Wills’s Aviation Card #64 – Mr. Claude Grahame-White.

Claude Grahame-White F.jpgHistory Behind The Card: Mr. Claude Grahame-White.

Card #64 of 75, W.D.& H.O Wills, Aviation series 1911, Capstan Navy Cut – black back issue

  • Claude Grahame-White, August 21, 1879 in Bursledon, Hampshire, England, Great Britain – August 19, 1959 in Nice, France.

Claude Grahame-White was the type of aviator that ticked off the Wright Brothers.

With this card – No. 64, Wills’s Aviation card series of 1911 began to include biographical cards of some of the more famous aviators. Claude Grahame-White was the first.

Along with his fame as an aviator – he was the first to make a night flight – he also formed his own aviation company, and helped promote the aviation field with penned articles and books.

A handsome man, Grahame-White was not tremendously educated, but after learning how to drive a car in 1895–a big deal at the time–he apprenticed as an engineer and soon started his own motor building company.


What I love about the photo of Claude Grahame-White above, is the fact that he is wearing the same chapeau as depicted on the Wills’s card – and quite possibly the same bow tie, complete with white polka dots. The same type of collar on the shirt is also evident, but the Card depicts him wearing an aviator-style overcoat.

It was his swagger, his lifestyle and his love of self-publicity more than anything, a public darling.

Let’s face it, if no one has seen you or heard you talk, you tend to fade from public view… Grahame-White didn’t… at least until he stopped his self-promoting.

The Wright Brothers—despite being pioneers of heavier than air flight, they preferred keeping their innovation a secret for years… and when they did speak about aviation they weren’t exactly thought of as exciting.

Think about this… who invented television? Right. But we all know who shot JR, the plot of every Seinfeld episode, or just when Happy Days jumped the shark.

It was professor Farnsworth – immortalized in Futurama by name only, by the way.

While the Wright Brothers viewed Grahame-White as a huckster… a snake-oil salesman of self-promotion, he thought that while they were fantastic for being the first in the air with an aeroplane, he thought they were greedy SOBs for their penchant for suing everyone and every company that dared build their own version of an aeroplane.

I agree with Grahame-White in this case. There’s a reason why the Wright Brothers are rightly praised for being the first… but they hardly propelled aviation further as the years went on.

I mean come on! Even though these guys were bicycle builders, they never thought of putting wheels on their aeroplanes until 1910-19143 Model B, their seventh aeroplane design.

Anyhow… Grahame-White did meet Wilbur Wright when the latter visited France in 1908. He described Wilbur Wright as an “ascetic, gaunt American with watchful, hawklike eyes.”

Big whoop, except that the implication is that Wilbur was someone very careful of his invention.

Still, after seeing Wilbur Wright actually fly, he decided to focus his drive on aviation.

He had used fast cars and fast boats to capture the attention of fast women, and correctly guessed that aviation would be a great way to get into the mile-high club then known as the 500-meter club.

However, after pilot Louis Blériot first crossed the English Channel in 1909 (see my story HERE), he became intrigued by aviation – so much so that he traveled to France for an opportunity to see the 1909 Reims aviation meet (see HERE and HERE), the first aviation meet, where he met Blériot and decided to enroll in his flying school.

Or did he?

I also found a story that makes a lot of sense… that he after ordering an aeroplane from Louis Blériot’s factory in France, he taught himself to fly all by his lonesome.

Apparently Grahame-White was impressed by the power of the press who wrote about him and gave hims such much sought after fame for his solo-teaching method.

So he hired a pres agent in 1910 and told him to tell everyone in Great Britain and the foreign press every time he was to fly.

So which story is correct?

Well, the guy is a shameless self-promoter!

I would say he visited Reims, met Blériot and learned how to fly in France.

He may have said that he never took a flying lesson in England, and the press may have assumed then that he was self-taught, probably reasoning that no one would ever find out the truth, and by then – who cares?

