The little town Spa in the Liège province of the
Belgian Ardennes is famous since Roman times for its
healthy iron-rich water, in fact so famous that its name
has become the general term for water therapy
installations. In 1909 the town had around 8,000
inhabitants, but some 25,000 visitors came each year to
drink water, gamble at the casino and enjoy
The first ideas of an aviation contest in Spa were launched already in March 1908. A committee was established and a three-day meeting in July 1908 was planned. A price fund of 75,000 francs was promised. In June 1908 Henry Farman was consulted about the airfield, and he found the proposed site, the horse race course at La Sauvenière, too restricted. He recommended building a new field further away from the town. The meeting was re-scheduled to start in mid-August, but in the end it came to nothing. In early August the Belgian Aéro-Club informed the committee that it hadn't received even a single entry to the competitions.
The "Aéro Club de Liège-Spa" was formed in late 1908, and soon revived the ideas and started planning a two-week meeting. The club also took help from Frantz Reichel, the aviation reporter of "Le Figaro", who had many contacts in flying circles. After some rescheduling, a date in the end of September was decided, and this time it would actually happen.
Four foreign flyers were contracted. Leon Delagrange would bring two Blériots for himself and his newly recruited pilot Hubert Le Blon, and a Voisin, which in the end would only leave its hangar for a couple of tests. Louis Paulhan would bring his Voisin "Octavie No 3" and Roger Sommer his Farman. In addition to these well-known names the Belgian Druet brothers would bring his biplane and Comte de la Vaulx would have his airship "Zodiac III" ready for flights during the second week of the meeting. The Romanian inventor Henri Coanda had brought a glider, which was to take off from a wheeled trolley pulled by a weight dropped from a pylon similar to that used by the Wright brothers. A local inventor by the name of Spoo-Naert would display his fourteen-horsepower, eight-wing ornithopter, a tethered balloon, the "Mallet" of M. Hervieux, would make flights and there would be kite-flying competitions, offering prices of 10 to 40 francs for fastest climb, longest line paid out and heaviest weight carried.
The pilots received a daily salary of 1,000 francs, which would cover all expenses. This represented half of the 162,000 francs costs for staging the meeting. Five contests were announced, for endurance, distance, speed, altitude and quickest take-off. No prize money was offered, but the winners of the different events would get trophies.
The installations were inspired by the recent Reims meeting and left little to be desired. The airfield was built at Malchamps, on the uncultivated plateau between Spa and Francorchamps, some five kilometres from the Spa-Francorchamps circuit where the Belgian Formula One Grand Prix is held. A four-pylon 2-kilometre course was marked up. Hangars, grandstands, a buffet, kiosks, a signal mast and a result board were built, and large spectator areas were cleared. A private telephone line connected the airfield with the Casino of Spa, and flags indicating the flying conditions were hoisted not only at several places in Spa, but also in Brussels, Liège and Verviers. Law and order would be ensured by 200 gendarmes, two squadrons of lancers and a company of bicycle infantry. The railway companies organized special trains from several major Belgian towns.
In the middle of September "Flight" announced that the Aero Club of Belgium had issued a notice that the Spa meeting was not authorized by them, and that any participants would be disqualified for all international events. Nobody got disqualified in the end, so the organizers apparently managed to make peace with the Aero Club, but this was only the first time that sanctioning conflicts would affect an aviation meeting.
Monday 20 September
Anybody who follows Formula One knows that weather in the Spa area is at best unpredictable, so it is perhaps no surprise that the first day's flying was prevented by wind and rain. The flyers were anyway busy assembling their planes, and even though the visitors had paid a high price to get in, 20 francs for a seat in the grandstands and 1 franc in the public enclosures, they appeared to be pleased with seeing real airplanes and following the action in the hangars.
Tuesday 21 September
Torrential rain fell during the night and into the second day and despite being covered with fir branches and ash the roads around the airfield were getting very difficult to use.
Wednesday 22 September
The weather was much better and the wind was down to 5-7 m/s, so at eleven o'clock the white flag was hoisted. The meeting was inaugurated by Princess Clementine, "exquisitely dressed in pink and wearing a beautiful coat", in the presence of the organizing committee and several local dignitaries. She went from hangar to hangar, visiting the flyers and having "charming words" for everybody. Towards the end of the third day there was finally some flying: Around sunset Delagrange made a short flight, but he had spark-plug problems and had to land after only 700 metres, frightening a flock of grouse as he came down on the spongy peat ground. The evening brought the disturbing news that Ferdinand Ferber had been killed in his Voisin at Boulogne. He was the second pilot to die in an air accident, and it happened less than two weeks after Eugène Lefebvre's fatal accident at Port-Aviation.
