Simanaitis Says

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FLIGHT OF THE ?

CHARLES LINDBERGH and his Spirit of St. Louis were the first, in 1927, to fly solo non-stop from New York to Paris. However, aircraft cognoscenti also recognize the Navy-Curtiss NC-4 as being the first, in 1919, to conquer the Atlantic by air, though not in a solo non-stop manner. (See http://wp.me/p2ETap-Ol.) And let’s not forget that a month later in 1919, British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown in their Vickers Vimy IV made the first non-stop transatlantic flight. (See http://wp.me/p2ETap-Q7.)

What’s more, other sagas worthy of recognition are the record-setting flights of the French Point d’Interrogation (Question Mark). In 1929, this Breguet XIX, its pilot Dieudonné Costes and navigator Maurice Bellonte flew non-stop from Paris to Manchuria. A year later, the trio made the first Paris to New York westerly crossing of the Atlantic.

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More than three years after Lindbergh’s famous 1927 flight, aviators achieved the first westerly trip. Image from Minute Epics of Flight, Lumen Winter and Glenn Degner, Grosset & Dunlap, 1933.

Breguet Aviation, founded in France in 1911, is not to be confused with Breguet, the Swiss watchmaker established in 1775. The Breguet XIX aircraft, having been designed in 1921, wasn’t particularly innovative. However, this light bomber/reconnaissance biplane became one of the great long-distance aircraft of aviation’s Golden Age. Originally to be powered by Ettore Bugatti’s U-16 engine, the XIX had 19 different powerplant options during its seven years of production, 1924 – 1930, in France, Spain, Japan, Belgium and Yugoslavia. In all, around 2,700 XIXs were built.

The Point d’Interragation evolved from an earlier XIX that had already set a record flying the South Atlantic from Senegal, West Africa, to Port Natal, Brazil, in 1927. Costes was its pilot accompanied by navigator Joseph le Brix.

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A French postage stamp commemorates the Breguet XIX’s 1929 South Atlantic achievement. Image from www.andycot.com.

In preparing a XIX for its Paris to New York attempt, Breguet enlarged its fuselage fuel tanks, incorporated a pair of tanks to the wings and added detachable containers carried below the lower wing surface. Development costs were shared by Breguet, Hispano-Suiza and a patron who asked to remain anonymous until the flight had taken place.

This mystery man was perfume manufacturer Francis Coty, who contributed around 1.75 million francs, perhaps $50,000 in 1927 (approaching $700,000 in today’s dollars).

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The Breguet XIX Point d’Interrogation. Engine supplier Hispano-Suiza’s graceful bird logo accompanies the “?” in its livery. Image from Biplanes, Triplanes and Seaplanes: 300 of the World’s Greatest Aircraft, by Michael Sharpe, Amber Books Ltd, 2000.

Weather complicated Costes’s first Paris/New York attempt in September 1929. However, two months later, he, navigator Bellonte and the Point d’Interrogation lifted off from Le Bourget in Paris (where Lindbergh had landed in 1927) and flew in a generally easterly direction until they exhausted the aircraft’s 1420 gallons of fuel. About 52 hours later, they set down in Tsitsihkar, Manchuria, a distance of 4912 miles.

On September 1, 1930, the trio again took off from Le Bourget, but this time headed west for New York. It was a greater challenge than Lindbergh’s New York/Paris route, as this direction countered generally westerly wind patterns.

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Navigator Maurice Bellonte, left, and pilot Dieudonné Costes and their record-setting Breguet XIX. Modifications gave their cockpit some sense of enclosure. Image from the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

After 37 hours and 18 minutes of flight (Lindbergh took 30 1/2 hours), they landed at New York’s Roosevelt Field. For more on this facility, see “Roosevelt Field—And Raceway,” http://wp.me/p2ETap-2GW. Among the 25,000 welcomers was Charles Lindbergh. “Comment ça va?” yelled Costes (“How are you?”). “I congratulate you! I congratulate you!” Lindbergh replied.

There’s a neat video of Breguet XIX lore at http://goo.gl/iU5ECF. Beginning around 1:00, it includes footage of Costes and Bellonte’s flight. Note the fuel-laden aircraft’s long takeoff run!

A tidbit on the historic flight: Over Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Costes and Bellonte’s navigation map flew out a window of their semi-enclosed cockpit. Louise Stef and her brother John were watching the plane and saw the map flitter down onto the family farm.

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Louise Stef holds the map that fell from Point d’Interrogation as it flew over her family’s farm near Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

After brief notoriety and a photo, the Stefs sent the map to Costes, who had sought its return through the media.

Costes and Bellonte had a day of rest. Then, on September 4, 1930, they took the Point d’Interrogation on a 12-hour flight from Roosevelt Field to Dallas. This began a 9300-mile flying tour of the U.S. before returning to France—by air, of course—on October 25.

Costes received the French Legion of Honor. Retiring from the French air force in 1939, he became vice-president of Hispano-Suiza aircraft. During World War II, Costes was embroiled in double-agent, possibly triple-agent activity with France’s Vichy government, the German occupying forces and the U.S. FBI. A source on this is The Deceivers: Allied Military Deception in the Second World War, by Thaddeus Holt, Simon & Schuster, 2010.

In 1949, related to these activities Costes was accused of betraying France during the war. With full disclosure of his multiple roles, he was acquitted. Costes died, age 60, in 1973.

The Breguet Point d’Interrogation resides in the Musée de l’Air in Paris. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015

2 comments on “FLIGHT OF THE ?

  1. Bob Moritz
    March 5, 2015

    Great work. Please note that the September, 1930 Paris to NY, flight landed at Curtiss Field in Valley Stream, not Roosevelt Field. My dad Walter Moritz was at Curtiss Field to witness the event.

    Thank you, Bob Moritz

    • simanaitissays
      March 5, 2015

      Hi, Bob,
      According to my sources, the properties were merged into Roosevelt Field in 1929. See my item on Roosevelt Field and Raceway.

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