1911 - The First Aeroplane Claude Graham-White
The summer of 1911 saw the Coronation of King George V with great rejoicings throughout the Island. It was also the year when Douglas celebrated its Jubilee as a municipality and, being one of the leading resorts, a lavish programme of events was arranged for both residents and holiday-makers. By far the most novel idea was to be an Aviation Display by two of the leading aviators of the day whose flying machines would be the first to be seen in Manx skies. Highlight of their visit would be a 'race' between them and the Ben-my-Chree, pride of the Steam Packet fleet. As the ship sailed round the Island the two machines would circle round above and present a spectacle for all to see. The flying machines would use the playing fields of the newly opened Noble's Park as an aerodrome and would be accommodated in specially constructed hangars. To help offset the heavy expenses there was to be an admission charge of 6d to the area enclosed by canvas screening with similar enclosures round the Island at Port Lewaigue, Peel and Rushen where the machines would also make a landing. The great event was planned for the afternoon of Tuesday, 4th July.
The two pilots contracted to take part were Claude Graham-White and George Barnes who would come to the Island after competing in the Daily Mail Paris to London Race. Their two machines preceded them by ship before being transported to the aerodrome. Graham-White's machine was a biplane designed by one of the Farman brothers working in France, and was one of the first to have effective ailerons. Barnes was to fly a Bleriot parasol monoplane. According to plan both machines arrived in time for Tuesday's big event - but the pilots did not arrive until that morning so there was little chance of them entertaining the crowds already assembling around the Island. To make matters worse the Farman monoplane was damaged whilst being taken out of its hangar. The onus was now on Graham-White and the lucky spectators at Noble's Park saw him make several splendid displays during the afternoon in the Farman - the first flights from Manx soil. But the race had to be called off and thousands went home distinctly disappointed.
Wednesday, Tynwald Day and a national holiday, dawned bright but with a stiff easterly breeze, and the ill-fated monoplane of Barnes was now found to have a cracked propeller. Graham-White was anxious to find out about the wind conditions at higher altitudes and in other parts of the Island. He was first taken by car to Snaefell and then on to Ramsey where he lunched at the Prince of Wales. The organisers had no knowledge of this to begin with and as the 3p.m. start time approached they were thrown into utter confusion. Telegraphic messages were sent to find the pilot while the Ben-my-Chree was prepared. Graham-White eventually reported back and at 3.10 p.m. announced that he was prepared to take a chance in the breezy conditions.
The expectant crowds had once more assembled and were growing impatient and language was reported as being 'painful but free.' It was 4.30 before the start of the race was announced by a gun being fired from the Battery Pier and by megaphones along the Douglas promenades. At 4.40 the Ben-my-Chree moved out and set off at full speed across tlle Bay. The flimsy Farman also appeared and at 700 feet did a circle around the packet boat as the crowds waved from below. Past Onchan Head, Graham-White circled the ship again and then was seen to reach an 'incredible 60 m.p.h. as it sped back to its aerodrome after its sortie of 15 minutes. Obviously the pilot had decided conditions were not suitable to go any further. One can imagine the great chagrin of those who were never to see the spectacle and the strong opinions about aviators and their flying machines.
However the Ben-my-Chree sailed majestically on and completed the 80 mile trip in a record three hours. But before she arrived back in Douglas, Claude Graham-White took to the air again and 'escorted' the ship into the Bay. He then treated everyone to a display of 'twisting and turning and manoeuvres exciting in character'. Later that night the pilot appeared at the Fancy Dress Carnival at the Palace Ballroom where he received thunderous applause, and he was able to apologise to all who had been disappointed because of 'the tricky nature of the winds.' There was no applause for George Barnes who was sued for breach of contract, and refusing to repay expenses, the monoplane was impounded and eventually ended up on a fair ground where people could be photographed sitting in a real flying machine, though it never flew again.
Claude Graham-White was flying again next day and made three passenger-carrying flights. He also made a trip to the north of the Island which helped make amends for the disappointment of the previous day.
Manx Aviation in War and Peace published by kind permission of: The Manx Experience