Peter Bakewell. Southwest Review. Volume 95, Issue 3. 2010.
At last I have seen Wright fly … It has to be honestly acknowledged that the man is the father of aviation. And would we not have imagined that the man who was to give wings to humanity would be thus? This being, moreover, has a mentality that is scarcely comprehensible to us Frenchmen. You had to have seen his encampment at the back of his shed at les Hunaudières—seen the crate that he made himself to serve as a bed, his trunk, the portable stove on which he cooks for himself. You had to have seen his slow, methodical walk, his long, thin arms swinging as he went, his cap set on the back of his head and serving as a sort of background and frame for his bird-like profile! If this man deigns occasionally to smile, one can say with all certainty that he has never known the softness of tears. Has he a heart? Has he loved? Has he suffered? Enigma, mystery. You may study and scrutinize that mask of a face, but it might as well be made of bronze.
So began the article that Léon Delagrange wrote about Wilbur Wright and his machine for the news weekly L’Illustration of August 1 5, 1908. Delagrange was one of the small group of Frenchmen, a dozen or so, who by mid 1908 were building and piloting airplanes. Wright’s first flights, made at a race course near Le Mans called Les Hunaudières, struck instant consternation into their hearts. They believed that they had made remarkable progress in flying over the previous two years, and considered themselves the leaders in European aviation—which was certainly true—and probably in the world. But Wright’s plane flew with an easy maneuverability that seemed far beyond the capacities of their machines. Wright himself was clearly a pilot of far greater skill than any of them. Delagrange’s elaborate puzzlement—mostly concocted, perhaps, but with more than a grain of genuineness in it—over Wright’s character and behavior reflects alarm and disappointment at his and his companions’ suddenly being revealed as tyros in the art of flying winged machines.
They had certainly long been aware of the Wright brothers’ aviation efforts. News of the brothers’ activities on the Outer Banks had started to filter across the Atlantic to France late in 1901, the year after they began experimenting with gliders. The main channel of information was a French-born, but American-raised, aviation enthusiast named Octave Chanute. After a successful career in the USA as a railroad engineer, in the 1890s Chanute had become fascinated with the question of flight in winged aircraft. He had indeed built and quite successfully flown biplane gliders on the sand dunes at the south end of Lake Michigan in the mid-nineties. He had also published, in 1894, a summarizing work, Progress in Flying Machines, which was one of the sources consulted by the Wrights as their interest in flight first arose. Chanute, indeed, was useful to them as one of their initial advisers, although once they started work in earnest they quickly advanced beyond his discoveries and, in fact, beyond his understanding.
Even though Chanute failed to grasp some of the Wrights’ developing innovations, he became the leading conveyor of reports on their activities across the Atlantic. He had left France as a young child, so that his French lacked polish and practice; but his French origins inspired confidence in his Parisian authences. In the years immediately after 1900 he gave lectures in Paris on flight. And more particularly he became the link between the Wrights and one of the current leading lights of French aviation, an army captain named Ferdinand Ferber, relaying information and publications to and from between them. Ferber, in turn, passed on news of the Wrights to the small band of men in France who were experimenting with winged flying machines. For quite some time—until, in fact, August of 1908—these would-be aviators remained uncertain about the tidings coming from the usa of the Wrights’ successes. From time to time they were persuaded by reports of some notably impressive feat, such as the first powered flights in December of 1903 at Kitty Hawk. But then, getting little or no confirmation of such events, they would slip back into skepticism. Nonetheless the doubts never became outright dismissal, and so the Wrights clearly acted unintentionally as a spur to French flying activity in the opening years of the century.
They had that effect particularly because national pride was at stake. The French aviation experimenters of the early 1900s—les pionniers, as they came to be known—were keenly aware of the country’s distinguished aerial past: its great beginning with the Montgolfier brothers’ balloon flights in 1783; the first military observations from a balloon at the battle of Fleurus in Belgium in 1794; the first parachute descent from a balloon, in 1797, by André Jacques Garnerin; the chemist Joseph-Louis Gay-Lussac’s balloon ascent to 2,3,000 feet in 1804 to collect atmospheric data; and, after a good deal else, the use of dozens of balloons to carry people and mail out of Paris in 1870-71 while the city was under siege in the Franco-Prussian war. By that time the French had also started thinking about, writing about, and even building, winged flying machines. They were certainly far from alone in Europe in doing so—but in 1871 a talented young inventor named Alphonse Penaud, in an inspired stab into the future, produced a little model monoplane, with its propeller spun by a twisted rubber band, that flew stably—and prefigured the standard form of airplanes in the next century. By the 1890s experimenters in several countries around the world were trusting themselves, sometimes with fatal results, to winged gliders—and others were pressing forward beyond mere gliders to create aircraft that would propel themselves through the air. One such (of whom the pionniers were well informed) was Clément Ader, a French electrical engineer who in October 1890 took briefly to the air in his large bat-like airplane called EoIe. The delicately beautiful steam engine that drove this machine can still be seen in the Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace at Le Bourget, just north of Paris. There is no doubt that Ader flew in the EoIe in 1890; but it is equally certain that he had next to no control over the machine. Seven years later he tried again in a new plane, the Avion III. This time he neither flew nor, at the time, said he had done so. But he changed the story in 1906, causing a dispute in French flying circles that lasted for many decades before being resolved with a decision against him.
