Read CHAPTER III of Learning to Fly A Practical Manual for Beginners , free online book, by Claude Grahame-White Harry Harper, on


(As described by Mr. Grahame-white)

After a period of ballooning, which offers experience for an aviator in the judging of heights and distances, and in growing accustomed to the sensation of being in the air, I devoted a good deal of time and attention more indeed at the time, and in view of my other responsibilities, than I could reasonably spare to a study of the theory of aeroplane construction, and to the making of models. This was prior to 1909; Bleriot had not yet flown the Channel in his monoplane. But when he did I put models aside, and determined to buy an aeroplane and learn to fly.

At the end of August, 1909, so that I might inspect the various aeroplanes that were then available, and they were few enough, I went to Rheims, in France, and attended the first flying meeting the world had seen. At the aerodrome I met and talked with the great pioneers: with Bleriot, fresh from his cross-Channel triumph; with Levavasseur, the designer of the beautiful but ill-fated Antoinette monoplane, which had, through engine failure, let Hubert Latham twice into the Channel during his attempts to make the crossing; with Henry Farman who, fitting one of the first Gnome motors to a biplane of his own construction, flew for more than three hours at Rheims, and created a world’s record; and also with M. Voisin, whose biplane was then being flown by a number of pilots.

Finally, after careful consideration, I made a contract with M. Bleriot to purchase from him, at the end of the meeting, a monoplane of a type that appeared first at Rheims, and of which there was not another model then in existence. This machine differed considerably from the one with which M. Bleriot had flown the Channel. His cross-Channel monoplane was a single-seated craft fitted with an air-cooled motor of about 25 h.p. The machine I agreed to buy at Rheims, and which was known as Bleriot No. XII., would carry two people, pilot and passenger, while it had an 8-cylinder water-cooled motor developing 60 h.p. an exceptional power in those days. The position of the occupants, as they sat in the machine, differed from the arrangement in the cross-Channel Bleriot. In the latter the pilot sat in a hull placed between the planes, and with his head and shoulders above them. But in this new and larger machine the pilot and passenger sat in seats which were placed below the planes.

The craft was, as a matter of fact, an experiment, being built almost purely for speed; hence its powerful motor. M. Bleriot’s idea, in constructing it, was to have a machine with which he might win the Gordon-Bennett international speed race at Rheims. But this hope he did not realise; nor did I obtain delivery of the craft I desired. Bleriot, flying alone in this big monoplane, started in a speed flight for the Gordon-Bennett; but he was only a quarter of the way round the course, on his second lap, when the machine was seen to break suddenly into flames and crash to the ground from a height of 100 feet. It was wrecked entirely, but Bleriot was fortunate enough to escape with nothing worse than burns about the face and hands, and a general shock. The cause of the accident was that an indiarubber tube, fixed temporarily to carry petrol from the tank to the carburettor, had been eaten through and had permitted petrol to leak out, and to ignite, on the hot exhaust pipes of the motor.

The destruction of this monoplane was, to me, a great disappointment. No other machine of the type was in existence, and I learned that it would take three months to build one. M. Bleriot promised, however, to put a machine in hand at once; and, as a special concession, I obtained permission to go daily to the Bleriot factory and superintend the construction of my own machine. This I did for a full period of three months, working daily from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and gaining some valuable knowledge as to aeroplane construction.

On November 6, 1909, after delays which had tried my patience sorely, I obtained delivery of the new machine a replica of the craft that had been destroyed at Rheims. It was too late that day to begin any trials, so I and a friend who was with me arranged with M. Bleriot’s mechanics that we would be at Issy-les-Moulineaux early next morning, and there put the craft through its preliminary tests. I can remember we went to bed early, but sleep was impossible; we were both too excited at the prospect that lay before us. So presently we got up this was at 2 a.m. and drove out to the flying ground.

It was pitch dark when we arrived at the aerodrome, but the morning promised to be favourable. Foggy it was; but there was no wind, and the fog seemed likely to clear. We roused the caretaker, and, after lengthy explanations and considerable monetary persuasion, induced him to open the shed and allow us to prepare the machine for its first flight. Then we waited for the mechanics and the first rays of dawn. We felt a desire to get the big engine started up, but had been warned of the risk of doing this without the help of mechanics. Time passed and still the mechanics did not come. At last, there being now sufficient light, we tied the aeroplane with ropes to a fence, so as to prevent its leaping forward, and then started up the motor by ourselves. I swung the nine-foot propeller the only way of starting the engine; and at the first quarter-turn the motor began to fire. Then, as is quite usual, there was an incident that had been unforeseen in our excitement. We had forgotten to take up the slack of the rope; and the consequence was that, as the engine started, the machine gave a bound forward that was sufficient to knock me down. But I was unhurt, and picked myself up quickly. Then I hurried round to the driving seat and took my place at the control levers, motioning to my friend, who was looking after the ropes, to cast these loose and jump into the seat beside me. This was easier said than done. Directly he released the ropes the machine began to move across the ground, gathering speed very quickly; but he managed somehow, before the machine was running too fast, to scramble into the seat beside me.

