The Wright brothers’
demonstrations in 1908 and 1909 would only whet the public’s
appetite for what was shortly to come. Beginning in the summer
of 1909, exhibitions, races, long-distance flights, and other
forms of aerial competition were becoming a regular attraction
across Europe and in the United States.
Spectators came to the airfields by the thousands
to the catch the excitement. These early aviators risked life
and limb for the adoration of the crowds and large financial
prizes. Similar to today’s sports figures, they were
the great heroes of their day.
The world’s first major international
flying meeting was held in the champagne growing region of
France, near the historic cathedral city of Reims, from August
22 to 29, 1909. La Grand Semaine de l’Aviation de la
Champagne, as it was formally called, drew 38 airplanes, 23
of which flew in various speed, distance, altitude, and passenger-carrying
The event was a great success, and many of the pilots became
celebrities by the end of Reims week. Much to the disappointment
of the organizers, the Wrights did not participate. The only
American in the field was Glenn Curtiss. Total prize money
was 200,000 francs. Upwards of a half-million spectators attended,
from the wealthy elite to the average enthusiast.
With the growing number of meets and competitions
organized after Reims, exhibition flying became quite profitable.
Aerobatic displays by daredevil pilots began to supplement
the races and other competitive events. Aircraft manufacturers
were also drawn to exhibition flying to supplement meager
aircraft sales resulting from the small market.
The Wright Fliers
The regular appearance of both groups at meets
around the country grew into a popular rivalry. Spectators
thrilled as the pilots pushed each other to ever more spectacular
aerial feats. Inevitably, accidents occurred. Six of the nine
members of the Wright exhibition team died in crashes. The
brothers dissolved the team in December 1911.
Go to 1912: High-Flying Times >>