The pionniers at the opening of the new century, therefore, had national accomplishment in the air, and national pride derived from it, to defend and expand. The French state, by contrast, had not yet seen in aviation a national legacy that deserved encouragement; the only aspect of flight into which the government put any money was Army ballooning, found long before to be a valuable means of artillery spotting and battlefield observation. But private collective efforts to proclaim and promote French airborne accomplishment appeared before 1900, notably with the creation in Paris, in 1898, of the AéroClub de France. The founding impetus for the Club came from Ernest Archdeacon, an aviation enthusiast possessing considerable inherited money. The Club soon gained another wealthy member in Henri Deutsch de la Meurthe, a man who had done well from the profitable oil-refining company founded by his father. The Club quickly began to function as a clearinghouse for knowledge about flight, and as the site of lectures on the subject (including Chanute’s). But Archdeacon and Deutsch de la Meurthe also put their abundant personal funds into a still more direct form of promotion—cash prizes for notable flying feats. The first was offered by Deutsch in April 1900: 100,000 francs (us $20,000) for the first airship flight from St. Cloud, in south-west Paris, around the Eiffel Tower, and back. The distance of some seven miles must be covered in thirty minutes. This first Deutsch prize was taken in October 1 901 by a Brazilian aviator who by then had been living in Paris for almost a decade: Alberto Santos-Dumont. His aircraft was a small airship pushed along by a gasoline engine, precisely the sort of power source that Henri Deutsch had been proclaiming as the key to human flight since the late 1880s.
Santos-Dumont was an exotic figure, both literally and figuratively, on the French aviation scene of those first years of the century. He was still a young man, small and slight, a rich Brazihan coffee planter’s son who in 1 892 had come to Paris, like so many wealthy Latin Americans of the day, to study a little, perhaps, but mostly to inhale the cultured air of the acknowledged leader of Latin civilization, France. As a boy he had found the machinery on his family’s estate quite fascinating; and by and by in Paris he was drawn to airships (elongated balloons with a propeller, engine, and rudder). Drawing on his own substantial funds he began building them in 1898. The one that rounded the Eiffel Tower in 1901 was his sixth.
Santos had already made inroads into Parisian society, but that flight, and the acclaim surrounding the prize, made him a welcome figure to the highest circles. His renown rose a further notch when, in 1903, he took to flying over the city in a small airship that he named La Baladeuse (the Minstrel Girl), and, with it, literally dropping in on friends, social gatherings—and, on one famous occasion, a military parade attended by the President. Santos fired, from his aerial perch, a salute of twenty-one revolver shots.
Santos-Dumont’s high-end social links in Paris were unusual among the pionniers. No others among the airplane builders and pilots had quite his cachet. On the other hand, early twentieth-century flying in France was far from an artisan or low-status enterprise. Men like Archdeacon and Henri Deutsch had standing founded on wealth. Others of the pionniers were engineers trained in the excellent professional schools of nineteenth-century Paris. And, broadly, experimenters in winged flight in these years gained status simply from working in and around Paris. It was not so much a question of their immediately drawing the city’s mass attention—that did not happen until 1909—as that they were part of the culture of a capital in which much that was innovative and distinctive in the country was concentrated. Given the Paris-centeredness of the pionniers’ activities, and their own social levels, Delagrange’s surprise at some of Wilbur Wright’s behavior and living arrangements in 1908 seems less contrived. First, Wright seemed odd in choosing to assemble and fly his plane far from Paris, 1 10 miles to the west near Le Mans. He and Orville had generally preferred the seclusion of remoteness in the efforts in the USA—the French pionniers worked in loose collaboration in or near the capital. Second, it would never have occurred to Delagrange, or to most of the others, to cook his own food on an oil stove in the back of a hangar, much less to build a rough wooden bunk there in which to sleep. Such behavior was simply off the mental map of urban and urbane Frenchmen. For Wright, on the other hand, those arrangements were simply repetition of what he and Orville had done in the isolation of the Outer Banks from 1900 to 1903.
Santos-Dumont moved on, in 1904, from his small single-seat Baladeuse to a larger airship designed to carry ten passengers. His attention, however, increasingly veered toward heavier-than-air machines, and after a brief attempt at a helicopter in 1905, he turned permanently to airplanes with fixed wings. This change of direction brought him even greater fame than had his airships. On September 13, 1906, in an open field in the Bois de Boulogne known as Bagatelle, he persuaded a cumbersome tail-first biplane, pushed along by a rear-mounted 24hp engine and propeller, to stagger into the air and fly perhaps twenty feet. On October 23, the same machine, but now with an engine of twice the power, managed ten times the distance. Santos had to bring it back to earth when a wing began to drop, and he rose no higher than ten feet (and was thus flying in “ground effect,” getting the benefit of compression of the air between the wing and the ground); but the distance was great enough to win him another prize—3,000 francs offered by Ernest Archdeacon for the first airplane flight of more than twenty-five meters. Far more rewarding than the prize, however, was the instant fame that enveloped Santos as the first man in Europe to take a winged machine into the air, under its own power, on level ground, in the presence of witnesses. In fact, for all that almost everyone knew, he was the first man in the world to do this thing. Those few in France who had previously acknowledged the Wrights’ having achieved exactly the same feat in December 1903 tended, in the face of Santos’s on-the-spot success, to yield him primacy. Some in Brazil still do.