Off we started across the aerodrome, the monoplane gaining a speed of 40 or 50 miles an hour. I did not attempt to rise from the ground, feeling it very necessary at first to grow familiar with the controls. So we sped along the ground for a distance of about a mile. Then, on nearing the far end, I slowed down the motor and our speed dropped to about 20 miles an hour. I wanted to turn the machine round on the ground and run back again towards our starting point. But such a manoeuvre, particularly for the novice, is far from easy. As the speed of the machine is reduced, the pressure of air on the rudder is lessened and so it loses its efficiency in the same way that a ship is difficult to steer when she begins to lose way. We were faced also by another and a graver difficulty. Confused by the fog, which still hung over the aerodrome, I had misjudged our position. We found we were much nearer the end of the ground than I had imagined. In front of us there loomed suddenly a boundary wall, against which it seemed probable we should dash ourselves. There were no brakes on the machine; no way of checking it from the driving seat. Our position seemed critical.

It was now that I shouted to my friend, telling him to jump out of the machine as best he could, and catch hold of the wooden framework behind the planes, allowing the machine to drag him along the ground, and so using the weight of his body as a brake. This, with great dexterity, he managed to do, and we came to a standstill not more than a foot or so from the wall. This proved a chastening experience; we pictured our aeroplane dashed against the wall, and reduced to a mass of wreckage. Very cautiously we lifted round the tail of the machine. It was impossible to switch off the motor and have a rest, because, if we had stopped it, we should not have been able to start it again without our gear, which was away on the other side of the ground.

Now, having got the machine into position for a return trip across the aerodrome, I accelerated the engine, and we started off back. For about twenty minutes, without further incident, we ran to and fro; and now I felt that I had the machine well in control on the ground at any rate. And so the next thing was to rise from the ground into the air. I told my friend my intention, calling to him above the noise of the motor; and I admired him for the calm way in which he received my news. I should not have been surprised if he had demanded that I should slow up the machine and let him scramble out. In those days it was thought dangerous to go up even with a skilled and more or less experienced pilot. How much greater, therefore, must have seemed the risk of making a trial flight with me a complete novice in the control of a machine. But my friend nodded and sat still in his seat. So I accelerated the motor and raised very slightly our rear elevating plane. And then we felt we were off the ground! There was no longer any sensation of our contact with the earth no jolting, no vibration. In a moment or so, it seemed, the monoplane was passing through the air at a height of about 30 feet. This, to our inexperienced eyes, appeared a very great altitude; and I made up my mind at once to descend. This manoeuvre, that of making contact with the ground after a flight, I had been told was the most difficult of all. It is not surprising that this should be so. Our speed through the air was, at the moment, about 50 miles an hour; and to bring a machine to the ground when it is moving so fast, without a violent shock or jar, is a manoeuvre needing considerable judgment. But, remembering that the main thing was to handle the control lever gently, I managed to get back again to the aerodrome without accident; and after this we turned the machine round again and made another flight.

The fog had cleared by now, and we were surprised to see a number of people running across the ground towards us. First there came the tardy mechanics; and with them were a number of reporters and photographers representing the Paris newspapers. These latter had though I only found this out afterwards been brought by the mechanics in the expectation of being able to record, with their notebooks and cameras, some catastrophe in which we were expected to play the leading parts. Knowing the powerful type of monoplane I had acquired, a machine not suited for a novice, the mechanics had felt sure some disaster would overtake me. But, as it happened, their anticipations were not fulfilled. The journalists and photographers did not, however, have a fruitless journey. Though there was nothing gruesome to chronicle, they found ample material, when they learned of them, in the early morning adventures of myself and my friend with this 60 h.p. monoplane. Next day, in fact, our exploits were given prominence in the newspapers, and I received a number of congratulatory telegrams; not forgetting one of a slightly different character which came from M. Bleriot. He was flying at the time in Vienna, and he warned me of the dangers of such boldness as I had displayed having regard to the speed and power of my machine and pleaded with me for a greater caution.