During the summer of 1909 it was becoming obvious that the August
Reims meeting would become the biggest aviation event ever. Seeing
this, the Paris-based organisations Ligue Nationale Aérienne (LNA) and
Société d'Encouragement à l'Aviation (SEA) wanted to give the
Parisians something similar. Paris was after all at the time the
world's third largest town and the centre of the emerging French
aviation industry. In the middle of August it was announced that the
event, labelled as the "Grande Quinzaine d'Aviation"
would be held over a fortnight ("quinzaine" in French) from
October 3rd to 17th. The responsibility of the meeting would be split
between three organisations, with the LNA being responsible for the
first eight days, the SCA for the next six days and the Aéro-Club de
France for the fifteenth day. This led to a long and confusing list of
events and prizes, some of which ran only on a single day while others
could be competed for during several days. The race program contained
18 different competitive events, but all of them are not mentioned in
reports. On the other hand, reports from the race mention prizes that
weren't in the race program.
Since there were no suitable sites in Paris itself it was decided to hold the meeting at the Port-Aviation airfield, which was situated between the communes of Juvisy, Savigny-sur-Orge and Viry-Chatillons, around 20 km south of the centre of the town. This field, the world's first purpose-built airfield, was operated by the SCA and had hosted the world's first air races in April and May 1909. The airfield had several marked courses of different lengths. From the results it appears that courses of 2 km, 1.667 km and 1.5 km were used during the meeting. Before the meeting the facilities were expanded with several new hangars, a signal mast modelled on the Reims one, enlarged grandstands and automobile parking areas, restaurants, post office, telegraph and many other spectator services. In addition to the grandstands a lot of chairs were brought in, bringing the total number of seats to 30,000. The railway company Compagnie d'Orléans optimistically promised special train services every four minutes to the Savigny-sur-Orge station. Several individuals and organisations offered prizes, resulting in an announced prize sum of 200,000 francs. Law and order would be ensured by 110 gendarmes on horse-back, several squadrons of the 27th dragoon regiment and two battalions of the 31st infantry regiment.
The event quickly gathered a large number of entrants. The list of 43 entrants was bigger than that of the Reims meeting, but it included several novices, optimists and wannabes from the Port-Aviation flying schools and hangars. Some were blank entries from manufacturers, without confirmed pilots. Due to collisions with the meetings in Frankfurt, Doncaster and Blackpool several of the most famous flyers, such as Blériot, Rougier and Sommer, were busy elsewhere and didn't enter. Others, such as Paulhan and Latham, only participated during part of the meeting, while for example Delagrange and Leblanc did enter, but never turned up.
Thursday October 7th
The extensive development work on the airfield couldn't be finished in time, so the meeting had to be postponed by four days. The delay had the consequence that the split between the responsible organizations became even more confusing, but had the advantage that it gave the flyers who had been participating in other meetings more time to prepare.
The weather was fine on the first day of the meeting, but the patient spectators had to wait until four o'clock in the afternoon before they got to see any flying apart from short straight test hops by des Vallières and Gaudart in their Voisins, Busson in the WLD and the non-entered Richet (or Richer or Richez, the spelling is different in different reports...), a pupil of Ferdinand Ferber and his successor as head of the LNA's flying school, in one of the LNA's Voisins. Then, at the same time, de Lambert and Gobron made some competitive flights, de Lambert pitching and rolling in his Wright as it flew low and caught the gusts between the buildings while Gobron flew higher and steadier in his Voisin. De Lambert made the longest flight, eight laps of the 2 km course, during which he posted a time of 11 minutes for the 10 km Prix du Conseil Général de la Seine, which would be contested during four days. Gobron won the Prix Madame Paul Quinton by flying 2 km in 2:07.6, each lap passing over a balloon anchored at a height of 15 metres, with de Lambert second at 2:10.0.
Friday October 8th
A miserable day with wind and rain, so no flying was possible.