Thursday 23 September
The final planes, Delagrange's Voisin and his second Blériot, arrived during the morning after being released by the Belgian customs. The princess made another visit in the afternoon, when the weather was better. Delagrange was the hero of the day, making four splendid flights, the longest for three laps. During the afternoon there was another heavy rain shower. After trying several times to take off from the soft airfield Sommer finally made a flight at around six o'clock, when the rain had stopped, but for some reason he didn't turn at the far end of the course and finally landed some three kilometres from his hangar. He landed in a marsh and it took his crew until half past nine in the evening to get the machine back to the hangar, some of them wet above the knees. Paulhan also made a short flight, but was forced down after 250 meters, putting the plane on its nose without causing any damage. The crash was blamed on faulty rigging of the tail. Towards the late afternoon the rain returned again.
Friday 24 September
The sky was overcast during the morning and remained showery and unstable during the afternoon, but some flying was still possible towards the end of the day. The unlucky Paulhan, by now completely frustrated by the poor ground conditions, made another short hop, which resulted in heavy landing and a broken propeller. Delagrange flew twice for a total of four laps before being forced down when his engine suddenly stopped. His dramatic landing caused some concern among the spectators, but no damage was done. Sommer flew five laps during the late afternoon. Le Blon, who was still under instruction from Delagrange and had only made two straight-line hops before, flew two laps. Towards the evening the wind and rain returned.
Saturday 25 September
On this day all the factories of the region were closed in order to give their employees that chance to watch the flying, and miraculously the day started with fine weather and low winds. Despite the muddy ground Delagrange and Sommer made several flights, totalling five laps each. Delagrange improved Sommer's previous best lap time by almost four seconds, posting a best of 1:44.6. He also took the lead in the altitude completion by reaching 35 meters.
Paulhan's troubles continued. His Voisin didn't have the advantage of the double wheels of Sommer's Farman or the light weight of Delagrange's Blériots, so it suffered badly from the soft ground. On top of that his engine didn't run well and it was suspected that it had been damaged when he landed in the sea at Ostend before the meeting.
Sunday 26 September
The rain had started again on the evening before and even though the weather looked promising during the morning it soon got worse again. 230 gendarmes struggled to control over 10,000 spectators who were frustrated by waiting for hours. Sommer then crashed his plane when some people got in his way, forcing him to land suddenly. The wheels stuck in the soft ground and the plane was completely wrecked when it nosed over.
Delagrange crashed in a similar way after a flight of four laps, his second of the day. A sudden rain shower forced him to land quickly, and the wheels got stuck in a muddy patch after the landing. His plane stood on its nose and the propeller and some wing rigging were broken. Thankfully neither of the pilots was injured. Delagrange managed to get out his plane unaided and was carried on the shoulders of enthusiastic fans to his hangar, where he was met by princess Clémentine.
Monday 27 September
If was decided to postpone the meeting while a 150 by 15 metre strip of the by now completely waterlogged airfield was covered with planks in order to make it possible to start. There was no flying, but the crews had lots to do repairing the planes after the accidents. Sommer's plane turned out to be less damaged than first thought. He had the wing of his Farman sent to Liège, where it could be repaired. Delagrange's crew also assembled his old Voisin, now reportedly equipped with a Mutel engine. The Druet brothers tried to finish preparing their plane, which had been damaged during the transport to the airfield. The day was finished by a banquet for the flyers.
Tuesday 28 September
The Tuesday started with a kite-flying contest, which ended in chaos when the wind suddenly dropped and around a dozen of competitors had to quickly wind down the hundreds of metres of wire holding their kites. The wires of many competitors were so tangled that they had to be weighed instead of measured. The winner was a M. Droeven, who had paid out 1,025 metres of wire.
Le Blon continued his progress by flying fourteen laps at around four o'clock. The flight, officially measured to 21.984 kilometres covered in 23:09.6, was the longest of the meeting. The other pilots didn't achieve much, despite the sunny weather, which attracted more than 25,000 spectators. Delagrange had engine problems and only flew a single lap.
Paulhan announced that because of the unsatisfactory state of the field he would not make any further flights during the meeting. His partner Henri Brégi stated that the plane was out of trim since it had had a replacement tail installed after the Ostend ditching. In order to achieve proper rigging the unbalanced plane had to be test-flown, and this was impossible to do without a good airfield. After making an agreement with the organizers Paulhan left Spa for Paris during the Tuesday night. The agreement doesn't appear to have been all that friendly. M. Lambert, president of the committee, made an official statement that Paulhan "had promised to come back as soon as possible with another machine. We are waiting for him. Will he come back? That's his business. If he doesn't come back we will keep the 25,000 francs cheque that we promised him for flying". Paulhan didn't come back. He only spent some hours in Paris, before going to the Cologne meeting, which was to open on September 30th.
