CHAPTER XXXIII. Three Historic Flights (Cont.)
About a month after Paulhan had won the "London to Manchester" race, the world of aviation, and most of the general public too, were astonished to read the announcement of another enormous prize. This time a much harder task was set, for the conditions of the contest stated that a circuit of Britain had to be made, covering a distance of about 1000 miles in one week, with eleven compulsory stops at fixed controls.
This prize was offered on 22nd May, 1910, and in the following year seventeen competitors entered the lists. It says much for the progress of aviation at this time, when we read that, only a year before, it was difficult to find but two pilots to compete in the much easier race described in the last chapter. Much of this progress was undoubtedly due to the immense enthusiasm aroused by the success of Paulhan in the "London to Manchester" race.
We will not describe fully the second race, because, though it was of immense importance at the time, it has long since become a mere episode. Rarely has Britain been in such great excitement as during that week in July, 1911.
Engine troubles, breakdowns, and other causes soon reduced the seventeen competitors to two only: Lieutenant Conneau, of the French Navy-who flew under the name of M. Beaumont - and M. Vedrines. Neck to neck they flew - if we may be allowed this horse-racing expression - over all sorts of country, which was quite unknown to them.
Victory ultimately rested with Lieutenant Conneau, who, on 26th July, 1911, passed the winning-post at Brooklands after having completed the course in the magnificent time of twenty-two hours, twenty-eight minutes, averaging about 45 miles an hour for the whole journey. M. Vedrines, though defeated, made a most plucky fight. Conneau's success was due largely to his ability to keep to the course - on two or three occasions Vedrines lost his way - and doubtless his naval training in map-reading and observation gave him the advantage over his rival.
The third historic flight was made by Mr. Harry Hawker, in August, 1913. This was an attempt to win a prize of L5000 offered by the proprietors of the Daily Mail for a flight round the British coasts. The route was from Cowes, in the Isle of Wight, along the southern and eastern coasts to Aberdeen and Cromarty, thence through the Caledonian Canal to Oban, then on to Dublin, thence to Falmouth, and along the south coast to Southampton Water.
Two important conditions of the contest were that the flight was to be made in an all-British aeroplane, fitted with a British engine. Hitherto our aeroplane constructors and engine companies were behind their rivals across the Channel in the building of air-craft and aerial engines, and this country freely acknowledged the merits and enterprise of French aviators. Though in the European War it was afterwards proved that the British airman and constructor were the equals if not the superiors of any in the world, at the date of this contest they were behind in many respects.
As these conditions precluded the use of the famous Gnome engine, which had won so many contests, and indeed the employment of any engine made abroad, the competitors were reduced to two aviation firms; and as one or these ultimately withdrew from the contest the Sopwith Aviation Company of Kingston-on-Thames and Brooklands entered a machine.
Mr. T. Sopwith chose for his pilot a young Australian airman, Mr. Harry Hawker. This skilful airman came with three other Australians to this country to seek his fortune about three years before. He was passionately devoted to mechanics, and, though he had had no opportunity of flying in his native country, he had been intensely interested in the progress of aviation in France and Britain, and the four friends set out on their long journey to seek work in aeroplane factories.
All four succeeded, but by far the most successful was Harry Hawker. Early in 1913 Mr. Sopwith was looking out for a pilot, and he engaged Hawker, whom he had seen during some good flying at Brooklands.
In a month or two he was engaged in record breaking, and in June, 1913, he tried to set up a new British height record. In his first attempt he rose to 11,300 feet; but as the carburettor of the engine froze, and as the pilot himself was in grave danger of frost-bite, he descended. About a fortnight later he rose 12,300 feet above sea-level, and shortly afterwards he performed an even more difficult test, by climbing with three passengers to an altitude of 8500 feet.
With such achievements to his name it was not in the least surprising that Mr. Sopwith's choice of a pilot for the water-plane race rested on Hawker. His first attempt was made on 16th August, when he flew from Southampton Water to Yarmouth - a distance of about 240 miles - in 240 minutes. The writer, who was spending a holiday at Lowestoft, watched Mr. Hawker go by, and his machine was plainly visible to an enormous crowd which had lined the beach.
To everyone's regret the pilot was affected with a slight sunstroke when he reached Yarmouth, and another Australian airman, Mr. Sidney Pickles, was summoned to take his place. This was quite within the rules of the contest, the object of which was to test the merits of a British machine and engine rather than the endurance and skill of a particular pilot. During the night a strong wind arose, and next morning, when Mr. Pickles attempted to resume the flight, the sea was too rough for a start to be made, and the water-plane was beached at Gorleston.
Mr. Hawker quickly recovered from his indisposition, and on Monday, 25th August, he, with a mechanic as passenger, left Cowes about five o'clock in the morning in his second attempt to make a circuit of Britain. The first control was at Ramsgate, and here he had to descend in order to fulfil the conditions of the contest.