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Verhaal: Freddy van Riemsdijk - de eerste Nederlander met een vliegbrevet

  • Genealogie
  • Leiden
  • Geschiedenis 1901-1950

Onderzoek naar Freddy van Riemsdijk - pionier vlieger - uit archief Hubrecht

Freddy van Riemsdijk, or as he was often known in France, de Riemsdijk, is an example of a man swept off his feet by the advent of aviation. He, like so many men and women of the time, was captivated by the novelty of flying machines. The difference between van Riemsdijk and hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic people across Europe was his financial ability to actively participate in this new form of transport.

In the first years after the aeroplane flight in the USA (1903) and Europe (1906), the enthusiasm for flying and aircraft amongst the general public was very great. The first airshow in the world, held in Reims France attracted an estimated audience of half a million people. This, in spite of the fact that only a dozen and a half aeroplanes participated.

Van Riemsdijk, born Frederick Lodewijk, in Utrecht, the Netherlands on 14 May 1890 was the youngest of the five children born to the Baron van Riemsdijk, a minor noble who died at the age of 53 in 1895. Van Riemsdijk grew up in Utrecht but in 1903 after an attack of asthma he was sent as a young man to continue his education in Paris . It was from Paris that van Riemsdijk travelled to Reims with thousands of spectators to watch the first ‘air meeting’ in August 1909. What he witnessed led to a hectic period of less than two years. Two years that would see van Riemsdijk spend hundreds of thousands francs, dollars and guilders, travel across the Atlantic to learn to fly and travel to Egypt to take place in the first airshow in either Africa or the Middle East.

As the first Dutch national to be granted a pilot’s licence, he is a true pioneer. However, his short-lived aeronautical career has led to him being seen as a minor in Dutch aviation. This article, written 100 years after he was granted his licence hopes to restore van Riemsdijk to his proper place as the first flying Dutchman – or at least the first so licensed to do.

Estimates vary between five hundred thousand and one million spectators that attended the Grande Semaine d’Aviation de la Champagne in Reims during the week of 22 to 29 August 1909 where eighteen aeroplanes were scheduled to be displayed and to race. The young van Riemsdijk was one of those thousands of spectators. The surviving letters that he wrote do not describe was he saw but his correspondence does credit Reims with being the inspiration for his move away from art and into aviation. Whatever the reasons for this change in direction in his life he was moved to write to his mother to request that he be granted access to his portion of his late father’s estate. His inheritance was controlled by Ambrosius Hubrecht, a family friend living in Utrecht and the executor of van Riemsdijk senior’s will. The exact size of his inheritance is not clear from the documents available to the author but a statement of transactions from Vlaer en Kol bank in 1910 shows a year-end negative balance of 17 763 Dutch guilders and 85 cents (175 000 Euros in today’s money).

Van Riemsdijk’s first attempt at obtaining an aeroplane appears to have been for an Antoinette aeroplane via the car and aeroplane dealer Charles Houry in Paris. At the same time, he considered that there was a business opportunity in starting a flying school using Antoinette aeroplanes. Houry writes to Van Riemsdijk in September 1909 explaining that his ideas about founding a flying school leave “questions of finance [that are] very complex” . Houry states that he will return to the issue in the Spring [of 1910].

After failing to obtain the Antoinette, van Riemsdijk turned to the American aeroplane builder and pilot, Glenn Curtiss. Curtiss was an early pioneer in the USA but was soon embroiled in a long legal battle with the Wright brothers regarding alleged patent infringements in Curtiss’s own designs. The Wright brothers, outsiders to the American scientific and engineering community had found it difficult to get their work recognised at a time when the mighty Smithsonian Institute’s man, Samuel Pierpoint Langley, an associate of Curtiss, was so publically failing to succeed in his attempts. It has been suggested by many that this lack of recognition directly resulted in the litigious attitude of the brothers. The main dispute between the Wrights and Curtiss centred on the arrangements of the aeroplane’s flight controls.

