorer, balloonist and photographer who would two years later be killed in the explosion of the airship "Akron", had been trying to start his engine all day and finally managed. The local hero could finally take off, to the tones of the brass band playing the national anthem. He flew lap after lap while the crowds cheered wildly.

While Popoff was flying, Edmond's Farman suddenly reappeared. He crossed the field, made a turn and landed in the middle of it. He had decided to make a flight over the islands in the Neva estuary, but a control cable had broken and forced him to make an emergency landing in a field, where he narrowly missed a ditch and immediately was surrounded by curious locals. Despite not knowing a word of Russian he managed to find two men who could rush to the airfield and find his crew. The field where he had landed looked awful, with bumps, potholes and ditches. The mechanics thought it would be better to disassemble the machine and tow it back to the airfield, but Edmond refused and ordered them to make repairs on the spot, so that he could return by air. He would only have one chance, but he said that when he was a car race driver he took risks like that all the time and this was no worse. The takeoff went well and he could return to the field.

Popoff finally landed after a 14-lap flight of almost 26 minutes, which unfortunately didn't count for the official results, since it was make after the end of official flying hours. The crowds were in uproar and the organizers tried to make Popoff go in front of the grandstands for celebrations, but the reserved Popoff refused.

The race committee took a very dim view of Edmond's escapade, since it was strictly forbidden to land outside the airfield. They fined him 100 francs for the offense and disqualified all his flights of the day. One of Morane's flights was also disallowed, since he had cut a pylon.

Monday 9 May
Official flights started at five o'clock on weekdays and since the winds were still strong nobody wanted to be first. Popoff had an excuse, since his crew had found a broken landing skid that needed to be repaired. At around half past five action started: Morane tried to take off, but landed immediately after takeoff. Then Wiencziers in his Antoinette collided on the ground with Edmond's Farman, causing considerable damage to both machines. Popoff's Wright lurched after leaving the starting rail and hit the ground. The landing skids and the right wing were damaged again, but according to his crew they would soon be repaired. Within seven minutes three machines had been put out of action!

Christiaens flew for just under ten minutes, the longest flight of the day, and was followed by Morane. After two days of flying the total official time was exactly one hour: 32 minutes by Christiaens, 26 minutes by Morane and two minutes by Edmond.

Tuesday 10 May
The weather improved on the third day of the meeting and there was considerably more flying. Christiaens made several flights totalling one hour and 28 minutes. During one them he flew out over the Baltic towards the Kronstadt naval base on the island of Kotlin, some 30 km west of central Saint Petersburg. He flew over the anchored ships and reached an estimated altitude of 200 metres.

Popoff was in the air during a total of one hour and eleven minutes and reached an altitude of 454 metres before a cylinder of the engine failed and he had to make an emergency landing, touching down heavily. Morane flew one hour and five minutes and reached 270 metres, but since neither Popoff's nor Morane's flights were officially measured they couldn't be counted for the altitude prize. After the end of the day's official flights Christiaens made some passenger flights, one of his passengers being the Spanish dancer Tamara, who was treated with a flight at 100 metres altitude. The machines of Wiencziers and Edmond were still being repaired and the Voisin of "Baronesse" de Laroche had still not been seen.

Wednesday 11 May
The weather was warm and there was not a cloud in sight. Popoff was eager to improve his results, but his engine again refused to run. Christiaens took off, landed and started a second flight while the Wright crew was working, Vaniman in despair remarking that "Christiaens can fly when he wants to". Popoff's engine didn't want to cooperate until seven o'clock, but then he took off for what would stand as the longest flight of the meeting. Morane was also allowed to take off, making it three aeroplanes in the air against the sunset "reflecting on themselves its golden glow and, intoxicated by its beauty and grandeur, boldly cut through the air in all directions" according to a reporter.

Comparing the three flyers, another reporter likened Morane's flying with subtle watercolour painting and Popoff's with a master painter capturing wide broad impulses, while he thought little of Christiaens' unspectacular workmanlike flying. Similar observations were made at other meetings, but reflecting on it in technical terms Christiaens simply flew a Gnôme-engined Farman, probably the best machine available in the end of 1909 and the beginning of 1910; reliable and neither underpowered nor inherently unstable...

Morane was first to land, followed by Christiaens, while Popoff kept flying and flying. The sun had set, but around the field torches and bonfires were lit. After two hours and eight minutes the engine failed again and he had to land. Delirious celebrations broke out and people carrying torches broke through the barriers to greet their hero. Popoff, however, wanted none of it, declaring that he was terribly tired and needed to rest, and finally managed to escape to his hangar. He was disappointed that the engine had again given up, depriving him of the chance to break the world endurance record. Christiaens longest flight of the day was 1 h 37, while Morane's several shorter flights added up to 2 h 02.

In the local press there were complaints that Popoff had to fly the old-fashioned and unreliable Wrights, and particularly with inferior French-built Barriquand & Marre engines instead of the better engines of the German-built Wrights, while the foreigners had access to better machines. A subscription campaign was started in order to provide better aeroplanes for the Russian pilots.

