Kenley and the Daily Mail Air Race

French Vautour fighter on Kenley Airfield
Brian Lowe
The Vautour jet after the mishap at Kenley.
Peter Jenner
The Scotsman - 22/7/1959
The Scotsman - 22/7/1959

In 1959, the Daily Mail organised a London to Paris Air Race to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Louis Bleriot’s first cross-Channel flight. Lord Rothermere offered overall prize money of £10,000 for the fastest journey between the Arc de Triomphe and Marble Arch.

Over a period of some 2 months, there were 135 attempts involving all sorts of combinations of aircraft, helicopters (both military and civil) and other transport including motor bikes, cars, speed boats, and amphibians.

Most of the attempts for the record by the military – both French and British – involved fast jets centred on Biggin Hill due to its long runway and proximity to London, however, Kenley played an unexpected part!

At the time of the Air Race, I was in the 6th form at Purley Grammar, and used to cycle to school from our house in Beverley Rd, Whyteleafe across the Common to Old Coulsdon. Passing the North end of the runway as I did every week day, it was a bit of a surprise to find a Sud Aviation Vautour fighter / bomber of the French Air Force on the grass and in my path. The following day, I took these two pictures of the plane , complete with police guard. The story was that the French pilot, who was carrying French parachutist, Colette Duval on her record attempt, mistook little Kenley for bigger Biggin Hill, just 7 miles away, and needed more than 730 m of runway to stop!

The Vautour suffered minor damage to its unusual undercarriage (a bicycle arrangement with stabilising wheels under each engine pod). It had to be lifted back on to the end of the runway, repaired, and, I recall, needed a rocket assisted take-off to return to France.

The eventual winner of the Race was Squadron Leader Charles Maughan (RAF), who managed the trip in 40 minutes and 44 seconds. He used an RAF police motorcycle from Marble Arch to Chelsea Reach, Sycamore helicopter to Biggin Hill, a 2-seater Hunter to Villacoublay, helicopter to Issy and a final motorcycle leg to the Arc de Triomphe. He won the £5,000 first prize which was presented to him by Lord Rothermere.

Colette Duval

The remarkable Colette Duval was an actress, model, aviator and parachutist, who made several attempts to break world-records though at least a couple of them were dis-allowed on technicalities. After a bad fall ended her parachuting days, she became a forest dweller in Gabon, and later ran a fashion boutique and then a nightclub.

She died of cancer in 1988, and is buried in the cemetery of Saint-Maur-des-Fossés (Val-de-Marne) with her companion, the stuntman and actor Gil Delamare.

There is a British Pathe newsreel of Colette  being interviewed by the Press at Marble Arch, after the mishap at Kenley. You can watch it here.

The Sud Aviation Vautour which landed at Kenley was Serial No. 632, of Squadron EB2/92, flown by Captain Louis Ibame. (Many thanks to David Potter).

Comments about this page

  • My father was stationed at RAF Kenley at this time living in Anson Close just beside the airfield, imagine the surprise of my Uncle who was up a ladder helping with the painting of the outside of the house when this aircraft came past him between the buildings! I do remember a lot of activity to get the runway in a sufficient condition for the plane to be able to take off the next day.

    By Joanne Shine (10/04/2023)
  • I was doing my National Service at RAF Kenley at the time and a French jet mistook Kenley for Biggin Hill. The jet came to a halt and was put in a hangar at Kenley overnight. On being offered a free rail pass, I offered to guard the plane which, armed with a hockey stick I did, alone, from 2am until 4 am, after which the jet was flown back to France by a test-pilot, All the lads at Kenley turned out to watch the take off.

    By Mike Bonser (24/02/2021)

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