Despite all of this, van Riemsdijk turned to Curtiss for an aeroplane, travelling by boat to New York in the autumn of 1909 and then onto Hammondsport in upstate New York, near Buffalo. It was here that van Riemsdijk first took flying lessons from Curtiss in one of his biplanes. His visit is reported in the Hammondsport Herald of 1 December 1909. He is quoted as saying that “he believes the Curtiss type of aeroplane is far superior to the foreign makes of aeroplanes”. In a letter to Hubrecht written in Hammondsport on arriving there he comments in detail on the poor weather; sub-zero temperatures and snow .

Later on, in January 1910 the American journal, Aeronautics Magazine, reported more of van Riemsdijk’s activities. The purchase of the Curtiss aeroplane from Haendel is reported. Haendel worked for Wyckoff, Church & Partridge, a dealer in Curtiss and Antoinette aeroplanes. The company of Wyckoff, Church & Partridge, auto dealers in New York City, became the dealers for Curtiss’s aeroplane on 22 June 1909 and Haendel operated on their behalf in Paris. Similar remarks about the superiority of the Curtiss aeroplane as to those in the Hammondsport Herald are made in this journal. Both refer to Van Riemsdijk’s plans to fly in the meeting at Heliopolis. Most significantly, the article states that the sale of the aeroplane to Van Riemsdijk is the first of Curtiss’s aeroplanes that is sold outside the USA.

The purchase was made. according to notes in the archive, on 6 November 1909. A letter to Hubrecht written on 13 December, written in Hammondsport, discusses the purchase made via Haendel. A short side note to the letter states “ I flew 300 metres today” . The aeroplane cost 5000 dollars (123 000 Euros in today’s money). A copy of the receipt for the second of the two payments of 2500 dollars is reproduced in Aviateurs van het Eerste Uur, W. Schoenmaker and T. Postma, 1984. Van Rioemsdijk’s own cashbook gives a value of 29 129 francs or about 105 000 Euros today.

It should be recalled that learning to fly in 1909 was not as simple as it is today. Apart from the fact that the aeroplanes were difficult to control on the ground and in the air, most only had one seat. After a short period of tuition covering the necessary theory, the only way to fly was to fly solo; something that modern students would not be permitted to do until they had undergo several hours of dual training in the air with a qualified instructor. Van Riemsdijk was successful in his attempts to learn to fly and had the bi-plane crated and shipped back to France.

In C. Turner’s book ‘Aerial Navigation Today’, London 1910, the author states that ‘The first lesson in a motor driven aeroplane is best taken in company with an experienced aviator’. Van Riemsdijk certainly had taken advantage of an experienced aviator. It is of note that since the first flight in 1903 that aviation, although still undeveloped by modern standards, had taken great steps forward. The French magazine, La Revue Aérienne, already in its fifth year, published a table of European flight length and distance records in its 95th edition in September 1912. From the 21 seconds and 220 metres that Santos Dumont flew in November 1906, the hour long flight was first made in Europe by 1908 (Wilbur Wright, 21 September 1908). That flight flew sixty six and a half kilometres in 1909. At the end of 1909, the longest European flights were over two hours long and the hundred kilometre mark had been broken. The newest record reported by La Revue Aérienne was set on 11 September 1912 and was for 1017 kilometres over a period of 13 hours 22 minutes, set by Géo Fourny at Etampes. (Different contemporary sources give slightly different figures). The same source notes one Dutch record holder; the pilot Jan Olieslaegers who flew for 5 hours and 3 minutes and 340 kilometres on 10 July 1910. The point of this is not examine the difficult area of disputed early records, but to show how the aeroplane was capable of great flights within a decade of its invention.

