Wolverhampton is an industrial town in central England, in
Staffordshire's "Black Country". In 1910 it had around
90,000 inhabitants, many of them working in the ironworks and foundries
for which the area was known. The total number of manufacturing
companies in the area was around 300. On September 3rd, 1909 the
Midland Aero Club, the fourth British aero club, was formed there.
During the spring of 1910 the club started planning an aviation
meeting, the third competitive meeting in Britain. The two previous
meetings, which were held in Doncaster and Blackpool, both in October
of 1909, had been dominated by French flyers. In order to encourage
British aviation it was therefore decided that this would be a national
meeting, for British flyers only. It was estimated that it would cost £
5,000 to organize the meeting, and in mid-May, when £ 3,200 had been
raised, it was decided to go ahead.
It was decided to hold the meeting at the Dunstall Park race course, around two kilometres northwest of the city centre, at the junction of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal and the Birmingham Canal. Several flyers soon indicated that they would participate, and in early June a provisional program was published. It included contests for nine different prizes, with a total prize fund of more than £ 5,000, during five days. Several contractors started preparing for the meeting, building six permanent and several temporary hangars, a timing pavilion and other necessary installations.
In the end more than twenty flyers entered, a mixture of experienced flyers, such as Samuel Cody, A. V. Roe, Charles Rolls, George Cockburn, Claude Grahame-White and Alfred Rawlinson, and complete novices in untested machines. Four of the pilots had not qualified for the necessary pilot's license and hoped to do so before the deadline of June 24th, three days before the meeting. Only one of them, Captain George Dawes, actually managed to make the necessary qualification flights, which meant that the potential starting field was reduced by three. It was further reduced when Cody and Roe dropped out, but in the end a dozen pilots would fly during the meeting.
The rule about only British participants caused some controversy at the start of the meeting. A couple of the competitors questioned whether Cecil Grace, who was born in Chile by American/Irish parents who lived in America, would be allowed to participate, but in the end he was accepted. According to the Royal Aero Club's ruling, a national meeting was only confined to aviators of that particular nationality if an international meeting was held on the same date elsewhere, and since this was not the case foreign competitors of any kind could actually have participated. Grace eventually did become a naturalised British citizen on 18 October 1910.
Further controversy was caused when some of the competitors had gathered that their hotel expenses were not to be paid because they didn't have a signed agreement with the promoters. They threatened to let their machines remain in the hangars, but eventually things were set right when the organizers guaranteed that all expenses would be paid.
Monday 27 June
The weather was very windy and gusty in the morning, with wind speeds of at least 13 m/s. The meeting was officially opened by a luncheon, at which the Earl of Plymouth, the president of the meeting, presided. In his speech he, with some foresight considering the kind of weather that the week would offer, encouraged patience from the spactators and stated that it was "nothing less than criminal folly and criminal selfishness to urge those who had by their experience the only knowledge of what they could do, to fly when the conditions were unfavourable".
It was intended that flying would start at half past one, but the several thousand visitors had to wait for the first flight. The organizers arranged for the machines to be paraded in front of the grandstands to offer something to look at, but the wind even made even that difficult. When they were all lined up the wind suddenly calmed down, and at 15:20 Grahame-White started his Farman, with a passenger on board, and took off. His machine pitched and rolled in the turbulence that was set up by the railway bank and the woods and hills that bordered the airfield and the clump of trees in its middle. He landed after a straight flight, turned the machine on the ground and flew back. After his flight the red flag, signalling the start of official flights, was flown.
George Barnes was first in his Humber monoplane, but he only made a short hop before taxying back. Alan Boyle in the Avis monoplane also made a short flight, as also did Launcelot Gibbs on his Sommer. Gibbs landed on some rough ground in the centre of the field and damaged his landing gear. Then Grace, in his Short biplane, made the best flight of the day. He climbed above the tree-tops at the western end of the course and came back to make a safe landing. Grahame-White made a short and low flight, as did James Radley, whose light Blériot pitched badly in the turbulence, forcing him to land at the farm in the western end of the airfield and return on the ground. While he was still on the ground, Grace made a second flight, bravely fighting the wind, which was again increasing. While approaching Barnes he was caught by the turbulence, pitched down, and passed only some two meters above Barnes and his machine. After a long period without any flights Grahame-White made two short flights in the evening, followed by Rawlinson, and that was the end of the day's flying.