We do know that he was awarded Royal Aero Club certificate No. 6 in April of 1910 making him the sixth qualified pilot in England.

Later in April, Grahame-White became the local celebrity in England as he and French aviator Louis Paulham challenged to be the first to pilot an aeroplane from London to Manchester, England – with a £10,000 prize offered by the British Daily Mail newspaper.

Consider that Blériot only won a £1,000 from the Daily Mail for being the first to pilot an aeroplane across the English Channel in 1909, this £10,000 prize shows just how much money the newspaper figured to make on the promotion of the new and very popular aviation industry.

The rules of that first flight between London and Manchester was simply to do so within 24 hours – allowing for fuel refills, expected aircraft break-downs and more.

While Paulham won the prize, Grahame-White’s efforts were lauded by the British press and natives who were starving for local homegrown success.

Claude Grahame-White R.jpg

A few months later on July 2, 1910, Grahame-White won £1,000 as the first prize for Aggregate Duration in Flight while at the Midlands Aviation Meeting at Wolverhampton, England.

Grahame-White flew his Farman III biplane for a total of one hour-and 23-minutes and 20-seconds.

Grahame-White’s exploits didn’t go unnoticed in the U.S.

J.V. Martin of the Harvard Aeronautical Society traveled to Europe in the summer of 1910 to entice aviators to come and fly in the Boston-Harvard Meet.

Guess who was top of his European list? To get Grahame-White, he promised him a US$50,000 retainer and all expenses paid.

Arriving in Bohstan on September 1, 1910 amidst a phallanx of reporters and fans, a female journalist wrote to Boston’s men to be careful if they took their women to the airshow: “For before you know it these hearts may be fluttering along at the tail of an airplane wherein sits a daring and spectacular young man who has won the title of the matinee idol of the aviation field–Claude Grahame-White.”

Perhaps egged on by the media report, women at the Meet were “fighting” to try and get a ride in the sky with the dashing Grahame-White.

Proving that he cared more for money than women—and that’s saying something—Grahame-White charged all comers US$500 for a flight lasting five minutes.


And I’m too sexy for my hat, what do you think about that? $500, please… now get out! Next!

But Grahame-White wasn’t in America just to pick up women and make money, he also wanted to make more money by winning events at the event – probably so he could pick up more women.

He won the so-called blue ribbon event at the Boston-Harvard Meet that involved flying 33-miles from the airfield to Boston Light (in Boston Harbor), which netted him US$10,000.

The amount of money that Grahame-White made on this Boston jaunt staggers my 2017 brain, as I struggle from paycheck to paycheck hoping the gas station won’t get out its hired goons, Leaded and Unleaded, to get their money.

U.S. president William Howard Taft, the 27th president of the United States of America (1909–1913), attended the event, but deigned not to put his too heavy 250lb body into the aeroplane when Grahame-White offered to take him up for free.

Another free invite was offered to Boston Mayor John Fitzgerald—he was John F. Kennedy’s grandfather (JFK wasn’t born until May 29, 1917)—who did agree to go up, and had a grand time. Days later, Fitzy (c’mon, you know he was called that) gave Grahame-White a silver trophy inscribed with: “From Boston Friends, in admiration of your skill and sportsmanship as an aviator.”

From Boston, next up, was the Gordon Bennett Aviation Cup. Beginning in 1906, the event was one just for balloonists.


By 1909, an event just for aeroplanes was started alongside the balloon event. Now Grahame-White did not enter that first aeroplane event, but he did enter the second one in 1910, held at the Belmont Park racetrack in New York.

The last event of the week-long aeroplane meet was the flying of 20 laps around a five-kilometer circuit. It wasn’t a race, per se, rather it was a time trial.

The event allowed for a pilot to take-off at any time during a seven-hour period on the day of the race.