Saturday October 9th
The weather had improved on the next day, but because of the sodden ground there was no flying until the afternoon. De Nabat, Gaudart and des Vallières made attempts for the Prix de Lancement, given to the pilot to take off in the shortest distance from a standing start and fly a kilometre before landing, but none of them managed to complete the required distance. De Lambert made the crowds cheer up with a flight of four laps, followed by a double figure-eight in front of the grandstands and another two laps. Before the closing of the day, Richet flew three laps and Gaudart made another short test flight. The flights made during the day of course counted for the prize for the highest total distance flown during the meeting, but apart from that there was no competitive flying.
Sunday October 10th
Sundays were the only holidays for the working French, so this was the first chance for many people to go to the races and for the first time in their life see aeroplanes flying. It was also announced that the popular Latham and Paulhan would probably arrive during the day. It was estimated that around 300,000 people tried to get to get to Port-Aviation on that day. All forms of transportation broke down. The roads were completely jammed with automobiles, bicycles and people. The train service on the Paris-Orléans line collapsed into complete chaos under the pressure of an estimated 100,000 passengers. The reporter of "The Aero" stated that it took him more than three hours to travel the 20 km from central Paris to Port-Aviation in the morning and four hours to get home in the night. The frustrated passengers of the overcrowded trains rioted. They broke the windows of all the trains and got off the trains in stations and marshalling yards, demolishing buildings and passing trains and blocking the traffic. The last trains from the airfield reportedly didn't reach Paris until three o'clock in the morning. The Minister of Public Works would later in the week order an inquiry into the cause of the failure in order to find the responsible.
In contrast, everything worked smoothly for those who eventually got to the airfield. The weather was fine and Gaudart, de Nabat, des Vallières, Busson, Richet and Fournier made some short flights, but the hero of the first Sunday was Paulhan. He took off at around four o'clock and made the longest flight, completing eight laps including a pass directly above the ecstatic spectators in the grandstands. De Lambert then flew seven laps, followed by Gobron, who flew four laps. Gobron never got up to full speed, since the carburettor was partially blocked by sawdust collected during a test run inside his hangar. Latham had a miserable day. He was caught up in the traffic chaos and had to walk several miles to get to the airfield, only to find out that his plane, a brand-new Antoinette VII built for Capitaine Burgeat, wasn't ready. De Lambert won the Prix Scheurer-Kestner for the best time over one 2 km lap at 2:09.0 and the Prix de Neuflize for the best time over two laps at 4:18.6. This was the second day for contesting the Prix du Conseil Général de la Seine. De Lambert improved his time to 10:52.2 and Paulhan posted 13:37.8 to place second. The Prix du Conseil Municipal de Paris was also a contest in which pilots could make efforts on different days. It was a race over one lap, in which the flyers had to cross the starting line at less than eight metres above ground, pass over a balloon anchored at 40 metres and then cross the finish line at less than 8 metres. This was the first day, and de Lambert placed first at 2:27.2.
Monday October 11th
The next day was another perfect day for flying, but as usual there was no flying in the morning. In the afternoon de Nabat and Busson made some short flights. Gobron had fixed his engine and flew a fast lap, winning the day's speed prize with 2:12.2. Fournier had a very close call when his Voisin got caught in the wash of Gobron's plane. He lost control over his plane close to the place where the course crossed the river Fausse Orge. He managed to clear the river by a matter of yards and very narrowly missed some workmen and photographers before hitting a bush, which broke some struts and wires, swung the plane around and stopped it. De Lambert was the only flyer to make a flight of any distance, covering six laps and thereby taking the lead in the Grand Prix de la Société d'Encouragement à l'Aviation, which ran for the first day.
