Simanaitis Says

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FRENCH AÉRONAUTS came this close—no, closer than this—to being the first in the world to demonstrate sustained, controlled, heavier-than-air flight.

What about the Wrights?

Between 1898 and 1908, there was no better way to start a squabble at the Aéro-Club in Paris than to mention these Americans. Yet, on November 8, 1908, the club awarded its prestigious Grand Gold Medal to Wilbur Wright, his brother Orville (and also to French aéronaut Henri Farman). How this turnabout occurred makes for an interesting tale.

The Aéro-Club was established in Paris in 1898. The club’s founders included futurist novelist Jules Verne, balloonist Alberto Santos-Dumont, tiremaker André Michelin and automaker Count Albert de Dion. See “Not Your Average Auto Exec,”, for other de Dion achievements, including the last duel in Paris.

Founders didn’t bother specifying de France in the club’s name. (This wasn’t added until 1909.) Surely no one could question France’s supremacy in matters aeronautical.


The Mongolfier brothers’ balloon, 1783. This, other images and commentary from Chronicle of Aviation, Chronicle Communications Ltd., 1992.

In 1783, the French Montgolfier brothers were the world’s first balloonists. By 1794, France had an airborne military service using balloons for observing enemy troop movements. Observation balloons were used in the American civil war too.

In 1874, a steam-powered man-carrying aircraft devised by French naval officer Félix du Temple de la Croix made a short hop. In 1879, French engineer Victor Tatin flew a compressed-air-powered model Aéroplane (Tatin’s name for his craft). (See “Tatin-Paulhan Aéro-Torpille,”, for a later bit of Tatin wizardry.) In 1890, French electrical engineer and inventor Clément Ader coaxed what he termed his avion into another preliminary attempt at a powered man-carrying craft.


Octave Chanute, 1832 – 1910, French-born American railway engineer and aviation pioneer.

In 1894, French-born engineer Octave Chanute, then living in Chicago, wrote Progress in Flying Machines, in which he set forth the theory of heavier-than-air flight. Wilbur and Orville Wright read his book, Wilbur wrote Chanute in 1900 and a rich correspondence followed.

Chanute’s book and the Wrights’ work interested French artillery captain Ferdinand Ferber, whose gliders became among the world’s best. In 1902, Ferber added power with a 6-hp Buchet engine. (The Wrights’ engine, under development at the same time, was to produce twice this.)


Above, Ferdinand Ferber’s prototype engine in land testing. Below, his launch scheme at La Californie Aérodrome, Nice, France, as painted by Elisabeth Chemel.


Ferber suggested the name Aérodrome to describe a place designed for aircraft takeoffs and landings. When stationed in Nice, he built such a facility in an area near the Promenade des Anglais, the city’s high-fashion thoroughfare.

Early in 1903, Chanute presented a lecture to the Aéro-Club in Paris. His remarks citing the Wrights glider successes alarmed his former compatriots. Could France be losing its lead?


December 17, 1903, Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The Wrights achieve sustained, controlled, heavier-than-air flight.

News of the Wrights’ Kitty Hawk flights was met in Paris with disbelief. At a meeting of the Aéro-Club in early 1904, Victor Tatin doubted the Kitty Hawk reports, which he called “incomplete and often contradictory.” What’s more, he expressed outrage that history might show that “aviation, born in France, only became successful thanks to the Americans.”

This doubt persisted as aviators in France continued to make incremental progress. On October 23, 1906, Alberto Santos-Dumont piloted his 14 bis before a large crowd at Bagatelle, Paris. This first powered flight in Europe traveled 197 ft. at a height no greater than 15 ft.


Alberto Santos-Dumont’s historical first European flight, October 23, 1906. It’s reported, “Brazilian-born dandy is the toast of Paris.”

By this time, the Wrights were maneuvering in the air for more than a half-hour over distances exceeding 24 miles. However, their Wright Flyer was still relying on catapult launches, whereas Santos-Dumont’s craft left the ground under its own power. In fact, in a continuing squabble over aviation supremacy, various European competitions required such self-propelled takeoffs.

Incremental French advances continued during 1906 – 1908: an official distance of 2530 ft., a 1-km circular flight, another of 30-minute duration.

Then, on August 9, 1908, Wilbur Wright took the Wright Flyer into the air at the Hunaudière horse-race track just south of Le Mans, France. See “Wilbur Wows ’Em at Le Mans,” for details.


The Wright Flyer at Le Mans, France, August 9, 1909.

The maneuverability of the Wright Flyer awed everyone. One report stated that French aviators were “as children compared with the Wrights.” Pioneer aviator Louis Blériot said, “for us in France, a new era of mechanical flight has commenced.”

Aéro-Club founder (and foremost among Wright doubters) Ernest Archdeacon wrote in L’Auto magazine, “For too long a time the Wright brothers have been accused in Europe of bluff… they are today hallowed in France.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2014  

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