IN the early 1910s, the skies were the new frontier.

It was only a few years since the Wright Brothers had made the first-ever powered flights in their biplane at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina in 1903.

Then on July 25, 1909, Louis Blériot had flown across the English Channel in his specially-modified Model XI monoplane. Suddenly, those magnificent men in their flying machines were the celebrities of their day. Newspapers, especially the Daily Mail, stoked interest in their exploits, and within weeks, local councils were vying to attract the pilots of powered aircraft to attend their Gala days.

By the time the eight-day Doncaster Air Races began on October 15, 1909, the Yorkshire Light Aeroplane Club based in Leeds already boasted 200 members.

York Press:

Aircraft preparing for take-off, possibly at the Daily Mail 'Circuit of Britain' air race of 1911. Photo: YAYAS

In 1910 the Royal Aero Club held a competition for the fastest plane to make the journey from London to Manchester, with a £10,000 prize at stake. And in 1911 there was an even more ambitious event: a 'Circuit of Britain' air race starting and ending at the Brooklands racetrack near Weybridge in Surrey, but covering the whole of the country in a great loop reaching as far north as Edinburgh.

A £10,000 price was again put up, this time courtesy of the Daily Mail, earning the race the name with which it has gone down in history: the Daily Mail Air Race.

Thirty aircraft initially signed up for the race - though several withdrew or crashed before the start. Those which did take part included some of the most iconic biplanes and monoplanes of the time: a couple of Yorkshire-built Blackburn Mercury II monoplanes (which would have been built in Leeds, because Blackburn didn't move his factory to Brough in East Yorkshire until 1916); several Bleriot XIs; five Bristol Type T biplanes; and an Avro Type D biplane which crashed before the start.

York Press:

An airbound Blackburn. Photo: YAYAS

The route was in several stages, with competitors expected to land at various points along the way. Stage 2 was from Hendon in North West London to Edinburgh. This was a flight distance of 343 miles, but there were two compulsory stops along the way - the first of these on The Stray in Harrogate.

There's a great description of the excitement this generated in Yorkshire in Brian Catchpole's book Balloons to Buccaneers: Yorkshire's Role in Aviation Since 1785, which the Yorkshire Air Museum at Elvington was kind enough to let The Press see.

"Local newspapers estimated that some 70,000 people paid between sixpence and five shillings to secure a place on the Stray while another 100,000 found their spots free of charge," Catchpole wrote.

"Roads into Harrogate were blocked with traffic; over one thousand motor cars were packed on the Stray; a train arrived from Hull packed with aviation enthusiasts who were to witness 'some of the finest descents and ascents ever made in connection with aviation'. The huge grandstand had acetylene lighting in case any of the aircraft arrived after dusk though the organisers at Hendon hoped to avoid this by starting the race at four in the morning."

Only five aircraft made it as far as Harrogate - and sadly, neither of the Yorkshire-built Blackburns were among them. One crashed while taxiing before take-off before the race even started, and a second had to make a forced landing near Luton before retiring from the race. Those airmen who did make it to Harrogate were the eventual winner of the race, 'André Beaumont' (in reality Lieutenant Jean Louis Conneau of the French navy) in his Bleriot XL; Jules Vedrines in a Morane-Borel monoplane; British pilot James Valentine in a Deperdussin monoplane; US aviator Samuel Franklin Cody in his 'Circuit of Britain' biplane; and Gustav Hamel in another Bleriot XL.

Cody's biplane 'just missed the top of the Royal Hotel as he came in low over the trees', Catchpole wrote. Gustav Hamel, meanwhile, was reported to have 'swooned' as his machine touched down - doctors rushed to his plane to find him 'slumped in his seat, his hands clenched around his steering wheel.' The only British pilot among the five, meanwhile - James Valentine - reputedly caused a sensation by promising the cheering crowds that 'All my life, I'll be your Valentine!"

Of the five pilots who made it as far as Harrogate, four completed the whole race - Hamel reached Thornhill, north of Dumfries, before he retired. Conneau was the winner. But the race proved such a sensational success that it was repeated in 1913 - though this second time the prize money was £5,000 only, and the race was confined to 'floatplanes' (an early type of seaplane) built in Britain.

York Press:

An Avro biplane and, behind, a Blackburn monoplane line up for the 1913 War of the Roses air race. Photo: YAYAS

There was another air race in 1913, however - a 'War of the Roses' race between a new, Yorkshire-built Blackburn Type 1 and a Lancashire-built Avro 504. On October 2 the two aircraft set out to fly a 100-mile circular course from Leeds to York, Doncaster, Sheffield, Barnsley and back to Leeds again. In appalling visibility the Avro had to land near Barnsley, Catchpole reports, while the Blackburn Type 1 went on to win - Robert Blackburn's first racing success.

There is a whole set of early 'flying machine' photographs in the wonderful photographic archive of the Yorkshire Architectural and York Archaeological Society (YAYAS). They're labelled 'Daily Mail Air Race', and some may indeed record that event, and may even possibly show aircraft at Harrogate. At least one, however, shows the Wars of the Roses race of 1913, with the Avro and Blackburn aircraft lining up side by side before takeoff.

Others show aircraft in the air. Could some of these perhaps have been photographed in the skies near York, and if so during which race? We'd love to hear from anyone who knows more...