Thursday 12 May
The strong winds returned and only very short flights were made. The only one to reach any altitude was Popoff, but his effort ended after two minutes. He crashed heavily from fifteen metres when he was caught by a gust. People rushed to the accident site, but were relieved to see Popoff manage to get out of the tangled wreckage without aid. He wasn't badly injured, but complained about some chest pain. The accident reinforced his status as the lone hero who flies when none of the paid foreign professionals dares. Popoff said that the accident was his fault for underestimating the wind, but added that the team had a second machine, a brand new one that had never flown, that could be readied in a couple of hours.

Christiaens and the other foreign flyers protested this and demanded that if he used a second machine the flights made on the first machine should be disqualified from the competitions. Heated discussions followed and the foreign pilots declared that they would not fly if Popoff's times were allowed.

Friday 13 May
The strong winds continued all day and nobody could make any flights, so the threatened pilot strike never really came to happen. The controversy about Popoff's new machine continued on the airfield and in the press, which naturally supported Popoff's case and condemned the unsportsmanlike foreigners. The organizers, faced with a blackmail situation and conflicting opinions, finally sent a telegram to the International Sports Commission in Paris, requesting them to urgently give their judgment.

Saturday 14 May
The reply from Paris arrived during the morning: Time may be counted for flights on different machines if the contracts for the meeting were concluded for individual pilots rather than for certain aeroplanes, and if there were compelling reasons. Faced with this decision from the highest authority the foreign flyers had to give up and accept the humiliation of defeat.

The descriptions of the mayhem of the last three days of the meeting are rather sketchy and conflict somewhat in the reports of the meeting, but the following is an attempt to make sense of the events. If you know of an accurate report please contact us so that the text can be corrected!

The sky was clear and the winds had reduced somewhat on the Saturday, so all fliers tried to make flights. The day was still a disaster, because almost nothing was achieved and all six fliers had damaged or unserviceable machines at the end of the day. Popoff was the first to take off, but didn't even manage a complete lap before his machine began to "writhe in agony", according to an observer. He lost control over his brand new Wright during a tight turn and crashed into a palisade. Fortunately he could once again miraculously crawl uninjured from a mangled wreck - for the second time in three days! The accident was blamed on a wire that had come loose.

Soon thereafter Wiencziers' engine failed after a flight of four minutes and forced him down immediately in front of the grandstands. His landing gear was damaged, but could be replaced in a couple of hours. Then Edmond and Christiaens flew, Edmond with two passengers, princess Sophia Dolgorukov and Baroness de Laroche. Morane made a flight of eight minutes, the day's longest, but he crashed into Christiaens' Farman after landing. Edmond also broke the wheels of his Farman when landing. The Baronesse, whose fancy clothing and habits of drinking champagne with officers in her hangar instead of flying had been the target of some ridicule in the local press, finally made her first flight. It lasted only three minutes, and the elevators were broken during the landing.

Sunday 15 May
It rained torrentially all day. Edmond and Christiaens had repaired their machines and tried to make flights in order to please the crowds, but had to give up. The organizers had to give the money back to the ticket-holders and persuaded the flyers to stay on for an extra day.

Monday 16 May
The extra day of the meeting was visited by the emperor, Nicholas II, who was accompanied by prince Heinrich and princess Irene of Prussia and a big entourage of ministers and nobility. The emperor expressed great interest in the event and despite strict security measures made a thorough visit of the hangars, where the crews described how the flying machines worked.

It was still quite windy, but several pilots flew despite the tricky conditions. The longest flight was made by Christiaens, who flew ten laps of the course. Baroness de Laroche made a twenty-minute flight, reaching a height of 200 metres, claimed to be an altitude record for women.

The meeting unfortunately ended with a nasty accident. After a ten-minute flight Morane lost control over his Blériot and crashed into Christiaens' stationary machine, which was surrounded by interested visitors. Several people were injured, particularly airship general Alexander Kovanko and V. S. Krivenko, aviation writer at the newspaper "Novoye Vremya". They were both reported to be in very serious condition. Some reports stated that Kovanko died from his injuries and obituaries were published in several European aviation magazines. This was not true, though, he continued to serve Russian aviation and didn't die until 1919. The authorities confiscated Morane's machine and prize money, and ordered him to remain in St Petersburg at the disposal of the police.

The meeting can hardly be called a success. The inclement weather meant that there were really only two good flying days, and the numerous accidents and resulting damaged machines also restricted the amount of flying. The foreign pilots' unsportsmanlike threats to go on strike in order to remove Popoff from the contest were very negatively reported and left a sour aftertaste. From a financial point the meeting was a success, however: It had cost 106,000 roubles to organize the meeting and the income from ticket sales was 120,000.

After the meeting all the flyers were decorated with the Imperial Order of St. Anne and the mechanics were given silver medals. In addition, the czar gave the flyers expensive gifts: Popoff got a gold watch and chain, Morane and Edmond received gold cigarette cases, Wiencziers and Christiaens got gold watches and chains and Mme de Laroche was presented with a gold bracelet, all the gifts decorated with diamonds and with the Russian coat of arms.

The Farmans of Christiaens and Edmond were bought by the Russian government after the meeting. Edmond was employed to stay in Russia for two months in order to serve as instructor for the officers who would use the machines. Morane's machine also remained in Russia, bought by a Mr. Vasiliev.

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