Once back in France he became involved in a planned airshow in Egypt. Property developers in France and Egypt hoped to turn the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis into a resort and an airshow was thought to be a good way of promoting their plans. It was organised by the Aero Club of Egypt assisted by the Aero Club de France. The sponsor was Prince Pasha, uncle of the Khedive of Egypt. The Curtiss aeroplane was crated up and shipped to Cairo via Le Havre. The British aviation journal Flight, now Flight International, reported that fourteen pilots participated in the airshow. Van Riemsdijk won second prize for distance flight, making a 20 km flight on the second day of the show. Ms. Raymonde de Laroche, the first woman in the world to earn a pilot's licence, won a prize for her 10 km flight. Van Riemsdijk writes about the prize in a letter to his mother on 16 February 1910; “I won a small prize of 2500 francs”. In the same letter he suggests that the money, just over 9000 Euros in today’s money, was quickly spent as he refers to an engine problem that kept the aeroplane on the ground for four days . Van Riemsdijk’s achievements in Egypt are recorded in the 5 March 1910 edition of the Dutch aviation magazine De Luchtvaart. He is recorded as coming sixth in the distance competition with a flight of 29.5 km. First place went to Henry Rougier with a flight of 153.5 km . The prize for first place was 25 000 francs (about 90 000 Euros in today’s money). Coincidentally, these two are photographed together at the Cannes show in April 1910 .

Later, on 29 February, he describes fifty minutes of flight in Egypt as a “delicieux moment” and adds that after the air meeting at Heliopolis he found time to travel to the valley of the Kings to visit the antiquities there .

As an aside, the airshow was used by the Egyptian authorities to issue the first air mail stamp for franking letters. It did not represent the start of an airmail service but was used mainly for souvenir postcards.

Whilst in Egypt and on the eve of the airshow on 30 January 1910, Van Riemsdijk flew the necessary flights before French officials that were required for the issuance of a licence. Following this and the airshow Van Riemsdijk applied to the Aéroclub de France for his pilot’s licence. On 8 March 1910, French licence number 34 was issued. Van Riemsdijk was now the first Dutch national to be in possession of pilot’s licence. At this time, pilot’s licences were not being issued in the Netherlands. The first Dutch licence was issued to Adriaan Mulder on 7 April 1911. Flight reported in March 1910 that the licence to Van Riemsdijk had been issued.

On returning to France from Egypt, Van Riemsdijk entered other airshows. According to the pages of Flight, he continued to win prizes for his flying. Flight placed a photo of him taking off at the Nice show in April 1910. It was during the Nice show that he had an accident into the waters of the Mediterranean. On 23 April 1910 he was flying on the course between Nice and Cap Ferrat when an engine problem resulted in him ditching. He was unhurt and his aeroplane did not sink as he had placed tanks filled with air under the aeroplane’s wings to stop it sinking. His rescue and that of his aeroplane by the French Navy was recorded by photograph .

By May, with his Curtiss repaired, van Riemsdijk entered the airshow at Palermo. This would be his last such event. He won prizes here but was disappointed not to have received payment for his achievements. Van Riemsdijk writes to mother from the Excelsior Hotel in Palermo. He is fed up flying. The air meeting went badly. Poor weather and a lack of appreciation of the public to the problems of the weather clearly disappointed him .

The costs of the flying were not being fully met by the size of the prizes that he was winning and the disputes he ran into with organisers like those in Palermo made it more difficult to fund his flying. He claimed prize monies owed to him from the organisers. In a letter sent back to Van Riemsdijk in July 1910, a Mr. Guorneri rejects his claim for prize money . Freddy van Riemsdijk returned to Paris, selling his aeroplane, an engine and other equipment, and continued with painting, the career he had started before the flying bug bit him.

By 1911 the costs of flying adventures caught up with him. Correspondence between van Riemsdijk’s mother and Hubrecht address state of Van Riemsdijk’s finances, his debts and whom, within the family, should be responsible for helping Van Riemsdijk . These financial problems come to head later in 1911 when his bank, Vlaer en Kol, take him to court over an outstanding balance of 29 682 guilders and 86 cents or nearly three hundred thousand Euros in today’s money. The court papers in Zirikzee summarise the case against van Riemsdijk .