Despite the accolades, Santos’s successes in the fall of 1906 were not, in truth, completely of his own doing. Persistent and inventive as he was in his pursuit of aviation, he was not a trained engineer or a practiced craftsman. And turning from airships to airplanes, as he did in 1905-06, was not, even with the simple machines of those days, simply a matter of taking out a new pencil and drawing pad. The means of flight in the two sorts of vehicles were completely different: static buoyancy in the airship versus the dynamic action of air moving around a wing in the airplane. Santos probably had valuable help in designing structures from the technicians who had actually been building his airships. But more crucial aid came from a young man who was beginning to make a name for himself in airplane circles in France, a twenty-five-year-old native of the Rhône valley named Gabriel Voisin.
Like Santos-Dumont, Voisin lacked a formal engineering training; but he came from an engineering family, had formally (if briefly) studied industrial design and architecture, and perhaps can be compared with the Wrights in clearly possessing innate mechanical intelligence and skills. Like them, also, he was capable of using simple mathematics to attack problems of flight. (There the similarities stopped, however. In character, Voisin, a mercurial, highly social and ardently womanizing youngster, was the antithesis of Wilbur Wright, at least as Delagrange portrayed him.) As teenage tinkerers, Voisin and his brother Charles had become interested in the large box kites flown in the 1890s by an Australian experimenter, Lawrence Hargrave, news of whose efforts rapidly reached Europe. One such kite that they had put together and flown on a windy day surprised Gabriel by lifting him off the ground. In 1903 the brothers made a glider founded on Hargrave’s kite designs. This effort, in combination with Gabriel’s eager ability to make advantageous career contacts, led to his hiring as the test pilot of a glider that Ernest Archdeacon, the founder of the Aéro-Club, was then having built. Gabriel’s success in flying this machine (and, while doing so, in taking his first steps in piloting) on the dunes of the north coast of France, gained him the attention of Captain Ferber and then a paid job as the engineer of an aviation syndicate that Archdeacon and various friends were forming in 1904. Gabriel Voisin was now launched on a career that, among much else, led to his becoming one of the leading French builders of military aircraft in World War I.
He had much educative experience to absorb, however, in the interim. There was the association with Santos-Dumont in 1905-06 and, probably more important for Gabriel’s progress, a concurrent collaboration with yet another ambitious and imaginative French pursuer of winged flight, Louis Blériot. Blériot had put his engineering training at the École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures in Paris to gainful use as a maker of acetylene headlamps for France’s growing fleet of automobiles. By 1905 he had decided to devote the profits from this business to making airplanes, and set up a partnership with Voisin in 1905 to that end. From that venture both men are likely to have learned a good deal, but it was not a happy collaboration. Voisin, for all the insouciance of his personal life, had by now become strikingly practical in his assessments of structures for flying machines, and even of aerodynamic realities. From Blériot there flowed a stream of ideas that Voisin considered impossible to translate into functioning airplanes. Late in 1906 the collaboration ended. But now, before the end of the year, Gabriel Voisin took a step that, even if he had not gone on to a distinguished subsequent career, would have given him a signal place in aviation history. In partnership with his brother Charles, he set up a business named Les Frères Voisin at 4 Rue de la Ferme, in Boulogne-Billancourt, a south-western suburb of Paris. It was the world’s first airplane factory.
Not that passers-by took much notice: the premises comprised a small house with a large shed [hangar in French) behind it. Besides those, the company’s capital consisted of petty cash and one band saw; and its staff of the two Voisin brothers, a high school friend of Gabriel’s named Maurice Colliex, and two ex-boat builders. They all survived, Gabriel later wrote, on food parcels sent by his sister and credit extended by the bistro on the corner. Perhaps so at first; but jobs soon began to roll in, reflecting the rising number of aviation enthusiasts in Paris. The initial business plan succeeded splendidly: the brothers announced they would build any airplane design that was brought to them. The first to arrive was for an ornithopter. Gabriel refined the plans, and within three weeks the machine’s wings were duly flapping in the factory courtyard. If it ever actually left the ground, he does not say,· very probably not.
Another order, however, placed late in December 1907, had a very different outcome. The customer in this case was Léon Delagrange. Though best known in Paris before this as a sculptor, he had decided to try his hand, in the cavalier spirit of the day, as a designer and flyer of an airplane. Gabriel quickly realized that Delagrange’s design was hopeless, but proposed to him that one that the Voisins had themselves been contemplating, and of which they indeed had a model to show him, would be a far better investment. Delagrange was persuaded, put a quarter of the price down, and agreed to pay the balance once the machine had flown successfully in his presence. Building went quickly. On February 20, 1 907, the machine left the workshop for its first trial. But as Gabriel was guiding it on its takeoff run on a field at Vincennes, on the eastern edge of Paris, the fuselage, too lightly built, snapped between the wings and the tail. Several weeks later, on March 30, 1907, the brothers took the newly strengthened plane to Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne. This time Charles Voisin was the pilot. After a takeoff run of one hundred feet he lifted the machine into the air, flew some 260 feet, and landed safely. So it was that Charles Voisin became the first Frenchman to make a witnessed flight in a powered machine, some six months after the Brazilian Santos-Dumont had done the same, on the same site.
Unlike, however, Santos-Dumont’s machine of fall 1906, a dead-end design, the Voisin plane went on to great things. A direct line, in fact, runs from it to the Voisin aircraft of World War I. It was not the Voisins alone who were responsible for the machine’s success. Another of their customers in 1907, a newcomer to flying, by name Henry Farman, proved to have innate engineering and piloting talents that did much to turn a heavy, sluggish machine into a fully practical airplane.
