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hen the suit was filed, Curtiss was no longer in America. He was in France with yet another new airplane, similar to the Golden Flyer but with a shorter wingspan to cut down on the drag and a more powerful engine to increase the speed. He called it the Rheims Racer.

The French had organized the first international aviation meet, officially known as La Grande Semain d'Aviation de Champagne, in the ancient cathedral city of Rheims. Twenty-two airmen from all over the world attended, bringing with them 38 airplanes, 23 of which actually made it into the air — an astounding display of airmanship. The planes represented 10 different manufacturers. Most of the aircraft were French — Voisons, Bleriots, Antoinettes, and Farmans. There were also 6 French-built Wright aircraft, although the Wright brothers themselves did not attend. Curtiss and his Rheims Racer were the only American and the only American-built airplane present.

It was a grand affair. The air meet was backed by the city of Rheims and the neighboring vinters, who cleared Bethany Plain near the city and built an "aeropolis." The ten-square kilometer flying field boasted hangers, grandstands, barber shops, florists, and a 600-seat terrace restaurant where spectators could sip champagne and listen the fiddlers as they watched the air races. The aviators arrived like knights and nobles with elaborate entourages, including ground crews, equipment, and spare airplanes. Gabriel Voison brought an entire field kitchen and the cooks to man it.

By contrast, Glenn Curtiss had two mechanics, a single airplane, and a spare propeller. But the austerity and simplicity of his operation endeared him to the French, perhaps because it remained them of the simplicity of Wilbur Wright just a year ago. He quickly became one of the favorites with the aviators, spectators, and newspapers.

The last was something of consternation to Curtiss. Before he left, he had labored night and day to perfect a new 50-horsepower motor. He thought of it as his edge, by which he might win the speed competition and capture the Gordon Bennett Trophy, the most coveted and important award at Rheims. But the newspaper soon spread the word of his marvelous engine, and Louis Bleriot quickly had one of his airplanes fitted with an 80 hp motor. "When I learned of this," said Curtiss, "I believed my chances were very slim indeed, if in fact they had not entirely disappeared."

One of his mechanics, however, bucked him up. "Glenn," said Tod Shriver, recalling their old motorcycling days, "I've seen you win many a race on the turns."

The air meet opened to bad weather on the morning of August 22. But by late afternoon, the skies had cleared, the winds were still, and seven airplanes took the skies together. It was an incredible spectacle that awed everyone present, aviators and spectators alike. Curtiss, however, held back. He avoided exposition flights and chose not to participate in the endurance competition. He had only one plane and one motor, and he could not risk them before the speed trials.

He did, however, make a number of short practice flights to get familiar with his new airplane and make sure it was working properly. On the second day of the meet, he took to the air and set an unofficial speed record of 43 mph. His triumph was short lived, however. The next day Bleriot topped him with 46 mph.

Curtiss and his mechanics began to tinker to see if they could coax a bit more speed from their airplane. They removed the bulky gas tank and replaced it with a slimmer one to reduce drag. They contemplated buying new propellers to increase thrust and fussed over the engine, trying to coax more power from it. Bleriot, too, was tinkering with his airplane. When a minor accident necessitated repairs, he cut down the wings, making them slimmer. This reduced his lift slightly, but it also reduced drag.

On the day of the Gordon Bennett cup race, Curtiss made his speed run as early as he could. "I climb as high as I thought I might without protest, before crossing the starting line — probably 500 feet — so that I might take advantage of a gradual descent throughout the race, and thus gain additional speed." Over the starting line Curtiss nosed over slightly and began to pick up speed. "I cut the corner as close as I dared and banked the machine high on the turn," he recalled. On the backstretch, flying as fast as he could, he smashed into an invisible wall of turbulence. "The shocks were so violent that I was lifted completely out of my seat," said Curtiss. At this point, the prudent thing to do was to power back to keep the machine from shaking to pieces. But Curtiss powered through the thermals and reached smooth air again. When he landed, a mob of cheering Americans rushed him. He had set a new world's record — 46.5 mph.

Other aviators had yet to fly, however. As Curtiss watched "like a prisoner awaiting the decision of the jury," one by one they flew and fell short of his mark. There was no serious competition until it was Bleriot's turn. On the first leg of the course, Bleriot's trimmed wings seemed to be giving him the edge — his first circuit was four seconds faster than Curtiss. But the winds had become gusty, and Bleriot had to fight to maintain a true course. He landed to thundering applause from the French and walked over to the judges booth. Curtiss remained a respectful distance. The crowd was dead quiet and remained that way until suddenly the silence was pieced by a shriek of joy. The shout came from Courtland Bishop, president of the Aero Club of America, who was in the judges stand. He came running over to Curtiss. "You win! You win!" he shouted. Curtiss had beaten Bleriot by just six seconds.

The Gordon Bennett Trophy was his. Newspapers would dub Curtiss "Champion Aviator of the World," and he would return to a hero's welcome in New York. More importantly his fame — and the reputation of his airplanes — now rivaled the Wright brothers.

1909 Rheims Racer in Europe.jpg (109584 bytes)
The Rheims Racer in its final form with shortened wings.

1909 Rheims Racer Cockpit.jpg (192636 bytes)
The cockpit of the Rheims Racer.

1909 Rheims Curtiss portrait.jpg (84028 bytes)
Glen Curtiss at the controls of the Rheims Racer.

1909 Rheims Pylon race.jpg (86997 bytes)
A pylon race at Rheims.

1909 Rheims LeFebre around Pylon.jpg (127125 bytes)
Although the Wrights did not attend the Rheims Air Meet, their airplanes competed. This Wright Model A was flown by LeFebre, the chief test pilot for the Wright Company in France.

1909 Rheims Curtiss Flying.jpg (50395 bytes)
Curtiss over the grandstands in Rheims.

1909 Rheims Louis Bleriot watches.jpg (147162 bytes)
A worried Bleriot watches Curtiss' performance.

1909 Rheims Racer aloft.jpg (92602 bytes)
Close-up of Curtiss passing by the grandstands.

1909 Rheims Curtiss triumphant.jpg (131299 bytes)
Curtiss' victory parade at Rheims.

1909 Rheims Gordon Bennet Trophy.jpg (94559 bytes)
The Gordon Bennett Trophy.

1909 Rheims Curtiss in Harpers.jpg (68570 bytes)
Curtiss' triumph was front page news in newspapers and magazines across the United States.

1909 Rheims Flyer on display.jpeg (107774 bytes)
The Rheims Racer went on display in Wannamaker's department store in New York City after returning to America.

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The Wright Story/Showing the World/Curtiss Wins the Gordon Bennett Trophy at Rheims

Part of a biography of the Wright Brothers


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