Claude Grahame-White was first to take off at 8:42AM in his Blériot XI that used a 100 horsepower Gnome Double Omega motor made by Société des Moteurs Gnome. The standard Gnome Omega offered 50 horsepower, but this version provided double the horsepower, but did add additional weight to the flying craft.

Grahame-White completed his first lap in 3-minutes 15-seconds.

How fast was he? Well, next up in the air was Alec Ogilvie flying a Wright Model R at 9:08 and Alfred Leblanc at 9:20 for the first lap.

Leblanc, was the chief pilot for the Blériot company, and flew the same plane as Grahame-White, but slightly modified with a different propeller and a reduced wingspan.

Leblanc’s aircraft was clearly faster: after four laps his time was 1 minute 20 seconds better than Grahame-White’s and he completed his 19th lap after 52 minutes 49.6 seconds in the air.

Grahame-White, having started first, finished his 20th and final lap in a total time of 1-hour, 1-minute and 4.47-seconds.

So…to win, all Leblanc had to do was finish the last five kilometer circuit in around nine-and-a-half minutes… which aside from his opening lap was very easy to do.

But that’s why they make you finish the entire race. Half-way round the last lap Leblanc’s engine stopped, either through fuel shortage or the breakage of a fuel line, and he had to make a forced landing. He actually collided with a telegraph pole some distance away, but wasn’t too badly hurt.

Ogilvie had only been able to do 13 laps before engine problems forced him to land… but it took him 54 minutes to fix the problem before he took to the air again. He eventually finished the race in a total time of 2-hours, 26-minutes and 36.6 seconds.

Proving that nice guys DO finish last, Walter Brooks in his Wright Baby Grand was about to take off in his attempt when Leblanc crashed, and decided to fly to the scene of the accident to see if he could help.

While en route, a connecting rod broke and his aircraft was wrecked in the subsequent forced landing. He was unhurt.

Hubert Latham in his Antoinette aeroplane took off at 10:59AM, but his attempt was plagued by engine failures, and he spent about four hours on the ground making repairs, eventually completing the course in 5-hours, 48-minutes and 53 seconds.

Shortly before the latest permitted takeoff time John Drexel and John Moisant, both flying Blériot IXs, started their attempts.

While Drexel only managed seven laps, Moisant did the 20-lap course but having to land a few times to correct his engine issues, he finished in a time of 1-hour, 57-minutes and 44.8-seconds – good enough for second place.

Grahame-White won. Huzzah!

Grahame-White was a real spokesman for the very young aviation industry, drumming up business with his flying stills and daredevil antics, such as on October 14, 1910 when he flew his Farman III over Washington, DC and landing on West Executive Avenue near the White House.

It’s cool – he knows the president.


Claude Grahame-White in his Farman III biplane about to land on West Executive Avenue in Washington, DC.

In November of 1910, Grahame-White was hanging out in the U.S. courting American actress Pauline Chase (Courting? That’s media political correctness. This guy didn’t have to court anyone. “I wanna woo!”).

Unfortunately, a different type of courting was in Grahame-White’s cards.

Near the end of the month, just days before his scheduled departure back to Great Britain (courting – hah!), those evil Wright Brothers filed a suit against Grahame-White claiming he had infringed on their patent—pick one—summoning him to appear before a judge.

The Wright Brothers wanted a full accounting of Grahame-White’s earnings in America—all $82,000.

Needless to say, Grahame-White thumbed his nose at America’s judicial system and the Wright Brothers, and skipped out of the country on an earlier ship.

When he arrived back in England, the brave Grahame-White laughed to reporters that “the Wrights are frightened. I’ve scared them so bloody well that they are terrified. I’m their most formidable competitor and they know it.”

On December 18, 1910, Grahame-White was hurt after crashing his aeroplane trying to win a $20,000 prize for the longest non-stop flight from England to the European mainland… and while in the hospital, he continued to hear about other pilots dying, which made him ponder his own mortality.