Farman was Anglo-French, the son of English parents (the father a journalist) long resident in Paris. Even though, decades later, when he owned a large and successful airplane-building company, his employees are said to have referred to him as Monsieur Henry, he was always more French than British—and the British aviation tradition has never claimed him. French news reports of 1907-08, when he began to make a mark as an aviator, certainly presented him as Henri Farman, unquestionably French.
The French press indeed had taken notice of Farman long before he started flying. In his teens in the early 1890s, after an early flirtation with becoming a painter, he had taken up the new sport of competitive cycling. He and his brother Maurice were soon famous racers on their tandem. Before long, however, he graduated from two wheels to three, and then four, as car racing came on the French scene. He had success in this, too, although an accident he suffered in 1905, when his car left a winding mountain road in the Auvergne to be saved from a long fall only by the branches of a tree, may have had a part in his turning to aviation: better to try flying with wings than with wheels. Capitalizing on his driving fame to become a seller of cars, by 1907, now in his early thirties, he had gathered a minor fortune. He decided to use it to fly.
On June 1, 1907, he ordered from the Voisin brothers a machine of the same design as they had sold earlier in the year to Léon Delagrange. Delagrange made little progress in piloting his plane until the autumn, but it was clear enough that the design was valid. It flew. Farman’s first hop in his Henri Farman No. 1 took place in late September, 1907. The name of the machine indicated that it belonged to him, not that he had had much, if anything, to do with its design or construction. The Voisin brothers flattered their early customers by placing their names prominently on the tails of their planes; the company name, Ateliers d’Aviation les Frères Voisin, was there too, but in smaller, lighter lettering.
Throughout the autumn of 1907, however, Farman modified the aircraft so that it became much more his own work. Though completely without formal training as an engineer, he clearly had an intuitive knack for things mechanical, an instinct that had been nourished by almost a decade of experience with cars and their gasoline engines. For all the energy that the plane’s motor provided (fifty horsepower, in contrast to the twelve of the Wrights’ 1903 Flyer), the machine seemed underpowered to Farman. He had difficulty at first in getting it to stay in the air once he had coaxed it off the ground. It would lift off with the nose high, struggle along a little way in the same attitude, and then flop down again. It was, indeed, a big, heavy beast: a biplane of thirty-five foot wingspan, weighing 1,200 pounds at take-off, with a big V8 motor and a sturdy, sprung two-wheeled undercarriage built from quantities of steel tube. In its initial form the plane also had a large horizontal tail—another biplane structure, almost wide enough to seem a second wing—in addition to a forward biplane elevator that the pilot could tilt up or down to raise or lower the nose. The rebuilt original now hanging in the national Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace at Le Bourget, once Paris’ main airport, gives a sense of quite massive solidity, made more emphatic by the delicacy of the nearby Wright biplane. And it is not just mass. The multiple struts joining the upper and lower wings, the webs of wires bracing all parts of the frame, the wheels and the heavy structure carrying them, all shout drag—air resistance—to anyone used to sleek and slippery modern airplanes.
Gabriel Voisin later praised Farman as “manipulative skill personified”—meaning not a capacity for psychological persuasiveness (though working with Voisin might well have called for a good deal of that) but rather his manual deftness, above all with engines. Through the autumn of 1907, the two of them collaborated to reduce the weight and drag of the airplane. The engine was made to run without a radiator; a large, streamlined water tank was fitted above it, linked to each cylinder by tubing. Allowing the water simply to boil off provided enough cooling for the short flights that were all that the field at Issy allowed. The wide biplane tail was much shrunk in span. Farman and Voisin clearly came to see that a smaller horizontal tail would give enough stability to keep the plane level. The change reduced drag—as also did the replacement of the biplane elevator in the nose with a single surface. As these improvements in airworthiness progressed, Farman also discovered how to control the takeoff in order to keep the machine in the air. It was a matter of speed management. He had been trying to make the plane gather speed while running on its two main wheels and two tail wheels. This meant that the nose was raised and that all the horizontal surfaces (elevator, wings, and tail) were at a large angle to the airflow. Drag was therefore high, and speed limited. Experimenting with angles, Farman found that if he pushed forward on his elevator control as he accelerated (precisely the opposite of what would intuitively be needed to lift the machine from the ground), the tail would rise, reducing the angle of the horizontal surfaces to the air. This action cut drag and so made for higher speed. Now with a slight backward pull on the elevator control the airplane would rise from the ground in almost a level attitude, and keep flying. This is the method by which all airplanes equipped with tailwheels have been lifted from the ground ever since: tail up—accelerate—and only then raise the nose into flight. One version of the discovery of the technique has Farman moving slowly into a strong wind at Issy, and Voisin running alongside shouting to him to try raising the tail until the machine had reached flying speed. But this can hardly have happened. Farman was sitting at his controls a foot or two forward from eight unmuffled exhaust pipes. Loud though some might have thought Gabriel Voisin in personality, not even the most piercing voice could have cut through that din.
