The destination for history

The exciting history of aviation: Manchester or Bust


The history of aviation is full of excitement, drama and derring-do. These can all be found in the following tale, when two pilots battled for glory.

In 1906 a UK newspaper offered £10,000 to the first aviator to fly from London to Manchester. Pilots rubbed their chins: if this was for Manchester, how much would they get to go to Scunthorpe?

The brave pilots had to cover the 185 miles in 24 hours. They could only land twice for petrol and Ginsters, and the aircraft had to land within five miles of the destination. With aircraft not being that reliable or safe the newspaper’s money was safe until in 1910 two competitors had a go in what was the world’s first-ever cross-country aerial race.

The Briton Claude ‘Grahame’ White (no moustache, but he did wear a bow-tie) took off in a Farman biplane. He flew 115 miles and then suffered an accident that dealt a blow to his hopes of pocketing the cash. Unusually his plane didn’t crash while in the air but while parked on the ground, being damaged by high winds. Hangars weren’t really a thing back then.

The bold Claude wasn’t put off. He tried again. This time he had a direct competitor. Louis ‘Competitor’ Paulhan was like many other pioneers of the early 20th Century in being French and moustached. He became known as the ‘King of the Air’ when he set an altitude record of 4,165 feet in America. Would he become king of the London to Manchester air route? Time would tell.

The two agreed to a gentleperson’s agreement. They would tell each other when they were about to set off, in order to make a competition of it. However, Claude was resting in a hotel when he heard Paulhan had taken off. Paulhan later said he had instructed somebody to tell somebody else to inform so-and-so and they didn’t but they told their mate Pierre who thought he wasn’t to tell and so it just didn’t get done.

Claude raced to his machine, an hour behind. Louis and Claude raced through the skies at speeds approaching 40 miles an hour, determined to gain fame and more importantly: the cheque. The two gallant gentlepersons flew on through the darkening evening until both landed for the night.

Claude then did something that would echo down the aviational decades: he decided to fly at night. He reasoned this would solve any fear of height issues. If you can’t see the ground, how do you know how high you are? His back-up team looked at each other. Some blew through their cheeks. It was his little pink body that would be connecting with any unseen solid ground so it was up to him.

Claude’s team of willing helpers came up with an idea to guide him on his way. In a steam-driven car (this is actually true) they drove ahead with their car’s headlights showing the way. He could then look down and see them. It’s a clever idea that relies on planes being slower than cars and therefore is not much seen these days, although some of the private hire taxis round our area could give anyone a run. But we are getting diverted.

The two intrepid pilots’ endeavours captured the imagination with great attention from the public on when they would crash. No! When they would reach the finishing line. Punters would wave and cheer as the flimsy craft passed overhead. There had never been excitement like this.

Disaster almost struck when Claude accidently hit the ignition switch with his coat and turned the engine off. Doh! But he recovered and intrepidly flew on trying to see those car lights. Then his attempt ran into trouble: up ahead lay high ground and his aircraft was under powered.

• Who would win - the gallant Frenchperson or the gallant Briton?

• Who would be the victor? The one who had sneakily taken off first or the brave and upstanding fine citizen who hadn’t?

• Who was going home disappointed from Strictly Come Flying?

Meanwhile, on the ground, Paulhan readied his aeroplane for flight and took off just after four in the morning. Claude was still behind him. A strong headwind and a stuttering engine had slowed him down and then took him down. He landed short of Paulhan’s position. Would he have time to repair it and get back in the air? Paulhan was up early and took off with his rival behind him. So the answer to that was: no.

The nation awaited, open-mouthed and agog. Those gathered at Manchester saw a small aircraft approach. It got closer (and bigger) until it got to full-size. The punters moved closer.

Who had won?

WHO WAS IT!? – Ed.

It was the Frenchperson. Paulhan had done it! He arrived 12 hours after leaving London, in a time looked on with envy by present-day M6 motorists. Claude stood waving his clenched fist at the skies, the holder of his now-broken dreams.

Extracted from From Wax Wings to Flying Drones. A Very Unreliable History of Aviation by Norman Ferguson

You might also be interested in:

Sign up for our newsletter

show more books