Thursday, 19 July 2012

J. Armstrong Drexel - Aviator

A simulated image of Mr J. Armstrong Drexel Flying his Bleriot
Monoplane at Lanark Aviation Ground Scotland, 1910
[From my own collection]

My Great Aunt posted the above postcard with an image of "J.A. Drexel" to a friend in New Zealand on Wednesday the 10th August 1910 (a windless sunny day perfect for flying) writing that she had been "Here today seeing the aviation... [That] the weather is fine... [and] there is good flying".

Crowds watching the "Aviation" at the Scottish International Aviation
meeting at Lanark, Aug 1910

From the 6th to the13th August 1910 around 250,000 spectators  flocked to "The Scottish International Aviation Meeting" at Lanark Racecourse over the course of 8 days of flying competitions. From research I am now aware that my Great Aunt and her Sister were just two of a record 50,000 visitors who arrived on the 10th August alone.

This was in fact the first International Aviation Meeting to be held in Scotland and only the second in Great Britain, hence the popularity. Many spectators had not even seen an aeroplane flying. The idea of an Air Show had initially received a cool reception but with strong support from the Lord Provost of Glasgow an organising committee diligently set to work.

"The Daily News" souvenir of the Lanark Airshow, August 1910

The site, being Scotland's first airfield, was chosen for the Committee by Mr Charles Royce of Rolls Royce fame. The Caledonian Railway then extended their Lanark line and provided a double platform 'halt' at Lanark Racecourse to handle the fourteen special trains a day bringing visitors to view the "aviation". New grandstands and "garages" (as they were termed at this time) for the aeroplanes plus a Post and Telegraph Office housing 30 operators were especially constructed for the event. My Great Aunt's postcard thus carries the unique circular round "Lanark Grand Stand" postmark, being normally reserved for telegraphic use. This is now apparently very collectable, being one of the rarest British aviation postmarks.

The Lord Provost himself had the honour of opening the event. Judging by the number of visitors, it is surprising that the event made a financial loss. Still, it was generally considered to have been a huge success.

Crowds gathered round an aeroplane at the Scottish International
Aviation meeting at Lanark, Aug 1910

I am just sorry that my Great Aunt never kept a diary or spoke to me about her impressions of having attended this amazing event at a time when aviation was still in its infancy. That she was interested in aviation is proven by her ownership of my booklet about the early Aviator Captain Patrick Hamilton whom I have recently also written about. She would have personally observed Mr Drexel undertake an altitude attempt as well as three distance races during her visit.

A horse pulling along an aeroplane at the Scottish International
Aviation meeting at Lanark, Aug 1910

Even in 1910 aviation was truly still in its infancy. This was just seven years after the publicity shunning New Zealand Farmer Richard Pearse had single-handedly achieved a powered flight of 350 yards in a home built 15 h.p. aeroplane on the 31st March 1903 and the American Wright Brothers had completed their sustained and controlled powered flight at Kittyhawk on the 17th December 1903. And just the previous year, on the 25th July 1909, Louis Blériot had finally become the first aviator to successfully fly across the English Channel, winning the £1,000 prize offered by "The Daily Mail".

Crowds watching the "Aviation" at the Scottish International Aviation
meeting at Lanark, Aug 1910

But what of the Aviator J. Armstrong Drexel? Seventeen competitors from seven countries came to the Lanark airshow to compete for various flying prizes with a combined prize pool of £8060. Among those competing was an American born flyer, John Armstrong Drexel. Luckily his aeroplane was not one of two that were lost in a railway fire whilst being transported to Lanark. Land transport was still necessary for journeys of any length.

J. Armstrong Drexel in his Blériot monoplane.

Armstrong Drexel had been just the 10th aviator to receive his British Royal.Aero Club Aviators Certificate, being granted on the 21st June 1910. He also became only the 8th Aviator to receive an Aero Club of America pilot's licence, taking the test in his Gnôme engined Blériot monoplane. The Club's regulations published in 1910 stated : 

"All candidates shall satisfy the officials of the Aero Club of America of their ability to fly at least five hundred yards, and of their capability of making a gliding descent with the engine stopped, before their applications will be entertained."