In 1904, Archdeacon and Deutsch de la Meurthe had combined funds to offer a prize of 50,000 francs (us $10,000) for the first flight of one kilometer in which the airplane turned so as to re-cross the starting line—a closed loop. Through the autumn of 1907, Farman and Voisin had their sights on that prize. The difficulty was the turn. Like other French builders at the time, Voisin had aimed for stability in the design of the Henri Farman No. 1. For safety’s sake, the machine was intended to fly straight and level with little control input by the pilot. It had a rear rudder, but one so small that it served mostly to correct divergences from straight flight. For continuous turning, the rudder barely sufficed. And Farman in any case encountered a difficulty when he tried prolonged turns: the machine tended to slide inward and down toward the ground. Perhaps for that reason he and Voisin did not increase the size of the rudder, fearing to worsen the problem. Practice, nevertheless, finally paid off. Edging the machine around, centering the rudder when the inward slide threatened, and holding the nose up with the elevator at the barest flying speed, Farman managed a half circle in November 1907. On Saturday, January 11, 1908, he twice flew the required turn and distance for the Deutsch- Archdeacon prize. But the flights were not officially witnessed. The Aero Club quickly convoked a commission, including the two sponsors of the prize, to meet at Issy early the following Monday, January 13, to see if Farman could repeat his feat. In the still morning air, over the puddles and muddy turf of the army exercise field, he did so at the first attempt.
Farman was now the preeminent French aviator, “le glorieux sportsman” in the fittingly bilingual phrase of L’Illustration of January 18th, 1908. Press photographs quickly made his figure familiar in France, and soon abroad also: moustache, beard from ear to ear but neatly trimmed, and hair, when he removed his typically tweed English driver’s cap, correspondingly trim; a high, stiff, white collar, often with cravat; a short smock or tweed jacket; knickerbockers to the knee,· long socks, and sturdy, polished shoes. Farman sent the plane back to the Rue de la Ferme for a new engine and a covering of new fabric. It emerged as the Henri Farman No. 1 bis. In this form Farman flew it successfully, but installed a more powerful version of the original engine before taking the machine to Belgium for demonstrations at the end of May, 1908. In mid July, he sailed to New York for what were to be as many as ninety days of exhibition flying in possibly several United States cities. But the acrimonious collapse of the group sponsoring him (composed mainly, it seems, of real estate men from St. Louis) cut the plan short. He received only $7,500 of the $24,000 guaranteed to him for his demonstrations. In the end he performed only at Brighton Beach on Long Island, making a few flights on the race course there before crating the plane up and taking a boat for France in mid August. Notwithstanding the curtailing of his visit, it had been a signal event. Farman’s was the first European airplane, and he the first European pilot, to fly in the USA. Back in France, he accomplished one more feat in his Voisin-built machine before selling it at the end of the year. On October 31, he made a twenty-minute, twenty-seven kilometer flight to Reims from the village of Mourmelon. Although the Wrights had already flown longer and farther than this, they had done so circling around a single point. To Farman belongs the achievement of the world’s first cross-country airplane flight. Wilbur Wright commented that, given the current development of airplanes, such flights were still too dangerous.
In 1909 Farman began building his own designs, adopting the general biplane pattern set by the Voisin brothers, but reducing the structures’ weight and drag. In his machines, he won prizes for distance and endurance at the aviation shows and competitions that soon multiplied across Europe. Increasingly, however, he became a manufacturer of airplanes, building good designs for French military aviation in the Great War. His company continued to turn out distinguished machines in the twenties and thirties, until nationalization of the French aviation industry closed it in 1937. Farman lived on in quiet retirement until 1958. In an obituary, Gabriel Voisin recalled the heroic days of their collaboration fifty years earlier. Farman had been, he wrote, “the pioneer of pioneers.”
Only a few could have quibbled with that judgment. One who might was Delagrange, the Voisins’ other high-achieving customer of 190708. Delagrange was slower than Farman to learn to handle the Voisin biplane in a turn, but, once he did, began a friendly rivalry with him that drew public and press attention. On March 21, 1908, Farman flew two kilometers at Issy. Delagrange replied with a flight later in the day of a kilometer and a half: still a little short—but three weeks later he managed four circuits around the field for a distance of almost four kilometers. “I’ve got Farman!” he exclaimed. “I have him.”
Delagrange spent much of the following summer giving exhibition flights in Italy, at the invitation, reinforced by the promise of 50,000 francs, of the Società Aeronautica Italiana. He flew reliably and well, winning great public acclaim and the admiration of King Victor Emmanuel III and Queen Elena, who attended his demonstration in Rome on May 27. He was also in Milan, in late June, and then in Turin, in July. It was there that he made, on July 8, a piece of aviation history by taking up for a 250 meter hop a journalist named Thérèse Peltier, who thus became the first woman to fly in an airplane. He had met Madame Peltier—she was a married woman·—when she was a sculpture student in Paris in the late 1890s. Since then she had been his mistress.
Briefly Delagrange held two world records in September 1908, with a flight at Issy on September 6 of all but half an hour and covering a distance of 24.7 kilometers. Neither Farman nor Wilbur Wright, who by then was flying in France, had stayed in the air so long or gone so far. But less than a week later Orville Wright, demonstrating the brothers’ Type B machine at Fort Myer, Virginia, flew for an hour and quarter, traveling much farther. Delagrange remained a keen aviator despite the short tenure of his records. In August 1909, he took part in the first international flying competition, held near Reims. By then he had given up his Voisin biplane for a monoplane made by Louis Blériot. But the number of pilots was growing, and their skill also; he took no prize. He had, as it proved, only a few months of flying, and of life, left. On January 4, 19 10, the wings of his Blériot monoplane folded in a rather fast turn during a demonstration at Croix d’Hins, near Bordeaux. The machine fell to the ground from some twenty meters. Delagrange suffered multiple fractures, but it was a heavy blow to the head that killed him, almost instantly. At the age of thirty-seven he became the sixth man to die in an airplane accident.
