Léon Delagrange

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Delagrange and Thérèse Peltier, 1908

Ferdinand Léon Delagrange (13 March 1873 – 4 January 1910) was a pioneering French aviator and sculptor. Léon was ranked as one of the top aviators in the world. On 30 December 1909 he had broken all speed records at Juvisy-sur-Orge in France in an attempt to win the Michelin Cup.[1] He did not succeed in beating Henry Farman’s record for distance, but did establish a new distance record for monoplanes and a new world speed record. He covered 124 miles in 2 hours and 32 minutes, maintaining an advantage speed of approximately 45 miles an hour.


Léon Delagrange was born in Orléans in central France, the son of a textile factory owner. As a teenager he studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts under Louis Barrias and Charles Vital-Cornu and was represented at several exhibitions in Paris. He was a member of the Salon des Artistes Français and received a commendation in 1901.[2]

Delagrange was one of the first men in Europe to take up aviation. In 1907 he became interested in flying and became one of the true pioneers of powered flight. That same year he was one of the first people to order an aircraft from Gabriel Voisin of the Voisin brothers, enabling them to get established as manufacturers of airplanes. The aircraft was the first example of what was to become one of the most successful early French aircraft, the Voisin 1907 biplane. His first public flight was made on 16 March 1907 at Bagatelle in France where he flew a biplane. His feats soon attracted worldwide attention and he is said to have refused a guarantee of $10,000 if he would visit the United States to perform demonstrations. In 1907, Delagrange was elected president of the Aviation Club of France.

During 1908 Delagrange toured Italy where he made flight demonstrations. It was during one of these demonstrations on 8 July that he made the world's first flight with a lady passenger, his partner and fellow sculptor Thérèse Peltier. In September the same year Delagrange set distance and endurance records, establishing a record of 15.2 miles in 29 minutes, 53 seconds.

On 7 January 1909, he was awarded one of the first eight aviators certificates awarded by the Aéro-Club de France.[3] In 1909 he also received the Lagatiner prize at Juvisy (3.6 miles in 10 minutes, 18 seconds). He participated in the world's first air race at Port-Aviation on 23 May 1909, and a further couple of race meetings during that same year. In addition to his original Voisins airplane he also bought three Blériot XIs, and formed a team by recruiting Hubert Le Blon, Léon Molon and Georges Prévoteau. He also flew in several non-competitive meetings. He was the first to equip a Blériot XI with a 50 hp Gnôme engine in place of the 25 hp Anzani, therby doubling its power.

During 1909 Léon Delagrange participated in the following air race meetings:[4]

  • Port-Aviation 23 May 1909
  • Port-Aviation 30 May - 3 June 1909
  • Reims 1909
  • Spa 1909
  • Doncaster 1909

1909 Doncaster Aviation Meeting, England[edit]

The Doncaster Aviation Meeting was held between 18th - 26th of October 1909.[5]

Delagrange’s first really sensational flight and the one that made him a contender for all prizes, was accomplished at Doncaster on 26 October 1909. At that time he established a world record by flying six miles in 7 minutes 36 seconds, or at a rate at times of over fifty miles an hour. the plane he flew was a Bleriot Monoplane. The fact that he flew in a storm created a sensation for the fans that were watching and the press that reported the occasion.

Tuesday, 26th October 1909, Yorkshire Post: "Delagrange then tried for the Tradesmen's Cup for the fastest circuit, and on his Gnome-engine Bleriot completed one lap, during a flight of 5 miles 1,695 yards, in 1 min. 47.2 seconds and as this worked out at a speed of 49.9 miles an hour, this was announced as a world's record."[6]

Pilots flying during the Doncaster Aviation Meeting were: Hubert Le Blon, Samuel Cody, Leon Delagrange, Maurice Gifford, Ballin Hinde, Frank Lovelace?, Edward M. Maitland, Leon Molon? (awarded Aéro-Club de France certificate in 1910), Roger Sommer and Walter George Windham (founder of the Aeroplane Club).