Tuesday 28 June
The only pilot to make any flight at all was Alec Ogilvie, who took his Short/Wright biplane out already at half past four in the morning. He landed with strong tailwind after a short flight, and broke a landing skid and one of the tension wires inside the wing. His mechanics managed to remove the wing covering, replace the wire, recover the wing and reassemble the machine already by lunchtime, but to no avail.
When official flights should have started half a gale blew, 11-14 m/s, making flying absolutely impossible. The flyers didn't even open their hangars. One of the canvas hangars, housing Lionel Mander's Blériot, was demolished by the wind. In the afternoon, the gusts reached 17-18 m/s. The visitors were admitted into the hangar are to see the planes, but there would be no flying. Several of the flyers spent the afternoon in automobiles, exploring the four potential courses for the cross-country contest scheduled for the Thursday.
Wednesday 29 June
The strong winds continued into the morning, but towards the afternoon the winds calmed down. It was decided that conditions were good enough to run the "get-off competition" for the shortest take-of distance, but the rules were somewhat relaxed. It was originally intended that the flyers would have to complete a lap of the course after their take-off, but the requirement was reduced to a flight of more than 200 yards.
When the contest opened at three o'clock Radley was the first to try, but he touched down too soon. Gibbs on his Farman was second, with the same result. These two failed efforts didn't matter, since the committee decided that since they had been made during a rainstorm the pilots would still be allowed three chances to win the price. After some time they were followed by Cockburn, Grahame-White, Rawlinson, Barnes and Boyle, the former two completing all their three efforts. It was a close-run contest, with Cockburn's third and best result of 100 feet 5 inches beating Grahame-White's best by only 14 inches (36 centimetres). After his third flight, Cockburn was caught by a gust and landed heavily, breaking a landing skid. His propeller hit the ground and disintegrated completely, and a wing was lightly damaged.
Then proceedings were interrupted by another rain shower, and flights only started again soon before half past seven, when the flyers started flying for the total time contest. Rawlinson and Grahame-White were first to take off, the former rising to the "considerable height" of 30 metres, but only staying in the air for some seven minutes. When landing, his machine was rolled over to the right by a gust, crashed heavily, and was considerably damaged. Grahame-White took over the lead, with an even higher flight of 15:38. While they were in the air Grace took off, turning in ever larger circles and eventually reaching well over 150 metres. After leaving the airfield on the north side and flying beyond the railway he landed after 27:45, after a fine vol plané, to the congratulations of the crowds and the press.
Rolls, Radley, Dawes and Barnes also made short flights, none of them much longer than two minutes. Rolls had carefully inspected the grounds before to find out where he could land his Wright safely. His machine was equipped with wheels, but they were small and had no springs or shock-absorbers and in his words "only suited for landing on tennis lawns", so he was uneasy about the cart ruts that criss-crossed the field and the differences in level between the racecourse and the surrounding areas.
Thursday 30 June
The day again opened cold and stormy, and at twelve o'clock rain was falling heavily in the gusty wind. There were indications that the stormy weather would improve, and at noon the white flag was flown, indicating that flights were likely. At intervals the sun did shine, but the high winds continued and the afternoon passed without any attempts to fly. At half past four the rain was pouring in torrents. A crowd of some 10,000 people had waited for hours in the miserable weather and it wasn't until a quarter to eight that the first signs of activity on the part of the aviators rewarded them.