Not buying into that live fast-die young crap, Grahame-White quit competitive flying and put his money into his own company: the Grahame-White Aviation Company founded in 1911, as well as creating London’s first aerodrome at Hendon.

Aircraft built by the Grahame-White Aviation Company included (and taken from Wikipedia):

In 1911 he established a flying school at Hendon Aerodrome. In 1912 Grahame-White gave famed author H.G. Wells his first flight. Some of the books Wells has written that I have read include: The Time Machine; The Invisible Man; The War of the Worlds; The Island of Doctor Moreau; and The First Men in the Moon. If you haven’t read them, I recommend you do. Doctor Moreau is especially thrilling.

It was also around this time, that Grahame-White worked to promote the application of the aeroplane within the military with a campaign called “Wake Up Britain”. He was also involved with experimenting with fitting various weapons and bombs to aircraft.

During the war (then known as The Great War), he flew the first night patrol mission against an expected German raid on September 5, 1914.
The Aerodrome was lent to the British Admiralty in 1916, and eventually taken over by the British Royal Air Force in 1919.
In 1919, Grahame-White co-founded Aerofilms and Surveys Limited, which was Britain’s first commercial aerial photography company. It was founded with Francis Lewis Wills and Herbert William Matthews.
In 1925, Grahame-White sold the Hendon Aerodrome to the RAF (to the British Government, actually) for $1-million in 1925. Yes… that much money.
The truth of this sale, however is that Grahame-White had only lent the Aerodrome to the RAF, and with the war over wanted it back for himself. The RAF, however, didn’t want to give it back, and instead, after a lengthy legal battle forced him to sell it to them.
It was around the tine that he sold the Hendon Aerodrome that Grahame-White began to tire of aviation, soured on it because of how poorly he felt the RAF and the British Government had treated him by forcing the sale.
Still…. $1-million.
He moved to Nice, France but continued to be involved in property development in the U.S. and U.K., making a considerable fortune for himself.
He died in 1959 in France, but is interned at Golders Green Crematorium in the Barnet borough in London, England.


As for his former Hendon Aerodrome… well, it was renamed RAF Hendron and was used until the 1960s. After that, the land was sold and redeveloped into a housing development called Grahame Park… obviously an homage to Grahame-White.

An original World War I Grahame-White aircraft factory hangar was relocated a few years ago to the RAF Museum, where it houses the museum’s World War I collection and is named the Grahame White Factory.
While most of Grahame-White’s exploits at the beginning of the aviation age might nowadays be considered pretty minor, it is important to note that his flamboyant good looks and brashness and willingness to thumb his nose at the stodgy Wright Brothers was great news for the media.
His ability to create headlines for the aviation segment while the Wright’s preferred to keep things “dignified” worked out extremely well for Grahame-White.
Sure the Wright Brothers are better know today than Grahame-White, but I doubt they had as much fun as Grahame-White did, and would be curious to learn who actually made more money between 1910-1925.
While the Wright’s were the first to fly a heavier-than-air machine, and plenty of other pilots pushed development of the aircraft, it was Grahame-White who got the adulation from the average person.
He made it sexy and fun. Not a bad way to have lived one’s life.


About mreman47

Andrew was born in London, UK, raised in Toronto, Canada, and cavorted in Ohtawara, Japan for three years. He is married, has a son and a cat. He has over 35,000 comic books and a plethora of pioneer aviation-related tobacco and sports cards and likes to build LEGO dioramas. He has written and been an editor for various industrial magazines, has scripted comic books, ghost-written blogs for business sectors galore, and hates writing in the 3rd person. He also hates having to write this crap that no one will ever read. He works on his Pioneers Of Aviation - a cool blog on early fliers - even though it takes him so much time to do. He also wants to do more writing - for money, though. Help him out so he can stop talking in the 3rd person.
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3 Responses to Wills’s Aviation Card #64 – Mr. Claude Grahame-White.

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