The Blériot machine in which Delagrange died, the No. XI, acquired a reputation for weakness in its wings. Being small and agile, it nevertheless became one of the best-selling types in Europe before World War I, and then saw military service in 19 14- 15 as an observation aircraft. The No. IX first appeared in late 1908, only two years after the split between Blériot and Voisin in 1906. But anyone looking at the XI would have been hard put to it to see any connection between it and the Blériot machines that Gabriel Voisin had thought so impractical during the year of collaboration between the two. Those 1906 designs had had biplane wings and tails, with, in the case of No. Ill, the tips of the surfaces connected by curved panels to form closed ellipses. As Voisin had thought, they would not fly. Voisin never developed much respect for Blériot’s design abilities. Many years later he wrote that he had never seen Blériot with a pencil in his hand. He might have had big innovative ideas, and some of them bore fruit. But he could not, himself, execute those ideas.
Others, though, whom he gathered around him, could do so. Blériot’s operations, in fact, seem to offer the best example, in this nascent French aviating, of team effort. “Seem” is unavoidable, because the membership of the team is not yet fully visible, nor are the participants’ precise contributions. But it is clear, for example, that several people collaborated in the planning of the No. XI. Among them was the recognized chief designer Blériot employed by then, Raymond Saulnier. All the other pioneers had mechanics, carpenters, metal workers, and other craftsmen around them. It is inevitable that with time—probably only a short time—these specialists adapted their prior skills to the requirements of making airplanes, and so became, above all, aircraftmen, a new sort of specialist. They were the shop floor nucleus of a new industry.
Early in 1907 appeared the Blériot No. V, a tail-first monoplane, and the only Blériot machine known to have been designed by Louis himself. It flew, barely, and was wrecked on April 8. But it had the distinction of being the first Blériot monoplane, and in fact the first monoplane made by any of the major pioneers. That, at first sight, might seem strange. Early airplane pilots and builders everywhere took soaring birds as models of flying ability that were to be imitated, as far as mechanical limitations allowed. And nobody had encountered a biplane bird. Why, then, the prevalence of double-winged airplanes? The answer lay precisely in mechanical practicality. Using struts and webs of bracing wires, it was easy enough to build a strong, light biplane wing for a flying machine. Monoplanes were far more of a challenge, especially given the thinness of wing that was then thought necessary. There was nowhere to put the deep spars that give strength to the wings of modern planes. But Blériot, or his staff, thought the needed strength could be achieved with wires strung from the wings to posts or frames projecting above and below the fuselage. For the most part—the occasional failure of the wings on the type XI was an exception—they were right.
In 1907 the Blériot and his team mastered the monoplane. His emphasis on the single wing stands out, in fact, as his great contribution to airplane development, in France and elsewhere. If they can be made strong enough, monoplanes far outperform biplanes in speed, range, and carrying capacity because they present less resistance to the air—they have inherently less drag. Hence biplanes have been rare for half a century past, and more. After the flop, literal and figurative, of his tail-first No. V in spring, 1907, Blériot took the advice of an assistant, Louis Peyret, to build a small monoplane with wings both fore and aft. This, the No. VI, managed almost two hundred meters before crashing in September 1907. The eye-opening breakthrough, however, came next, with No. VII. Blériot suddenly produced what is recognizably a standard twentieth-century airplane: engine and propeller in the nose of a streamlined fuselage, a large monoplane wing, and small horizontal and vertical stabilizing surfaces at the tail. In November 1907 it flew five hundred meters at Issy, and farther in December before breaking a wheel on landing. Blériot quickly moved on to No. VIII, quite similar to VII. It performed well in distance and turning during the summer of 1908, but was destroyed in a crash in November. (Blériot, who piloted all his machines, became known as “the aviator who always crashes”—thirty-two accidents between April 1907 and December 1909. He was never seriously hurt, because the machines flew low and slow, and because they were built with a strong structure around the pilot.)
By the time his No. VIII came to grief, models LX and X had been built, though neither flew. At the end of 1908, however, the far smaller No. XI was ready to take wing. It did so at Issy on January 18, 1909, after being exhibited at the world’s first big aviation show at the Grand Palais in Paris during the last week of 1908. Over the next six years many variants of the XI appeared, with different engines and aerodynamic changes. Most were designed for sport, but some for training, and others, finally, for military observation. It was in an early version of the No. XI that Blériot reached the peak of his personal fame, with, in August 1909, his flight across the English Channel (or the French La Manche). That first strait-crossing by an airplane created an astonishment in its day as great as that inspired by Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight eighteen years later. Blériot found himself feted by the English—but they, sea-girt as they had always been, were alarmed as well as impressed by his demonstration that their moat could be crossed in twenty minutes by air.
Other talented builders and pilots flew in 1907 and 1908. In November 1907 Santos-Dumont reappeared, now with a very light monoplane that managed two hundred meters. This machine was the source of his Demoiselle, or Damselfly, of 1 908, which went on to sell widely before the War. Some consider it the first ultralight. Robert EsnaultPelterie, a methodical engineer, came up with another monoplane, the ancestor of clean racing machines of 1910 and 1911. And before the end of 1908, the early versions of what was the most elegant of all the first generation of monoplanes, the Antoinette, appeared. It was in an Antoinette in August 1909 that Hubert Latham, a debonair English devotee of high-risk sports, almost beat Blériot across the Channel.