Tuesday October 12th
The weather had taken a turn to the worse, with higher winds and risk for rain. The crowd of around 40,000 waited patiently until four o'clock in the afternoon before Paulhan brought out his plane. He first made an attempt on the slow flight prize, covering the required three laps of the 1.667 km course in 6:11.0. He then continued for another sixteen laps, staying in the air for almost 40 minutes, again flying above the grandstands and showing his complete command over the airplane in the tricky conditions. While Paulhan was flying, de Nabat made a good take-off in a new Koechlin plane with a more powerful 40 hp Gyp engine, but suddenly nosed down right in front of the grandstands. The plane hit the ground heavily, broke a wheel and ended up on its nose. The accident was blamed on a failed rod in the elevator control linkage. Gaudart also made a short flight, but the only other flyer to complete a whole lap was Gobron, in 2:33.2. He had disassembled the machine in order to take it to the more lucrative Blackpool meeting, but the organisers put pressure on him to fulfil his engagement at Port-Aviation so he put it together again, necessitating a test flight. Fournier had also taken his machine apart, but would not let himself be persuaded to stay. As a consequence the organizers, headed by baron de Lagatinerie, had two policemen posted outside his hangar to stop him from removing the plane. Latham had by now spent three days at the airfield, waiting for his Antoinette to be put in flying order. In increasingly bad mood he watched as the mechanics tried to make the brand-new engine run, which hadn't even run on a test stand before.
Wednesday October 13th
The strong and gusty winds continued, but otherwise the weather was better and there was a little bit more flying. However, there was none of it until at around four o'clock, when Burgeat's #37 Antoinette was rolled out for Latham. He made a good start and rounded two pylons, but then a wing dropped and it seemed like the engine missed. Latham made his best to make a safe landing, but landed on only the left wheel and the left wing tip hit the ground. The plane came to a halt, dragging its crumpled wings on the ground. This was a bitter disappointment for Latham, since he wanted to show the Parisians what he could do before leaving for Blackpool, where his usual plane had already been sent.
De Lambert and Paulhan each flew four laps, the latter testing a new big fuel tank that he hoped would help him win the distance prize. Paulhan's 9.4 km flight elevated him to second in the Grand Prix de la Société d'Encouragement à l'Aviation, behind de Lambert, but there were still two days left. Gobron flew a single lap in 2:17.2, beating de Lambert's fastest lap of 2:24.8 to win the day's single-lap prize. Busson finally managed to complete a lap in the WLD, but only by landing and taking the turns rolling on the ground! Gaudart tried to make a test flight, but failed to take off and while taxiing back to the hangar area he rolled into a fence, destroying a wing on his Voisin.
Thursday October 14th
This was the big day of the meeting, when the French president Armand Fallières came to visit. He arrived at 15:30, accompanied by military escort and music, and was received by Baron de Lagatinerie, Comte Jacques d'Aubigny, and the organisation committee. Just as in Reims, the president arrived on a day when high winds made flying almost impossible. However, Latham's plane had been repaired after the crash of the day before and was rolled out. He took off in great style, but his engine failed again after only half a lap, causing another forced landing. This time the damages were limited to a bent landing gear, but they still put him out of action for the rest of the day. Also like in Reims, it was Paulhan who was able to show the president some flying, completing three laps before leaving the airfield for a short trip out of sight over Juvisy. After returning to land he was taken to the president, who shook his hands and congratulated him amid great ovations. De Lambert tried to take off, but on leaving the starting rail his Wright turned and landed sideways. The crash broke the right wing and the skids of the plane, but de Lambert was unhurt. Gobron had fine-tuned his engine and made a lap in 1:56, the fastest recorded so far during the meeting, before flying six more laps. Later in the evening when the winds had calmed down, Paulhan flew eleven more laps, and also won the altitude contest at 150 m.
Friday October 15th The first serious accident of the meeting happened in the morning. Richet had modified his Voisin by removing the vertical "curtains" between the wings and changing the fuel tank, and had made a couple of straight test hops during the early morning. Against the advice of other flyers, who were worried about the stability of the plane, he took the machine for a longer flight at 8:40. After one lap in a wind of 4 m/s he lost control of the plane in a turn and hit the ground heavily on the left wing, from an altitude of around ten metres. The plane turned into a tangled mess of broken struts, fabric and wires and Richet was carried unconscious to the ambulance station. Although he hadn't broken any bones he had been concussed and badly cut and bruised, having his left ear torn off and a leg badly sprained.
