Forgotten dark truth of Zapata’s cross-Channel flight

IN terms of romance and adventure, it is hard to beat a pioneering flight across the Channel.

28 August 2019
By Nabila Ramdani

Frenchman Franky Zapata proved that this summer, when he steered a kerosene-powered hoverboard from Sangatte beach to the White Cliffs of Dover (see The Connexion’s article here).

For those of us who watched the incredible feat, it revived the spirit of 1909, when Louis Blériot completed the first-ever plane flight across the same stretch of sea.

His heavier-than-air Blériot XI all but crash-landed on the south coast of England, but the epic journey turned him into an instant celebrity, as he won a £1,000 prize offered by Lord Northcliffe’s Daily Mail.

Zapata failed on his own first attempt at making history in July, but then came good in early August, punching his fist in the air when he landed in England, and saying it all felt “magnificent”.

There was a Boys’ Own innocence to the whole spectacle – one man taking on the elements with his own engineering and derring-do, and winning, as he soared through the air looking like a superhero version of Marty McFly in the Back to the Future films.

Thousands of spectators were moved to tears, including Zapata’s charming wife, Krystel, and the couple’s young son, Matt.

Zapata is only 40, and has every right to keep on pioneering, but I can’t be the only person to think that his amazing work was done when he dropped into Kent.

The hoverboard was established as a hugely inspiring piece of kit for a select and very brave group of thrill-seekers.

It was unlikely to ever harm anybody, and could be used on strictly controlled leisure runs.

Instead, the French military has already invested €1.3million into the development of the so-called Flyboard Air, and hopes to one day use the boards in combat situations.

Rather than a Flying Frenchman potentially falling on a fisherman’s head out on the high seas, the risk might be an entire squad of heavily armed troops using the board.

Zapata, an Army reservist, certainly appeared happy about this prospect when he swooped into July 14 Bastille Day celebrations on Place de la Concorde in Paris on his board.

He was brandishing a high-powered assault rifle, making clear that the board was by no means just a futuristic toy.

This is, of course, exactly what happened to Blériot’s plane.

Just five years after the English Channel triumph, updated versions of the Type XI became a familiar sight over World War One battlefields, including as light bombers.

Primitive monoplanes no longer solely represented the golden age of aviation, but became a terrifying new contributor to industrial slaughter.

Beyond ramping up his board’s military capability, Zapata also wants to upgrade his contraption into a flying car.

This will at least be peaceful, but the prototype he envisages unveiling within months still sounds disturbingly clunky.

It is likely to be powered by 10 gas turbines, reaching cruising speeds of up to 250mph, with a range of 70 miles.

More than 3,000 people died on France’s roads last year, and there is every chance that such airborne vehicles will do nothing but add to this annual carnage.

The thought of them buzzing across cities and towns, while also using already packed roads, is not an inspiring one. Instead, it will dismay environmentalists as much as traffic safety campaigners.

Yes, the kind of innovation and courage personified by Franky Zapata is to be roundly applauded.

He is a brilliant inventor, and an extremely brave test pilot, but you do wish he would end his work on a high, rather than developing devices that are just as likely to cause harm as they are to thrill and inspire.

 

Nabila Ramdani is an award-winning French-Algerian journalist who specialises in French politics and the Arab world. Her articles feature in the French national press as well as internationally. She is a regular columnist in The Connexion

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