But it was not any national, or even European, piloting feat or technical leap that caused the greatest stir in French flying circles in 1 908. What caused the pioneers to rise in a flutter of alarmed admiration was Wilbur Wright’s performance near Le Mans on Monday, August 10, 1908. His first flight in France (a “couple of circles,” he wrote to Orville, who was in the usa) had taken place on the preceding Saturday. Airborne on the Monday, he found himself “running into trees … too high to land and too low to go over them.” So he had to turn sharply. He made “a complete 3⁄4 of a circle with a diameter of only 31 yards, by measurement, and landed with the wings level.” [Italics in the original.] In a second flight he flew a figure of eight and landed at his starting place. Writing to Orville, Wilbur reported the French reaction with clear satisfaction. “The newspapers and the French aviators nearly went wild with excitement. Blériot and Delagrange were so excited they could hardly speak, and Kapferer [another of the pioneers] could only gasp and could not talk at all.”
This, then, was Delagrange’s “father of aviation.” Wright had brought his machine to Le Mans to show that it could meet the performance requirements set by a business group who proposed to pay the brothers 500,000 francs ($50,000) for a license to build their aircraft in France. In numerous flights over the next few months Wilbur met and exceeded the demands, and manufacture duly began. But it was not the length and distance of Wilbur’s flights later in 1908 that so impressed the French aviators. They themselves were by then staying longer in the air, and traveling ever farther. Rather, the maneuverability of Wilbur’s machine—that 270 degree turn with a radius of under fifty feet, ending in a safe landing—was what astounded them.
Wilbur Wright flew in France a slightly modified version of the machine that he and Orville had developed in 1904-05 in Ohio. In its general plan that airplane looked very like their original Flyer of December 1903. All three—1903, 1905, and 1908—were biplanes, with twin vertical rudders behind the wing and a biplane elevator forward of it. The engine, with four cylinders, and small in comparison with the V8s used by the French, turned two propellers through a chain drive. The machines had no wheels. They took off from a dolly running on a wooden rail, and landed on skids.
All the Wright machines had one other common feature, not so obvious to the cursory eye: using a control lever, the pilot could twist their wings along their span, such that the rear edges at the tips went up on one side as they went down on the other. Why “warp” the wings in this way? It was very much the same thing as soaring birds do to keep on an even keel in turbulent air. As the rear edge of one wing is lowered, the whole wing on that side rises; as the opposite rear edge is raised, the whole wing on the other side falls. Thus “wingwarping” had the effect of enabling a pilot to level the wings back to the horizontal if rough air had tilted them. Conceiving of this effect, and designing a mechanism to produce it, are arguably the Wrights’ greatest contributions to the achievement of flight in winged machines. For, as the brothers soon realized, warping provided another and even more significant possibility: it enabled the pilot to turn his machine. It was, indeed, a most effective way of producing a turn, far better than using a boat-like vertical rudder. Using the warping control, the pilot could intentionally bank the airplane—tilt his wings to one side or the other. With the bank, part of the lifting force provided by the wing—the force that kept the machine in the air—became horizontal rather than vertical. And that horizontal part of the wings’ lift pushed the whole machine around in a turn. The more the wings were banked, the greater the resulting horizontal force—and the quicker the turn.
It was through his practiced mastery of wing-warping to produce bank, and turn, that Wilbur Wright executed the tight and low threequarter circle that so flabbergasted his French spectators on August 10, 1908. Having turned far enough, he warped the wings the other way to level them, and landed the machine without fuss.
Wilbur Wright taught the French pioneers a profound lesson that day, though it took them a few months to absorb it. From the start, the French had designed their machines to be automatically stable in the air. For example, they had usually built the wings with considerable dihedral—that is, when viewed from the front each wing sloped up from its center to its tip, so that the whole formed a shallow V. Dihedral provides stability in roll—a resistance to the plane’s tilting to one side or the other. For turning, they had placed vertical rudders in the rear, exactly as in boats. They tended, indeed, to fit rather small rudders. The use of a rudder, alone, is an ineffective way of making a plane turn. In some circumstances its use can even be dangerous. And whatever turning force a rudder would exert when deflected by the pilot to one side or the other was reduced by the resistance to roll caused by dihedral. Inherent stability, in short, reduced the maneuverability of the French machines. That is why Farman’s one kilometer circle of January 13, 1908, was such a triumph. He had managed to make his plane turn through half a circle—though one with a radius of hundreds of feet.
Warping wings to produce a turn had not occurred to the French pioneers. They had fallen short of the Wrights’ imagination in transferring the trimming movements of birds’ wings to manmade wings. Nor had they had the imagination to see that their existing technical kit already contained the answer to the problem of turning in the form of the aileron (a French word for “small wing”). In modern airplanes, an aileron is a flap hinged to the rear of the wing, usually toward the tip. Each wing has one, and the machine’s controls are arranged so that as the pilot raises one aileron, the other one moves downward. The outcome is exactly as with a warping wing. The wing with the lowered aileron rises, and the wing with the raised aileron falls. The airplane banks, and therefore turns, in the direction of the raised aileron.
Some of the French pioneers had in fact already fitted ailerons to their airplanes. Santos-Dumont had added them between the upper and lower wings of his 14-bis late in the fall of 1906. Blériot attached ailerons to the end of the wings of his Type VI in 1907. But in these cases the ailerons were not there to make the machine turn, but to enable the pilot to level the wings after they had been tilted by some air current.
