SO far, in our opening chapter, we have traced the history of aviation down to the first long flight of the Wright Brothers in 1905. Only a decade ago, and yet these were the prehistoric days of the great invention. Ten years ago we said of the impossible, 'You might as well ask me to fly !'
The prophets of this world are a race of men who will never learn wisdom. Doctor Johnson declared that man would never be able to travel at 20 miles an hour because he would not be able to breathe and withstand the tremendous air resistance. (Had the old—hm—philosopher never encountered a 20-mile wind !) Eighty years ago doctors were declaring that 'the air of damp tunnels, the deafening peals, the clanking chains and dismal glare' of railway travel would undermine the strongest constitution. Sportsmen wrote that the 'poisonous breath' of the engines would kill all the game, farmers that it would ruin the fleeces of the sheep ; while the authorities of Eton College raised dignified protest against the coming of the G.W.R. because they said it would be perfectly impossible to keep the Eton boys off the rails. How did we greet the first cyclist ? What did we say when motor-cars arrived ? We would rather not recollect, pven so let us draw a merciful veil over what we were chattering and writing about flight only half ten years ago.
The Wrights having completed a machine that could stay half an hour in the air, packed it away and set off to bargain with the various governments for the sale of their invention. They were silent, reserved men, and they wished to keep their secret. Only vague rumours of their success filtered through to Europe, and even these were not believed in. Experience had proved that tales of wonder hailing from America must be accepted cum grano salts.
Meanwhile experiments were being made in France by Captain Ferber, by the Brothers Voisin, by Esnault Pelterie, by an enthusiast called Louis Bleriot. Presently Santos Dumont, burning for fresh worlds to conquer, entered into the sport. A double honour was his. He who was the pioneer of the airship was soon hailed as the pioneer of the flying machine also. For in October 1906, in a weird 'canard' (' Duck ' or 'tail first') machine, resembling several big box-kites put together, with a 50 horse-power motor, he achieved a mighty hop of 80 yards. Soon he doubled and then trebled this distance. The official observers were so overcome with emotion that they forgot to observe, the public nearly wrecked his machine in their enthusiasm, and Paris waxed delirious. Then the Voisin Brothers constructed a better designed machine and arranged with Henry Farman, an Anglo-French racing motorist, to fly it. In January 1908 he flew the first circular mile, winning a large prize offered years before for the then impossible feat. Shortly after Dela-grange managed to stay in the air for nine minutes. Proudly the French nation boasted that flying was now an accomplished fact, and to France belonged the honour of its invention.
Then at last those mysterious Brothers Wright, their machine packed away these two years, their quest of a purchaser unsuccessful, were forced into the open. 'We have flown,' they said,' three years before you did ; we have flown many times further. If you want proof behold us now.' Orville Wright took one machine to demonstrate with in America, Wilbur brought another to France. Still incredulous, the French flyers crowded to see him. They marvelled at his strange machine, they sneered at its home-made appearance, but when it rose in air they sneered no more. 'Ah well!' sighed Delagrange, ' we are beaten ! We don't exist!'
No more they did for the next few months. The Wrights held the entire field and the French flyers were practically forgotten until suddenly and dramatically they came into their own again.
In the summer of 1909 a young sportsman of mixed nationality, Hubert Latham by name, announced that he was about to make an attempt to win the £1000 prize offered by the Daily Mail for the first flight across the Channel. The world was frankly incredulous, for Latham was practically unknown, and so was his machine. Certainly it was built by a famous French firm, the 'Antoinette' Company, makers of a well-known light petrol motor, but then it was a monoplane, and everybody knew that a Wright biplane was the only aeroplane that could really fly.
Therefore the crowds that blackened the Dover cliffs, day after day of a tempestuous July, were unbelieving ; and grew more so as one storm succeeded another, and beyond one abortive attempt when Latham dropped in the sea after travelling only 8 miles, nothing whatever happened. The disgusted newspaper reporters returned to London, the spectators melted away, and thus it happened that at five o'clock on a Sunday morning, in the brief calm between two gales, a stolid Kentish policeman was the only Englishman to see a big white bird fly in from the sea, and swoop down from heaven on the grass beside him. But the man with a lame foot and hawk nose who limped out of it and shook him excitedly by the hand, was not Latham, and his tiny workmanlike craft was not the large, graceful Antoinette. The British public opened its daily paper on the Monday morning to find that the Channel was flown indeed, but the hero of the flight was Louis Bleriot. Before twenty-four hours had elapsed the fame of the Wright Brothers was eclipsed and the Frenchmen had come back into their own.
With the first crossing of the Channel the modern history of aviation may be said to begin, and subsequent events are fresh in our memories. Merely to arrange them in their proper sequence, let us now summarize in briefest words the outstanding events of five crowded years.
Shortly before the Channel flight—in the summer of 1909—Henry Farman produced his famous biplane. G. B. Cockburn obtained his very earliest machine, and was the only Englishman to take part in the great Rheims Aviation Week, first and most famous of all flying meetings, the following August. The first Englishman (and he an Irishman !) to fly was J. T. C. Moore-Brabazon, who had piloted a Voisin in France some months before. Cockburn and Moore-Brabazon were two members of a little group of sportsmen, among them McClean, Ogilvie, Rolls and Grace, all members of the British Aero Club, who were responsible for the procuring of the Club's flying ground at Sheppey, the founding there of Short's famous aeroplane works, and for a vast amount of generous and patriotic labour which largely led to the introduction of flight into this country, and finally to its adoption in the army and navy. Flying meetings at Doncaster and Blackpool, exhibition flights by Paulhan near London, served to bring the new marvel before the British public, and the year closed with much popular interest and enthusiasm over aviation and its heroes.