Then Boyle brought out his Avis monoplane and flew around the course in the pouring rain. Soon afterwards Radley, Grahame-White and Gilmour each made flights of one or two laps. The crowd had increased in the evening, and there were thousands of spectators when Gibbs wheeled his Farman out of its shed. Amid the cheers of the crowd he took off and was soon flying round the course to improve his position in the total distance contest. He flew for 30 minutes, which according to the rules for the contest was the longest time to be counted for a single flight. The maximum counted time had been reduced from one hour after a petition from the monoplane flyers. Then Grace took off and flew for 24 minutes, and Grahame-White for 30 minutes, all being in the air at once. Ogilvie tried to start, but didn't manage to leave the ground, while Rolls and Boyle each were up for a little over a minute.
Friday 1 July
The penultimate day of the meeting was another miserable day with gusty winds and persistent rain showers. During the morning the public was admitted to the hangar enclosure to view the machines, and as a result the ground in the front of the hangars was trodden into a quagmire "through which the various cars acting as tenders to the aviators ploughed their way at about two miles an hour, while the driving wheels were doing about forty, and most of the aviators were going about in sea boots", according to the reporter from "The Aero".
At two o'clock the red flag was hoisted, and Boyle brought out his machine and made a pretty test flight around the course. Then followed the competition for the greatest total flight time for monoplanes. Radley completed two rounds of the course, flying a few feet from the ground, in 3:40. Captain Dawes retired to the hangar after a hop of a few yards. Gilmour made a steady flight around the course and came to earth after a little more than one minute. Barnes also attempted a flight, but the wind was difficult, and he had considerable trouble controlling his machine at the turning points. Then a sharp shower drove all the aviators back again to the hangars again. When flying was resumed, half an hour later, Gibbs flew a lap, as did Ogilvie, but because of engine troubles neither was able to remain in the air for long. This concluded the afternoon's flying.
In the evening the red flag was hoisted at a quarter past seven, when the wind had dropped enough for the total flying time flights to be resumed. Both monoplanes and biplanes engaged in their respective competitions, in front of almost 10,000 spectators. Ogilvie was first up in his Wright, but only flew a short circle in the infield and landed after 43 seconds. Radley landed after an erratic flight of 38 seconds. The next flyer was Boyle, who was only up for 46 seconds. Grahame-White then appeared on his Farman, and the spectators gave him a hearty cheer as a send-off. His performance was disappointing, however, since the turbulence was still difficult. His machine pitched and rolled badly, and he had to land at the far end of the course near the farmhouse. It was obvious that it was still too windy, so the judges decided to call off the competition.
In order to give the spectators something for their money an improvised "get-off" competition was arranged. In the course of this, Grahame-White got off the ground in 23.7 metres and Rolls in a little over 27 metres. Despite the lack of flying and the miserable weather the promoters had some reason to cheer, because the attendance in the evening was nearly 20,000. Just before nine o'clock the red flag was taken down, signalling the end of the day's proceedings.
Saturday 2 July
The strong south-westerly wind kept blowing all the afternoon, but in the evening the wind dropped. At four o'clock the first machine came out, Barnes' Humber. Barnes was at last, after repeatedly requesting permission, allowed to start for the special prize put up for Midland-built machines. He flew half a mile and was then brought down by the wind, but since no other Midland aviator flew at all it was sufficient for him to qualify for the prize.
Shortly after Barnes' landing Grahame-White made a test flight, and then there was a thunderstorm, lasting almost until five o'clock. When it had finished Gibbs brought out his Farman and started a flight for the totalisation prize. Gibbs flew the first lap at a height of 12-15 metres, and then climbed to around 30 metres and stayed at that altitude for the rest of his half-hour. Meanwhile, Boyle brought out his machine and flew almost three laps under perfect control, until forced down by his overheating Anzani engine.
During the afternoon the wind changed, coming from the northeast rather than the southwest. This set up turbulence patterns around the course that were different from those that the flyers had got used to earlier in the week. In particular, a gap in the trees lining the field suddenly exposed the planes to the wind from behind as they were turning at the western end of the course. The first to be surprised by this was Grace, who had taken off while Gibbs was flying. After a first lap in calmer weather he was blown completely off the course on the second lap, disappearing out of sight douth of the field, close to Dunstall Hall. He was forced to land as best he could, and broke the left landing skid and the propeller in the process.
