By michaelfewer, Feb 14 2017 03:40PM
On August 29th 1910 a great concourse of people descended on Leopardstown Racecourse in jaunting cars, ass carts, motor cars, on bicycles, on foot and by the Dublin and South Eastern Railway. It was not for horseracing that they came; they were on a special pilgrimage. They were going to witness, at first hand, a miracle that they had been reading about since less than seven years previously, when, an American named Orville Wright had taken a powered aircraft into the air. Men had taken the air before, in baskets hanging under great, unwieldy and relatively uncontrollable bags of gas. The engine-powered craft that Orville and his brother Wilbur had designed and built in 1903, however, could fly and manoeuvre like a great bird. In the ensuing months and years, great numbers of enthusiasts, with hastily developed skills and mixed success, designed and built machines based on the Wright original and took to the air. Only the previous year, on December 31st 1909, 25-year old Harry Ferguson, had made the first flight in Ireland of a heavier-than-air craft.
The first Irish Aviation meeting under the auspices of the infant Aero Club of Ireland was taking place at Leopardstown. Such meetings had begun in the US with the Wright brothers demonstrating their flying skills, and the idea quickly spread to Europe, where the first airshow took place in Frankfurt am Main in July 1909, quickly followed by one at Rheims in France the following month. The Leopardstown show was the first opportunity most Irish people had to see aeroplanes, and they arrived at the racecourse in their droves: the previous record attendance had been when Edward VII had attended the races there in 1903, but the air show surpassed even this.
A group of the rapidly growing cadre of aviators had been ‘booked’ by the Aero Club for the meet. They included J Armstrong Drexel, an rich American who was the current holder of the world altitude record, having achieved 6,752 feet a few weeks before, Captain Bertram Dickson, a 37-year old British officer, and an Irishman, 30-year old Cecil Grace.
Dickson and Grace had both brought Farman biplanes to demonstrate, and Drexel had brought two Bleriot monoplane aircraft, but part of their framing had been damaged in transit. In a matter of hours, however, he had arranged for a Dublin coachbuilder to carry out repairs. Before the show he took a trial flight with the intention of flying over to Powerscourt for luncheon with his lordship, but the weather was too windy.
A company of colourfully-uniformed Hussars and a detachment of mounted Royal Irish Constabulary were deployed as crowd control, and as soon as Lord Aberdeen, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and a large entourage from Dublin Castle were seated in the stands, the flights began. The weather was difficult, with gusting breezes, but this didn’t put off Cecil Grace, who took his flimsy craft off the ground in front of the crowd and quickly got up to 200 feet, to the enthusiastic cheers and applause of the crowd. The aircraft was being blown sideways by the wind as he turned at the far end of the grounds and he gingerly controlled the jerking aircraft back past the stands to make a successful landing. Apparently his seat had become detached, which made things difficult for the Irishman! Next up was the American, Drexel, in his Bleriot. He gave himself the full length of the course to take off, and the spectators behind him got the full blast of the slipstream and castor oil as his plane surged forward and took the air. On his first pass he achieved a height of 400 feet, and thrilled the gathering when he climbed again to about 900 feet before landing after a flight of ten minutes. On a second flight he attained the height of 1,200 feet, and greatly impressed the crowd as he demonstrated sharp, banking turns, the aircraft almost turned on its side.
Captain Dickson took off but his engine was not firing properly and he had to make an emergency landing in an adjacent field. Later in the afternoon Cecil Grace, according to newspaper reports, gave ‘several samples of his usual beautiful driving’, and took a passenger, Desmond Arthur of County Clare, up in his machine.
On the second and final day of the show the weather was even worse, but that did not deter the crowds. It was thought that no flying might take place, but Cecil Grace did get his machine into the air in a most ‘hair-raising flight’. His plane lurched dangerously in the gusts, dropping and soaring as the crowd looked on with bated breath: a contemporary account related that ‘anyone but a perfect master of the machine would have been killed half a dozen times over’. He finally came down in a plunge that looked like it would end up a wreck, but at the last minute he levelled out and made a safe landing. Later, Grace took a number of brave passengers up for runs past the stands, and Captain Dickson, who had managed to get his engine to behave, gave a short but thrilling display. At the end of the day and Ireland’s first airshow, the crowds left Leopardstown very satisfied with what they had experienced, and the Aero Club made a profit of £400.
Those who gathered on those historical two days in the autumn of 1910 had had a glimpse of the infancy of aviation, an industry that would soon change the world forever. The brave men who took to the air in their flimsy machines and thrilled the crowd were true pioneers. For them, every flight was a test flight with all the dangers such entails: they were still only learning the art of controlling their primitive aircraft and a powerful, racing petrol engine, itself a relatively recent invention, while attempting to cope with the little-understood science of aerodynamics. Of the three pilots who gave the Irish their first experience of heavier-than-air flight, only Drexel was still alive three years later, and he was soon to abandon flying. Cecil Grace disappeared three months later over the English Channel while attempting the longest flight out of England in an English machine, and only a few weeks after the Leopardstown Show, Captain Bertram Dickson was severely injured in an air collision at an airshow in Milan: he never fully recovered, and died in 1913 at the age of forty.