After the relatively calm morning the high and gusty winds returned on the afternoon, so Paulhan wasn't able to use his new fuel tank to make an attack on the distance contest. To the relief of the enthusiastic but anguished spectators he decided to give up after fighting the gusts for five laps, sometimes recovering from banks of 45 degrees. The exhausted Paulhan declared that he had never flown in such difficult conditions. He had decided to leave a day later than planned in order to try to win the prize, but now he was going to Blackpool to fly his new Farman. This meant that de Lambert won the prize with a flight of only 13 km. After more repairs, Latham came out for another effort later in the afternoon, but his engine failed immediately.
Saturday October 16th
The strong winds continued. Baratoux rolled out his Wright, which was equipped with wheels that enabled starts without the use of the usual Wright rail, but he couldn't do anything. The only one to fly was Latham, who finally managed a successful flight despite the awful conditions. He gave up after a brave fight over two laps, again to the relief of the 10,000 spectators, who had seen him being tossed about at seemingly impossible angles.
Sunday October 17th
Around 100,000 spectators visited Port-Aviation on the day of the Aéro-Club de France. The day started windy, but the weather improved during the day and around 4pm de Lambert made a first flight of nine laps. The unlucky Latham made a new try, but after two laps his engine again failed and his landing gear was damaged when the plane was pulled out from soft ground. Gobron made a flight of four laps, so de Lambert won the day's distance prizes. At dusk, after official closing time, Gaudart made a flight of one or two laps in the light of Bengal fires, "the effect being very picturesque" according to the reporter from The Aero. Brégi (in Paulhan's #27 "Octavie III"), Busson, Baratoux and Bonnet-Labranche also made short flights.
Monday October 18th
The morning started with novice pilot Florencie (not entered in the competitions) standing his biplane on the nose, breaking the propeller but without injury to himself. Then Busson made a heavy landing from an altitude of 10 metres, also escaping injury. In the afternoon Gobron flew four laps, followed by another accident when Koechlin landed heavily, broke his propeller and was thrown out of the plane, again unharmed. The longest flight of the day was made by Henri Brégi, who made his competition debut by flying ten laps in Paulhan "Octavie No. 3".
The day ended with a bad accident caused by novice pilot Guy Blanck, who was not entered in the competitions and had taken delivery of his Blériot only 18 days before the meeting and made his first flight at Issy-les-Moulineaux on October 1st. His total flying experience could probably be measured in minutes rather than hours when he took to the air at around 17:00. After a good takeoff his plane swerved towards the grandstands. He apparently froze at the controls and hit the fence without having cut the engine. A woman, Mme. Féraud, who stood at the fence, was "literally stripped by the propeller and had her left thigh and calf cut to the bone", according to the reporter from "La Vie au Grand Air". Three or four other spectators were also injured. Mme. Féraud, together with a M. Hanot, later sued Blanck, Baron de Lagatinerie (as responsible for the event) and the societies behind the meeting for damages of 100,000 francs as compensation for her injuries. The final verdict was reached on June 17th, 1910. The court stated that no laws had been broken, since there were no regulations for safety at airfields and, at the time, no licensing system for qualification of pilots. In view of the fact that aviation was at an early stage of its development and was an obviously dangerous activity neither Blanck nor the organizers were found guilty of culpable negligence. Therefore the court acquitted them and made Féraud and Hanot pay the legal costs.
Even though there were several accidents and incidents the day is not remembered for what happened inside the fences of Port-Aviation, but rather outside. At 16:37 de Lambert took off in his Wright. He circled a couple of times over the field to gain altitude and then left the airfield in the general direction of Paris. He had reportedly only told two people about his intentions, so when he didn't return immediately people at the airfield started to believe that he had crashed somewhere in the surroundings. He had in fact steered towards the centre of Paris, flying higher and higher above streets and buildings. When reaching the Eiffel Tower he turned around it, at an altitude estimated to be around 100 metres above the 300 metre tower, then the highest building in the world. This was far higher than the official world altitude record, which stood at 172 metres. He then returned back to Port-Aviation and landed elegantly only metres from his hangar, to the relief and ovations of the by now very worried crowd, which included Orville Wright, who happened to be there. The flight, which was estimated to 45 or 50 km, had taken 49 minutes and 49.4 seconds. It didn't count for any of the competitive events during the meeting, but it was soon decided that de Lambert would be given a gold medal by the LNA for his achievement.