Shortly afterwards the same thing happened to Boyle, but he was blown off the course in different place, where he had to dodge several trees and eventually landed practically in the middle of a group of school children. Fortunately no one was hurt, and his machine wasn't damaged, so he simply turned it round, started the engine again, and flew back over the fence to the starting place.
Grahame-White had taken off almost immediately after Grace. For one lap the two Farmans and the Short were all in the air together, and quite close to each other, but soon after Grace's accident Gibbs was signalled to come down as his half-hour was up. This left Grahame-White alone on the course for a while, and he too would go on to finish his thirty minutes. Gilmour took off, but was forced down by the wind, the heavy landing breaking the back of his already patched and repaired Blériot. The next to try was Radley, who didn't fare any better. While making the first turn after crossing the starting line he was caught from the side by a gust that tipped the machine over until the left wing touched the ground. The wing crumpled, so the crash was fortunately less heavy than if the machine had nosed over. Radley climbed out of the machine, which was lying on side. After inspecting the damages he calmly walked over to the hangars to try and borrow N. F. Holder's Humber and have another attempt for the prize. However, that machine wasn't working, so he did not appear again except to disassemble his machine and bring it back to the hangar. The fuselage was broken just aft the engine, so the simplest way of getting the machine back was to remove the wings and cut the fuselage in two where it was already broken. The rear part was carried home by four or five men, "quite a sad little procession" according to "The Aero".
Around seven o'clock Ogilvie made "an exceptionally pretty flight" for about four laps, but his machine was obviously underpowered and he had to coax every bit of altitude out of it during the straights to cope with the loss of altitude during the turns. After flying like this for a few minutes the machine suddenly dropped when practically over the wreck of Radley's machine. Ogilvie almost managed to save it, but lacked the last bit of altitude to recover. The machine hit the ground a hundred meters after the initial drop, breaking both skids and one the propellers. The pilot was fortunately completely unhurt.
Soon after eight o'clock the spectators were again treated to the spectacle of three biplanes flying in the air together. Gibbs started first and was closely followed by Grahame-White and Rolls, all trying to improve their results in the totalisation prize. After about a quarter of an hour Gibbs' machine dropped suddenly and the left landing skid touched the ground. This spun the machine around and wiped out the entire landing gear, leaving it resting on its lower wing, with a broken propeller. Gibbs crawled out of the wreckage and made his way back to the hangars, where he filed a protest against Grahame-White, claimed that he had caused the accident by flying too close. Soon afterwards both Grahame-White and Rolls landed safely. Gibbs' protest was later withdrawn, but since he was the only pilot who could have matched Grahame-White's result it meant the latter won the total flight time prize, having flown a total of 1 h 33:20.
Since so much flying time had been lost during the week, it was decided that there would be no separate speed contest and that the results would instead be decided by the fastest three consecutive laps during the Saturday evening. Rolls was the winner, taking 4:13.0 to complete his best three laps. The difference between the top speeds of the machines was actually not big, but his manoeuvrable Wright enabled Rolls to make much sharper turns than Gibbs and Grahame-White in their Farmans and win by a broad margin. Late in the evening Grahame-White took Lady Scott (the wife of the Arctic explorer), Lady Muriel Paget and several of the officials for short trips on his machine.
The total flying time during the six days of the meeting was less than five hours, and only three of the pilots (Grahame-White, Gibbs and Grace) made any flights longer than ten minutes, but despite the bad weather, the long periods without flying and the numerous accidents the meeting was considered a success. The efforts of the organizers of the meeting were highly praised by the press, as were the pluck, endurance, and skill of the aviators who braved the difficult wind conditions around the tightly confined airfield.
"The Aero" also praised the behaviour of the audience. They noted "the almost entire absence of the rougher element from the audience at Wolverhampton; even in the cheapest enclosure it seemed to consist on Saturday evening of the better class mechanics and comparatively well-to-do people generally, and there seemed to be practically none of the roughs and rowdies who undoubtedly exist in the district".