Count van der Burch, the vice president of the organizing committee, declared that he had decided to buy Delagrange's plane and start flying himself. In the darkness of the evening Coanda finished building the launching-pylon for his glider. The first crates containing the "Zodiac III" arrived during the day, but any flights before the weekend seemed unlikely.
Sommer declared that he would give up flying after the meeting. He stated that the deaths of Lefebvre and Ferber had deeply impressed his friends and family, who had convinced him to give up this sport, which had already created so many martyrs. In the future he would focus on the family's felt manufacturing business, which had suffered from his flying activities. He had sold his plane to Belgians Daniel Kinet and Marcel Grammont earlier during the meeting.
Wednesday 29 September
At six o'clock in the morning Coanda made a first effort to fly his glider, but the weight couldn't give the plane enough speed and it simply dropped off its trolley, throwing off the pilot and breaking some rigging wires. The launching apparatus didn't look practical. The plane didn't sit well on its trolley and the pylon didn't inspire confidence, with the weight falling uncontrolled and risking to hit the structure.
Later in the morning the bad weather returned, so flying was impossible until four o'clock, when Delagrange made two flights, each of two laps. He then gathered the timekeepers in order to try for the record for the shortest take-off. On his second attempt he managed to lift off in 49.4 meters, thus beating Alberto Santos-Dumont's previous record, set in his new Demoiselle, by 14 meters. He flew another lap, to the ovations of the spectators, before the rain forced him down again. During the day Delagrange's mechanic Georges Prévoteau left Spa with one of the Blériots in order to prepare for Delagrange's participation in the Cologne meeting.
Thursday 30 September
The Belgian Foreign Minister Julien Davignon and Minister of War General Hellebaut visited the airfield. When the wind calmed down Delagrange flew two laps and Le Blon three. Delagrange also tried to beat his take-off record from the previous day, but only managed 51 metres.
Friday 1 October
Violent winds made flights impossible. The tarpaulins that covered the big hangar for the airship "Zodiac III" threatened to fly away, and the fire brigade and all other available hands were required to hold down the cables that attached them.
Saturday 2 October
Sommer had finally repaired his Farman and made two fine flights of totally fifteen laps. Delagrange and Le Blon made short flights in their Blériots. Delagrange also rolled out his old Voisin, which had finally received the new propeller that had gone missing on the Belgian railways, but a wheel broke and the right wing touched the ground, breaking the vertical surface at the wing tip. The Druet brothers tried to make a flight in their biplane, but failed. Count de la Vaulx finally made a flight in "Zodiac III", passing the German border, some 20 kilometres away. Expectations were high for the final Sunday, when the final results of the contests would be decided.
Sunday 3 October
However, the Ardennes weather struck again on the Sunday. The rain kept falling and the wind threatened the hangars. Count de la Vaulx had to deflate his airship, a loss of hydrogen worth 1,400 francs. Even though they had been given access to the hangar area in order to be able to see the machines from close, the increasingly frustrated crowds manifested their displeasure and some incidents occurred. In the evening a dinner was held for the flyers. During the night between Sunday and Monday the wind got even worse and brought down the hangars of "Zodiac III". On the following night the hangar of the Spoo-Naert ornithoptre was also brought down.
This was the end of the meeting. Delagrange had won the prizes for total flying time and speed, while Le Blon won the prize for the longest non-stop flight.
The Spa meeting was unanimously reported as well-organized, but the few flyers at the weather-troubled meeting didn't achieve anything of greater importance and it appears that the focus on competitive activities was not very strong. Some of the press blamed it on the fact that flyers were salaried and did not receive any prize money. The total time flown during the two weeks was less than three hours. The "Zodiac III" only made one seventeen-minute flight, which must have been a big disappointment for the organizers who had paid the enormous sum of 30,000 francs for its participation. The tethered balloon never flew. On the other hand, it was calculated that the event had attracted around 100,000 visitors to the Spa-Francorchamps area.
The big star of the meeting was Delagrange, of whom Frantz Reichel of "Le Figaro" wrote lyrically: "Delagrange is in admirable form. He is marvellously master of his monoplane, which he throws over the sky with a remarkable security, authority and style. His flight is light, fast, elegant and so purposeful that it is like a bird jumping into space. He does not take off gradually, he takes to the air in one magnificent movement" … "Delagrange leaped into the air, wings spread, like a dragonfly, hovering in the splendid sky in a flight of rare beauty"