Not until Wilbur Wright had demonstrated so dramatically the turning ability that warping wings could provide did the French begin to use ailerons for the same purpose. Farman fitted them to all four wings of his I bis late in 1908, and to his HF No. Ill (the first machine entirely designed by him) in 1909. The Antoinette TV monoplane, produced from November 1908 onwards, had ailerons, although later models in 1909 were given warping wings. Some of the French, in fact, imitating the Wrights directly, preferred warping to ailerons. One such was Blériot, despite his use of ailerons in 1907-08. The many Blériot Type XIs built in the pre- War years were equipped with controls to warp their wings. The system worked well on those aircraft. They became famous for their aerobatic abilities (when adequately strengthened).
So it was that by early 1909 the French pioneers had a variety of winged flying machines—some biplanes and others monoplanes, some pushed along by their engine and propeller and others pulled, some with ailerons and others with warping wings, some with the elevator ahead of the wing and others with it in the tail, some with covered fuselages and others with bare frames—but all of them machines that were finally fully agile aloft. The Wrights’ vital seed of understanding about control in the air had taken wide root in France. Many, indeed most, of the French machines were by then fundamentally more advanced than the Wrights’. They had just lacked that final technical touch that Wilbur Wright unwittingly provided with his flying in August 1908.
The pionniers were not slow to find fault with Wilbur’s demonstration machine even as they admired its flying. In particular, its reliance for takeoff on a rail and dolly (supplemented indeed with a catapult consisting of a cable pulled by a falling weight) struck them as backward. Their airplanes, mostly fitted with sprung wheels, could taxi around a field and take off wherever the ground was smooth enough. The Wrights’ control levers required complicated movements. By comparison, the intuitive action of the French machines’ controls was easy to master. And to French makers of gasoline engines, the Wrights’ motor seemed crude.
Some of this criticism was valid, some of it grudging nitpicking. A more telling observation that the French could have made, but did not, perhaps because they had not seen the Wrights’ earlier machines in the USA, was that the aircraft brought by Wilbur to France in 1908 was conceptually the same as the original Flyer of 1903. The Wrights had refined that first design, but had not sought to advance beyond it. Therefore, although the Wrights had gained such high skill as pilots that they could extract remarkable performance from their machines, by 1908 those machines were on the verge of obsolescence. They were nearing grandparenthood, whereas the Antoinettes, Blériots, Voisins, and Farmans of 1909 were about to give birth to ever more numerous, diverse, and capable offspring.
This contrast between the French machines and the Wrights’ became clear when, in August of 1909, the Grande Semaine de l’Aviation de la Champagne took place outside the village of Bétheny, a little to the north west of Reims. This was the first large gathering anywhere of pilots and their airplanes for competitive flying. The mere fact of the meeting’s being organized shows how much public attention to aviation had grown in France over the previous two years; and not just popular public attention, for the President of the Republic, Armand Fallieres, came to watch on August 24, along with the Minister of War, General Jean Jules Brun, and the Inspector General of the British Army, General Sir John French. Brun quickly became a strong advocate for the military use of airplanes. Two days earlier, on August 22, spectators had included Lord Northcliffe, owner of the London newspaper The Daily Mail, and donor of prizes for aviation feats (including the first crossing of the English Channel, accomplished by Blériot a month before). With him was David Lloyd-George, later British Prime Minister but at this point Chancellor of the Exchequer (Treasury Secretary) in the Liberal government led by Herbert Asquith. The presence of high-level observers from across the Channel suggests a rising British awareness of winged aviation’s potential.
Over the week of the meeting, competitors flew for cash prizes (provided mostly by the local champagne companies) for speed, height, distance covered, and passenger carrying. On the first day, French-built Wright machines, flown by French pilots, managed the highest speeds. But at the end of the week the best that any Wright airplane achieved in any category was third place. In the hands of Wilbur or Orville the machines would possibly have done better. But the brothers disdained such public shows. It was, on the other hand, another American, the unknown surprise entrant Glenn Curtiss, who finally took the speed prizes over the twenty and thirty kilometer distances (at 75.6 and 70.2 kilometers per hour respectively). Curtiss flew a racing biplane of his own design. Blériot very nearly beat Curtiss over the shorter distance, in one of his own aircraft, and Latham, in an Antoinette monoplane, was only slightly slower over the thirty kilometers. In the ten kilometer race Blériot was one kmh faster than Curtiss, and took the prize. Farman, in his own HF III biplane, won the biggest award of the meeting (50,000 francs), offered for the greatest distance flown. In three hours and five minutes he went around the ten kilometer rectangular course eighteen times. Latham managed almost 155 kilometers, again in his Antoinette, to take second place. He won the height competition as well, reaching 155 meters. Farman, piloting his HF III in a ten kilometer flight, with two colleagues aboard, took the 10,000 franc prize for passenger carrying.
During his visit on August 24, President Fallieres made a brief speech of thanks to those who had welcomed him to the meeting. In it he proclaimed “Aviation has become a French science.” That was an entirely fair conclusion to draw from the successes of French pilots and planes during the week at Bétheny. And it was proper recognition of the astonishing progress that French aviators had made since Santos-Dumont’s first lurch into the air in the Bois de Boulogne less than three years earlier. In the months and years after the Grande Semaine, the French, it is true, could not maintain the near-monopoly on success they had achieved there; others, notably the Germans and British, soon presented powerful challenges. But the Grande Semaine marks the beginning of European domination of aeronautics that lasted almost two decades. Not until the late 1920s did the United States take back the leadership in flight that the Wright brothers had established—but only briefly—in 1903.