Saturday, January 1, 2011

a century ago - the Paris to Madrid air race of 1911

After a full year of airshows, advertisers had become bored with seeing flying machines going in circles on a racetrack: they wanted city to city races, as was happening with automobiles. Funded and supported by the newspaper Le Petit Parisien, the international aviation race Paris-Madrid, despite the risks, attracted twenty-one competitors. The announcement of a 200,000 francs prize on the poster was actually the total prize pool: the first three airmen sharing 50,000 francs, the rest going to the teams.

The race included three lengthy stages: Issy-les-Moulineaux to Angoulême (Charente), on 21 May, starting at daybreak, 400 km that competitors should be able to cover in seven hours; Angoulême-San Sebastian (Spain) on 23 May, starting at daybreak, a stage of 335 km designed to circumvent the Pyrénées mountains in a six-hour flight; and San Sebastian-Madrid, on 25 May, starting 6 am, a long stage of 620 km and a real challenge, it traversed a pass that the best had to travel over in less than eleven hours. In all a total estimated 24 hours of actual flight for the whole race.

The departure of the airmen was given in the order of the numbers of the bolides every five minutes, the first departing at 5 am. In addition, eight airmen military officers, all licensed by the Aero Club of France, were allowed to fly with the pilots in order to test their abilities. They departed the same day from their military field stations.

The race began with tragedy. The airplanes were overloaded with fuel. The French War Minister, Maurice Berteaux, only in office since 2 March 1911, had come to Issy-les-Moulineaux to salute the French pilots' performance. He was struck by the airplane that Emile Train, weighed down by a passenger, Marc Bonnier, was struggling to lift off the ground. The Minister of War was killed instantly. The Interior Minister, Monis, Deutsch de la Meurthe and several other people including a child were seriously injured. The crowd broke through the barrier and flooded onto the field. Marshalls charged from sides to try to contain it. The race was stopped: only six pilots had been able to start before the abandonment of the race.

Only Jules Védrines finished. He covered the 1,360 km between Paris and Madrid in fifteen hours of flight at an average speed of 80 km/h. His monoplane, which peaked at 125 km/h, was only powered by a 50 hp Gnome Omega engine.

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