When London Had 'Formula 1 Races' In the Sky

When London Had 'Formula 1 Races' In the Sky
L L Carter winning the handicap section of the 1922 Aerial Derby
L L Carter winning the handicap section of the 1922 Aerial Derby, Croydon. © RAF Museum Collection

Motor racing was all the rage in the early 20th century, bringing with it the world's first petrolheads. At the same time though, thrill-hungry spectators looked to the skies — thanks to London's annual Aerial Derby.

Aeroplanes would become a common sight during the first world war, but many people's first glimpse of one would have been as part of an aerial race encircling the capital — the inaugural one held in 1912.

Aircraft lined-up for the start of the 1920 Aerial Derby
Aircraft lined-up for the start of the 1920 Aerial Derby. © Jack Bruce Collection, RAF Museum

With its starting and end point at Hendon Aerodrome (today home to the RAF Museum), the race took in a route of roughly 81 miles (later closer to 100), encircling much of London, in a series of 'control points' at locations including Epsom, Epping and Hertford.

45,000 spectators showed up to Hendon to watch the first race in 1912, with an estimated three million people looking skyward across London and the home counties, to watch these strange contraptions vie for the trophy.

The start of the Aerial derby, 1914
The start of the Aerial derby, 1914. © RAF Museum Collection

Flying at speed was only half the battle; you had to be nimble too. The control points were manned by officials, to ensure pilots were sticking to the course, and not cutting corners a la Dastardly and Muttley.

This meant swooping their planes pretty darn low so they could be seen — all in a day's work for the derring-do pilots.

George Barnwell with his Martinsyde Monoplane, entrant in the 1913 Aerial Derby
George Barnwell with his Martinsyde Monoplane, entrant in the 1913 Aerial Derby. © Jack Bruce Collection, RAF Museum

Who were these pilots anyway? Andrew Renwick from the RAF Museum explains that many represented the companies which built the aeroplanes. "Tom Sopwith, for instance, winner of the first race and founder of Sopwith and Hawker aircraft companies, was one of the best know figures in aviation.

"John Alcock, one of the competitors who competed before and after the war, is better known as the man who flew non-stop across the Atlantic with Arthur Whitten Brown in 1919."

Bert Hinkler — AKA the "Australian Lone Eagle" — was another repeat competitor; his biggest claim to fame was as the first person to fly solo from England to Australia.

Although there were already woman pilots pre-war, none that we know of took park in these races.

These being the nascent days of air travel, there were some unfortunate incidents. Gustav Hamel went missing while flying from France to take part in the 1914 race. Frank Courtney crashed his plane, Miles Semiquaver, just after winning the derby in 1920. And Harry Hawker died while practicing for the 1921 race.

But amazingly, there were no fatal crashes during any of the derbies themselves. And, as Andrew Renwick explains, "Bad weather probably caused more pilots to fail to finish rather than mechanical problems."

Quite something, given that many of these planes weren't exactly tried-and-tested.

The Miles Semiquaver plane crashed just after winning the 1920 Aerial Derby
Miles Semiquaver crashed just after winning the 1920 Aerial Derby. The pilot, Frank Courtney, was unhurt. © Jack Bruce Collection, RAF Museum

Between 1912 and 1914, the aerial spectacles commanded huge attention, but then war came. On the derby's return in 1919, the speed of planes had improved so much, pilots now had to do the circuit twice — a total of around 200 miles.

Another handful of glorious racing years followed, with more pilots (including more private entrants) and bigger prize money.

The DH.4R flown by G Gathergood to wind the 1919 Victory Derby
The DH.4R flown by G Gathergood to wind the 1919 Victory Derby. © RAF Museum Collection

But what goes up must come down. The Daily Mail and Shell stopped sponsoring the event, meaning the organisers, Royal Aero Club, faced some hefty bills.

Says Andrew Renwick, "Air Ministry control of Hendon also forced them to find new venues for the start, when agreement couldn’t be reached for suitable dates."  

RAF SE.5a at Croydon for the start of the 1922 Aerial Derby
RAF SE.5a at Croydon for the start of the 1922 Aerial Derby. © Jack Bruce Collection, RAF Museum

Though a race was scheduled at Lympne aerodrome in Kent in 1924, a lack of entrants meant it was cancelled. After just eight active years, the Aerial Derby had come to an end.

Not its legacy, though. That was continued in the cross country King's Cup — started in 1922 and still flown to this day. Modern day air shows also have a debt to pay to the Aerial Derby; a short-lived, but thrilling chapter in aviation history.

Tom Sopwith, winner for the first Aerial Derby, held aloft in 1912
Tom Sopwith, winner for the first Aerial Derby, 1912. © RAF Museum Collection

With thanks to Andrew Renwick, Curator of Photographs at the Royal Air Force Museum, where you can see and learn about many incredible aircraft.

Last Updated 23 May 2022