De Lambert's flight was celebrated as one of the greatest flights ever, but there were also many, including Orville Wright, who thought it was an irresponsible stunt that had endangered the lives of not only the count himself, but also his fellow men. The reporter from "The Aero" wrote that "like the Channel flight, it will be done again and again, and unless stopped by legislation, someone will be killed at it, but de Lambert was and remains for over the first man to do it. Therefore, all honour and glory to his performance, though he deserves permanent disqualification from all future competitions for having done it".
Tuesday October 19th
The main event of the day was the Prix Paul Crétenier, for the fastest 2 km lap at a height of at least 15 meters. This was won by Gobron at 2:02.8, while de Lambert managed 2:03.0. This was the closest possible margin, since the stop-watches of the day only measured time to a fifth of a second! In the morning the new pilot Georges Copin appeared for the first time with a big Anzani-powered biplane of his own design. In the afternoon Gaudart made a short flight which ended in a heavy landing that wrecked the landing gear and right wing of his Voisin. The longest flights were made by Brégi (eight laps, 21.405 km), Gobron (six laps) and de Lambert (five laps). This was the third day of competition for the Prix du Conseil Général, and Gobron posted a time of 10:45.4 to take over the second place. At the end of the day Brégi took Mlle. Jeanne Laloë, writer for the newspaper "L'Intransigeant" for a lap. It was announced that the meeting would continue until the weekend in order to compensate the Parisians for the missed days.
Wednesday October 20th
This was the last day to compete for the distance prizes, but due to high winds there was no flying until 16:30. The first to try was Busson in the W.L.D., but he only managed a short hop. Brégi rolled out Paulhan's Voisin, but landed after one lap. De Lambert made a flight of two laps carrying a count de Malynski, who had bought a Wright plane, as passenger. Since the bad weather didn't allow much flying nobody could improve their times.
Thursday October 21st
During the morning the decision made two days before was reversed and it was decided that this would be the last day of the meeting. The reason for the cancellation of the last days was stated to be problems policing the ground. The weather was calm, so even the less experienced flyers could fly, for example de Nabat, Koechlin, Baratoux and Gaudart. Gobron equalled his best lap of 1:56, matching the fastest times posted by de Lambert. His unique Gobron-Brillié engine, with eight cylinders in X configuration and two pistons per cylinder, must have been in top shape, since the Voisins were normally no match for the Wrights in a race. In the afternoon Brégi made the longest flight of the meeting, 13 laps in 33:03.8. While he was flying, de Lambert flew six laps, the first which counted for the Prix du Conseil Municipal de Paris. He improved his time to 1:56.8 to win the prize. After de Lambert's landing a closing lunch was held, during which he was given a gold medal celebrating his flight over the Eiffel tower.
The "Grande Quinzaine" was a huge crowd success and gave hundreds of thousands of Parisians their first chance to see an aeroplane. With the exception of the disastrous train services during the first weekend, which of course couldn't be blamed on the race management, the event was also considered an organizational success. However, from a sporting point of view it didn't deliver much apart from de Lambert's famous flight - which was not even part of the program!
The overly extended program and the competition from other well-paying events probably made the experienced pilots save their planes and avoid risks. 43 planes were entered, but only six pilots (de Lambert, Paulhan, Gobron, Latham, Brégi and Gaudart) actually claimed the 500 francs prize for completing a lap of the course. Despite the high number of competitions the prize money was split between only four pilots, and many prizes were not awarded. The longest flight lasted less than 40 minutes.
This was the last meeting of the 1909 French flying season, but meetings were still going on in England and Belgium.