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Sir Alan Cobham’s Newsdrop

At 3pm the horses at the Epsom Derby galloped out of the start gates. Alan Cobham stood by his aeroplane. He heard the starting gun and glanced at his watch.

“And they’re off. Give ‘em 15 minutes to run the race. Then the runner needs 5 more to sprint across the field to me with the film reel. Two minutes to pull away chocks and start the engine…”

It was the 1st of June 1938. Cobham had grabbed public attention by promising to get screenings of the race to cinemas all over the country by the same evening. He wanted to demonstrate that aeroplanes could transport cargo far more quickly than land-based vehicles. And he wanted to get people excited about flying.

Eyes peeled on the field perimeter, the aviator saw what he was waiting for: a man dodging rabbit holes and leaping grass tussocks clutching two cans of film reel. Cobham grabbed the reels and hurled himself into the cockpit. He flew at top speed to Barnet where the film had to be developed. Then the films were distributed to a squadron of pilots who would fly to an array of towns over Britain, Cobham taking the longest leg, 600 miles north to Aberdeen in Scotland.

On his way, Cobham dropped copies of the film into fields near other major towns. Carried by a small parachute, the cans drifted gently to the ground where they were collected and rushed to cinemas in York, Darlington and Newcastle. Crowds gathered and cheered Cobham on. He waved and sped towards Aberdeen. There he dropped the final cans of film reel. But disaster struck! The strings of the parachute became caught in his aeroplane’s tail fin. Sir Alan was now flying over the busy town of Aberdeen itself.

“if this comes loose and drops on someone’s head, they will know all about it! By Jove, it could cause a terrible injury.” Cobham shook his head. He began to bank round to head away from the town but just then the package broke free and dropped. Cobham prayed. He peered over the side of the cockpit to see the package land in a pretty garden. “That’s a bit of luck,” he thought, “and what’s more, just a stone’s throw from the cinema!”

A boy appeared, picked up the film cannister and sprinted with it to the cinema. There, as in cinemas all over the country, the audience was seated and waiting. Three cheers went up for the boy. And three cheers for Sir Alan Cobham and his successful race against time. And who won the Derby? A thoroughbred racehorse named Bois Roussel. Well done all round!


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