A Getty photographic image of Léon Delagrange flying his monoplane at Doncaster is held in the Getty Image Archive.[7]

During Delagrange's stay in Doncaster, Yorkshire, the artist Dudley Hardy sketched a cartoon drawing of him that was reproduced in the Doncaster Aviation Meeting Souvenir Programme dated 18-23 October 1909, (the First Flying Meeting in England).[8]

December, 1909[edit]

At the end of 1909, during December Delagrange set a new monoplane record. Also in December 1909 the Academy of Sciences at Paris voted him an enamel medal for aeronautic achievements.

Death, 4 January 1910[edit]

The French aviator was killed by a fall on 4 January 1910 in Bordeaux. His death made front-page news worldwide:

Quote from The New York Press, 5 January 1910, front page:

Delagrange’s skull crushed by fall of monoplane flying in a gutsy wind:

"Léon Delagrange, the noted French aeronaut, was killed while making a flight here today (Bordeaux, France). Delagrange fell with his machine from a height of about 65 feet and was crushed under the wreckage. He had been flying in a wind that had been gutsy which frequently blew at the rate of 20 miles an hour. In spite of this disadvantage, Delagrange continued and had circled the aerodrome three times when suddenly as he was turning at high speed against the wind the left wing of the monoplane broke and the other wing collapsed. The machine toppled and plunged to the ground. Delagrange was caught under the weight of the motor, which crushed his skull. Delagrange’s flight was merely preliminary to the attempt, which he was to make in the afternoon to break Henry Farman’s record. The aviator did not have time to disengage himself from his seat." [9][10]

Awards and Commemorations[edit]

He was made president of the Aéro-Club de France in 1908 and in 1909 was decorated with the order of the Legion of Honor. In 1910 received a medal from the Paris Academy of Sciences.

When the first French "Brevets de Pilote" where granted in 1910, Delagrange received No. 3, based on the alphabetical order between the first fourteen holders.

A list of airplanes flown by Léon Delagrange can been seen on Thefirstairraces website: [11]

Doncaster Brewery have recently produced a special brew to commemorate Ferdinand Léon Delagrange's achievements during the Doncaster Aviation Flight Meeting held in 1909: [12]


  1. ^ The New York Press, 5 January 1910, front page - Delagrange’s skull crushed by fall of monoplane flying in a gutsy wind
  2. ^ Benezit Dictionary of Artists
  3. ^ Aero Club of France Flight magazine 4 February 1911,page 88
  4. ^ The First Air Races:http://www.thefirstairraces.net/pilots/delagrange.php
  5. ^ Yorkshire Post, news - 1909 Doncaster Aviation meeting: http://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/community/nostalgia/magnificent-men-and-flying-machines-1-6842997#axzz3qXHCrf8q
  6. ^ Yorkshire Post, news - 1909 Doncaster Aviation meeting: http://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/community/nostalgia/magnificent-men-and-flying-machines-1-6842997#axzz3qXHCrf8q
  7. ^ Léon Delagrange, Early Aviation, 15th October to 23rd October 1909, Doncaster Aviation meeting, The Frenchman M, Leon Delagrange flying in his monoplane: http://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/early-aviation-15th-october-to-23rd-october-1909-doncaster-news-photo/79036282
  8. ^ Cartoon kketch drawing of Ferdinand Léon Delagrange by Dudley Hardy: http://www.scienceandsociety.co.uk/results.asp?image=10412528
  9. ^ The New York Press, 5 January 1910, front page - Delagrange’s skull crushed by fall of monoplane flying in a gutsy wind.
  10. ^ Early Aviators – Delagrange Biography
  11. ^ Planes flown by Léon Delagrange: http://www.thefirstairraces.net/pilots/delagrangep.php
  12. ^ Doncaster Brewery commemorates: http://doncasterbrewery.co.uk/ales/first-aviation/

External links[edit]