The eventful Paris-Madrid air race of 1911

The Man seems to carry in his DNA the imprint of sporting competitiveness. At first, using his own body and his abilities, something that was already evident in ancient times with what the Greeks called agons and reference events such as the Olympic, Heroic, Pythian, Nemean, Panathenaic, Panhellenic Games, etc. It did not take long, however, for vehicles to be incorporated and, thus, horse races, chariots, boats, cars, bicycles, motorcycles and, when the Wright brothers conquered the sky, airplanes followed one another.

The first air race was Lagatinerie Prix, held in France in 1909; there were four participants and although none finished the course, the French aviator León Delagrange was declared the winner for being the one who covered the greatest distance. That same year there were other competitions that hatched in the Great Semaine d’Aviation de la Champagnein which twenty-three aviation pioneers of various nationalities took part, was attended by nearly half a million spectators and the first advertising sponsorships have already been given.

The success of that competition encouraged other countries to organize their own and a year later the USA joined the new fashion with a race sponsored by great magnates such as Henry E. Huntington, from the railway, and William Randolph Hearst, from the press. The door was open and Spain was no stranger to it, since in 1911 it became the goal of a new test that, starting from Paris and in three stages, ended in Madrid.

It was a race promoted by the newspaper Le Petit Parisianwhich tried to imitate the one organized by its competitor, Le Matin, making him considerably increase his roll. In fact, all the newspapers had embarked on similar initiatives, either with raid air or car racing. The first stage began on May 21 at the Issy-les-Moulineaux aerodrome, located in Ile-de-France, where almost a quarter of a million spectators gathered.

tribune of the Great Semaine d’Aviation, 1909 / Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Up to 28 aviators had signed up, although at the moment of truth most of them could not have their devices ready and only eight went out on the runway. They were André Beaumont, who was the first to take off and was followed by Roland Garros, Eugène Gilbert, Jean-Louis Conneau, Gilbert Le Lasseur and Louis Émile Train, Jules Védrines and André Frey.

The first six began takeoffs from 5:00 in shifts, every ten minutes, but the technical difficulties of the time meant that all except Garros had to give up or land again due to various problems, to try again when they were corrected: Frey broke up his plane, Garnier was unable to get up, Védrines capsized… That and poor organization, which favored many curious onlookers moving around the venue as they pleased, led to high-risk situations. Among them was a group of cuirassiers who inadvertently caused a tragedy.

Louis Émile Train was landing due to technical problems when he found those soldiers on horseback who were precisely trying to clear the runway of people. To avoid them, he had to make a sudden maneuver that made him rise above them with the idea of ​​descending once he had left them behind… and then he ran into a second group there, in this case of authorities walking on foot. Among them none other than Prime Minister Ernest Monis, who broke his leg while his son and oil tycoon Henri Deutsch de la Meurthe (who was also one of the sponsors) were also injured.

It was worse for War Minister Henri Maurice Berteaux, whose arm was not only severed by the propeller, but Train’s monoplane fatally hit him in the head, dying on the spot. It should be said, by way of anecdote, that Berteaux’s death marked the end of his controversial project to replace the classic nineteenth-century French uniform with a more modern one known as the faint resedagray-green, so that when the First World War began, many Gallic soldiers were still wearing the obsolete blue jacket and the striking red trousers and the iconic kepi.

That incident sowed chaos at the aerodrome and forced the departures to be suspended until the following day, when they resumed with the approval of Monis himself. That yes, with the list of aviators very reduced, since only two more were able to take off and join those who had done so the previous day: Jules Védrines and André Frey. The latter, however, soon broke down again and was forced to withdraw as it passed through Étampes, less than fifty kilometers from Paris.

Nor could Beaumont go much further than the middle of the first stage because after a maintenance landing in Loches, in the department of Indre et Loire, when trying to take flight again he crashed and was out of the race. Only three of the participants managed to reach Angoulême, the end of the first stage: in this order, Garros, Gilbert and Védrines, although only the first (whose name will sound familiar to many due to the tennis tournament of the same name, named after him) made on the scheduled day; the others arrived with notable delay.