In 1914 he volunteered for military service in France and was assigned to the Deuxième Groupe d'Aviation. He reportedly took part in the battle of the Marne, defending Paris, but his correspondence does not provide much information. He did write to his mother, the last letter to her in the archive, in September 1914. He writes that he is attached to the second air reserve as a sapeur, a military engineer. He reassures his mother that he is not flying but has been issued a uniform that he calls “superb”. The letter concludes with the sentiment that the “war is going well”. The letter also has a small pencil note in Van Riemsdijk’s handwriting that appears to have been added later. It reads “I was flying, but I hid the fact from mother”. Details of what flying this was are not recorded in the archive .

After falling ill with pneumonia, he was discharged and died on 17 March 1955 in Paris at the age of 64. His wife died during the second world war and the couple did not have any children. After ending his short flying career he painted and travelled. He must also have been left with the knowledge that he was truly a great pioneer of aviation, even if history does not always remember his role.

In context… Airshows
Between late 1909 and early 1910 a large number of well-attended airshows were held around the world. Reims holds the claim to the first one, starting on the 22nd of August 1909. Half a million people attended this show. In September 1909, the first Italian show drew a large crowd that had to be kept in order by troops after the weather restricted the number of aeroplanes on show. In October shows were held in the UK (Blackpool and Doncaster), Paris and Berlin. Australia’s first show was held in Sydney in December 1909 and Los Angeles was the scene of the first American show in January 1910, attracting a hundred thousand visitors. By mid 1910, airshows were relatively common across Europe. The dangers associated with them did not diminish; Charles Rolls, of Rolls Royce fame, was killed at the Bournemouth show in July 1910.

In context… Curtiss bi-plane
Like many of the early aeroplanes, The Curtiss bi-plane was a simple machine. Its 9.5m wide had an area of around 30 to 35 m2 and the aeroplane could lift a 300 kg load. It was constructed from a bamboo and spruce frame covered in waterproofed linen. There was little metal in the aeroplane. The standard engine was a V8 water-cooled engine developing 60 horsepower. The single pilot’s seat had a wheel for the pilot to raise and lower the rear tail plane and to twist the wing for turns (ailerons had yet to be widely introduced). Two pedals were placed on the frame forward of the wheel. The left hand one was an accelerator whilst the right hand one was a brake that not only activated a brake on the nose wheel but it disconnected the electrical supply to the engine.

In context – the papers of van Riemsdijk
Much of the information that is available about van Riemsdijk’s flying activities has been obtained from his letters and telegrams to the executor of his father’s will, Ambrosius Hubrecht. Hubrecht was a family friend acting on behalf of the family. The Hubrecht family was an important academic family with a number of 19th century professors at the universities of both Leiden and Utrecht. It is Hubrecht’s correspondence that has been given to the Regional Archives Leiden that contains dozens of letters, telegrams and pictures from Van Riemsdijk to his father’s executor; 638 items in total. The correspondence is not complete as it was received by the archive in 2009 partially catalogued. In that inventory, reference is made to documents having been gifted to other persons and institutions. For example, his licence is missing. A reproduction of the licence was included in the book Aviateurs van het Eerste Uur.

In context – financial figures
The exchange rate between the French franc in 1910 / 1911 and the Euro in 2009 is 1 FFR equals 3.61 Euros. Data from Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques (INSEE), Paris. The exchange rate between the Dutch guilder in 1910 / 1911 and the Euro in 2008 is 1 fl equals 9.87 Euros. Data from International Institute of Social History (IISH), Amsterdam.

Exchanges rates noted his bank records from Vlaer & Kol, the bank used by van Riemsdijk, show that US dollars were exchanged into guilders at a rate of 2.49 and French francs were exchanged into guilders at a rate that averages out at approximately 48 .