Magnificent men – and women – in their flying machines

Louis Blériot getting ready for take off in 1909

The Connexion traces a French-heavy history of powered flight 

From the Montgolfier brothers’ hot-air balloon in 1783 to Concorde’s first flight in 1969, the French have always been at the forefront of aviation.

It is something of a national passion.

Clément Ader’s aircraft

The Wright brothers, in 1902, may have been the first to fly in a machine that could be controlled in all three directions (tilting forwards and back, rolling side to side, and twisting left to right) but French aviator Clément Ader was the first to achieve motorised flight.

In the years leading up to the First World War, aviation records were constantly being set and then smashed by competing aviators worldwide.

French pioneers pushed the technology forwards: Ferdinand Ferber built gliders; Robert Esnault-Pelterie invented wingflaps and the joystick.

The Aéro-Club de France (formed in 1898) was offering prizes for each new development and in 1906 the first air shows were held.

In 1908, Thérèse Peltier became the first woman to fly solo, and Henri Farman made the first flight between two French cities (Bouy to Reims) in the same year. 

Thérèse Peltier posing in front of her plane

In 1909, Louis Blériot broke the distance record by flying 47km in 67 minutes, and Louis Paulhan reached a record altitude of 150 metres.

That same year, Blériot flew across the Channel in 37 minutes, and the world’s first international airshow, near Reims, attracted about 1million visitors.

In the heady years before the First World War, a flying school was opened in Pau, and more airfields were constructed.

In 1910, Elise Deroche was the first woman in the world to get her pilot’s licence; the first flight of a seaplane was made by Henri Fabre; the second Paris-Le Bourget airshow took place – and in 1911, Robert Grandseigne accomplished the first night flight. In 1913, Adolphe Pégoud looped the loop for the first time.

Aviators worldwide were starting to see the possibilities for passenger services, postal deliveries and cargo as well as pure sport. But with ...

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