The next morning they resumed the race in a second stage that was more complex because it ended in the Basque Country, specifically San Sebastián, which involved crossing the Pyrenees. Gilbert had to wait several hours in Bayonne for a breakdown to be fixed. Garros, who used the same aircraft model, was forced to make an emergency landing on the slopes of Mount Jaizquíbel (Guipúzcoa) to refuel; he was riding his bicycle looking for fuel when he found some soldiers who gave it to him. As a curiosity, the Ondarreta beach was set up as an airfield and the planes landed there.

The three pilots were granted a day of rest because the cold of the Pyrenean mountain range had caused them hypothermia so important that they needed to be treated by the Red Cross. In this way, it was not until the morning of the 25th that they got ready to cover the third and last stage, the 426 kilometers that separated San Sebastián from Madrid and in which the main obstacle was the Sierra de Guadarrama.

But the glory was destined for a single winner, as Garros and Gilbert suffered setbacks that forced them to leave: the first crashed into a telegraph pole, losing a wing of his Bleriot XI and, although he was able to repair it, he again had difficulties in the Leizarán ravine, in Andoáin, where he stayed permanently. More unheard of was Gilbert, since shortly after taking off he was attacked by an eagle that he had to shoot away with a revolver he was carrying. A bullet damaged the plane, which led it to land in Olazagutia and during the maneuver it capsized.

Therefore, they left Védrines to fly alone in his monoplane. Morane-Boret. It was not long before he too had to withdraw, since he needed to land twice along the way: once in Quintanapalla, a municipality in Burgos, and another in the city of Burgos itself. In fact, he couldn’t go on without making some repairs, but since he was the last one left in the running, he was given a deadline to do so. Meanwhile, he traveled by car to reconnoiter the terrain and discovered that he could guide himself along the railway lines.

The next day, having solved the issue, he resumed the route and finally, at 8:06 in the morning, after flying over Somosierra, Lozoyeula, Redueña, El Molar San Agustín and Fuencarral, he landed in the Dehesa de Santa Quiteria, the point of Getafe where the Royal Aero Club of Spain (the first in the country, founded in 1905 by the Asturian aeronaut Jesús Fernández Duro) had prepared an aerodrome in agreement with the city council (the success of the event meant that the infrastructure was maintained). The kings had already left, tired of waiting.

A large crowd -arrived on 16 chartered trains ex profeso– was waiting for Védrines, who had spent a total time of 37 hours to cover the 1,170 kilometers of the Paris-Madrid distance at an average speed of 93.63 kilometers per hour. When he got off the plane he was showing symptoms of confusion from the cold and exhaustion, so once again he had to be given medical attention. But he took the 100,000 francs prize, to which he added other cash winnings. In addition, at a reception in the Congress of Deputies, Alfonso XIII awarded him the Cross of the Civil Order of Alfonso XII, created a decade earlier to reward merit in fields such as culture, education, research and science.

Védrines was then thirty years old. He was a native of Saint-Denis and had become interested in aviation working as a mechanic for the English aviator Robert Loraine (an actor and theater director who, in turn, apprenticed with the famous Louis Bleriot). The Raid Paris-Madrid of 1911 was the first feat of Védrines, who had already made a name for himself shortly before by launching a bouquet of violets from the air as a Lenten procession passed through Paris’ Place Concordia.

Later he won more races, entered politics and starred in an incident in Germany when he was arrested for flying over the country’s airspace – which would lead to an international meeting to clarify that concept, of that somewhat diffuse one – and escaping on his plane taking advantage of parole . With a gruff character, he was involved in a duel and took part in the First World War, a contest in which, by the way, Roland Garros became a hero by shooting down four enemy planes before he died in the same way in 1918. Védrines followed him the following year because of a plane crash.


The 1911 Paris-Madrid Air Race (Francisco Aracil) / Raid Paris-Madrid 1911 (Royal Air Club of Spain) / The Paris-Madrid Race (Flight) / Madrid. Tales, legends and anecdotes (Javier Leralta) / Wikipedia

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