(L to R) Aviators J. Armstrong Drexel and William D. McArdle

Also in May 1910, and along with William McArdle, Drexel had founded the New Forest Flying School at East Boldre in Hampshire England using Blériot aeroplanes, being only the second school for pilots in Great Britain and the fifth in the world. Early on the school proved busy with a good number of aspiring pilots. By late May 1910 the school had seven aircraft rising to ten by September.

Interestingly, Drexel's brother Anthony had also taken up aviation. As sons of millionaire banker, Anthony J. Drexel Snr, the family fortune may have initially funded their pioneering but no doubt expensive start in Aviation.

A crowd gathered round J. Armstrong Drexel's Blériot aeroplane
at Cobbinshaw after achieving his world altitude record of
6,750 feet on the 12th August 1910.

Armstrong Drexel's claim to fame came during "The Scottish International Aviation Meeting" at Lanark when on the 12th August 1910 (two days after my Great Aunt's visit), he set the then world altitude record of 6,750 feet flying a Blériot monoplane fitted with a 7 cylinder 50hp Gnome engine. This altitude was confirmed by the carefully tested barograph carried in Drexel's monoplane. As explained below, he was forced to land at Cobbinshaw some distance from Lanark.

J. Armstrong Drexel's Blériot aeroplane on a motorised
 truck being transported from Cobbinshaw back to
Lanark , Aug 1910

A Newspaper Report of the Altitude Attempt on the 12th August 1910  (worth the read!) : 

"At about 3,000 ft. the daring American was seen to enter a cloud bank. For a time no anxiety was felt, but as time went on it was obvious that something had happened. It was known that Drexel only had enough petrol to last him some 45 mins., so that the descent would have been made at no great distance. After two hours had elapsed without word being received, cars were despatched with search parties, but at 9.30 p.m., about two hours and a half after he had left the ground, a wire was received from Drexel himself, from Cobbinshaw station, 18 miles out of Edinburgh. It appeared that when he came out of the clouds on the descent he found himself away from the course, and in the fast-growing dusk was quite unable to locate it. He accordingly sought for level ground on which to alight, and finally selected a field near the farm steading of Wester Mossat, where he alighted in perfect safety without any injury to the Bleriot. The farm folk were naturally greatly surprised.

Drexel borrowed a bicycle and rode to the nearest station, where he wired to the course as already stated, asking for mechanics to be sent to bring in the machine, which stood in the long grass locking for all the world like a dead bird

His machine behaved splendidly, although the engine was tried considerably in finishing the last 50 ft., which were only made with difficulty owing to the rarity of the atmosphere. Drexel's greatest difficulty was to hold out against the intense cold which benumbed his hands, rendering one practically useless, and it was his physical condition which caused him to descend, in doing which he lost all knowledge of his position. He was in the air some 50 minutes, of which the descent occupied but 6. The sealed barograph was taken charge of by the officials... It was found to register no less than 6,750 ft., which constitutes a new world's record for altitude... There is no real doubt of the record, but the barograph is to be sent to Kew Observatory for a certificate as to its accuracy."

During World War I, Drexel flew with the French Lafayette Escadrille until 1917, being a Fighter Squadron formed as a volunteer American air unit fighting for France. He subsequently became a commissioned Major in the Aviation Section of the United States Signal Corps, serving until the end of the war in 1918 with the United States Army Air Service.

In Memory of

John Armstrong Drexel - Aviator

24 Oct 1891 - 1958

At a time when early aviation - and in war - definitely carried much more risk than glamour, I was relieved to discover that J. Armstrong Drexel survived to 1958, dying in his 67th year, most likely in the USA. But it is indeed a sobering thought that by 1912 a quarter of the flyers that took part in the Lanark Air Show had died in air accidents.

Bibliography :

- Wilkipedia
- Where stated images(s) are from my own personal collection and may not be used for any commercial purpose without my express permission. Such image(s) may however be freely copied for non-commercial use provided a link is given back to this page.

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