The French Competition

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in History of Flight

The French considered themselves the world leaders in flying. The Montgolfier brothers were the first to fly in a balloon filled with hot air in 1783. The French followed that up a hundred years later with the first successful dirigible. They even claimed six years later to be the first to fly a manned, heavier-than-air machine.

Their high-flying balloon of superiority was punctured and their national pride wounded when they learned of the Wright Brothers success in 1903.

Even their claim of being the first to fly a manned, heavier-than-air machine was an exaggeration. In actuality, Clement Ader’s steam-powered, bat-wing shaped machine made an uncontrolled hop in 1890. He tried again in 1897 with an improved machine, but it never got off the ground.

Frustrated, most French experimenters lost interest in flying machines and concentrated their efforts on balloons and dirigibles. There was one Frenchman, however, who maintained an avid interest in flying machines. He was Captain Ferdinand Ferber.

Ferber followed with interest the glider experiments of Octave Chanute, American French born internationally known aeronautical experimenter. From Chanute, Ferber learned of the activities of the Wrights in 1901. Subsequently, he began a correspondence directly with Wilbur Wright.

Ferber tried unsuccessfully to build some gliders based on what he had learned, but they performed poorly.

Ferber was not one who was easily discouraged and he continued to advocate through lectures and articles that the French should direct more attention to heavier-than-air flying machines.

Ernest Archdeacon, a wealthy attorney and a founder of the Aero Club of France heard the message. He added his influence to publicize the urgent need for the French to develop a flying machine. “The airplane must not be allowed to reach successful development in America,” he emphatically stated.

In April 1903, Chanute, a friend of the Wrights and their guest at Kitty Hawk during the glider experiments in 1901 and 1902, was invited to give a lecture to the Aero Club of France. In his illustrated lecture, he provided a summary of the Wrights gliding experiments, including how they were able to execute controlled turns of their glider using wingwarping.

While not understanding all of the fine points of the lecture, the audience now knew that the Wrights were way ahead of them in the race to fly.

Ferber, who was present at the lecture, fired off an urgent letter to Archdeacon pleading for increased financial support for French experimentation.

It was too late, the word came in December 1903 that the Wrights were successful and had flown.

Archdeacon responded by commissioning the construction of a flying machine based on the information that Chanute had provided in his lecture and articles such as in the Aerophile that included drawings of the Wright gliders.

Further, as a incentive to others, he and a wealthy industrialist, Henry Deutsch de la Meurthe each contributed 25,000 francs ($5,000) to establish a prize to be awarded to the first powered flight around a course of one kilometer (.62 miles) long.

Archdeacon was skeptical of whether the Wrights actually flew. A newspaper reporter for L’ Auto was dispatched to visit Dayton to find out. The Wrights wouldn’t show him their machine, however, based on his interview of witnesses, he reported that “it was impossible to doubt the success of their experiments.”

Archdeacon still refused to believe they had flown. He challenged the Wrights through the French press to come to France and try for the 50,000-franc award that he and Deutsch had established. “It will assuredly not tire you very much to make a brief visit to France to collect this little prize.”

The Wrights did not respond.

The French, including Archdeacon, Santos-Dumont, Delagrange, Voisins, Kapferer, Bleriot and Farman tried hard to develop a machine that would fly by trying versions of the Wright design instead of doing their own basic research.

The problem with their approach was that the Wrights revealed few of their secrets in their drawings. Chanute, although a close friend of the Wrights,’ didn’t understand the subtleties of the Wright design, particularly wingwarping, enough to explain them in his lectures to the French. The French couldn’t figure it out even after the printing of the Wright patent and the publication of numerous pictures of the Wright machines in the Scientific American in 1906.

Still, the French regarded the Wrights as “bluffeurs.” “Fliers or Liars,” said the headline of the Paris edition of the New York Herald on February 10, 1906.

It wasn’t until January 13, 1908, that the French managed to fly a heavier-than air-machine over a one-kilometer circuit. On that date Henry Farman won the Archdeacon 50,000 francs cup in a flight lasting one minute and 28 seconds. The flight was far from perfect. His turn at the halfway point was awkward and the machine wobbled as it performed the wide flat turn.

In contrast, the Wright brothers had flown 39 times that distance (24 miles) two years earlier at Huffman Prairie in Dayton, Ohio.

In June 1908, Wilbur finally made the trip to France after a group of French businessmen promised to manufacture the Wright machine contingent upon a successful demonstration in France.

The Wright machine was severely damaged during the French custom inspection, requiring Wilbur to spend seven weeks to rebuild the machine while in France. Finally on August 8, Wilbur was ready for a demonstration flight of his Wright Model A Flyer at the Hunaudieres racetrack near Le Mans.

Wilbur was dressed in his usual suit, a visor cap set backwards and starched collar. The engine started and quickly died when Wilbur’s back collar stud caught on the control wires.

Soon after, the weight dropped from the launching derrick, propelling the machine into the air.

French aviation reporter, Francois Peyrey, describes what happened: “We beheld the great white bird soar above the racecourse and pass over and beyond the trees. We were able to follow easily each movement of the pilot, note his extraordinary proficiency in the flying business, perceive the curious warping of the wings in the process of circling and the shifting and position of the rudders. After one minute and 45 seconds of flight, Wright returned to the ground, descending with extraordinary buoyancy and precision.”

The crowd cheered loudly. “Well, we are beaten!” exclaimed one spectator. Another said, “We are as children compared with the Wrights.”

Wilbur wrote Orville on August 15, “In the second flight, I made an “eight” and landed at the starting point. The newspapers and the French aviators went wild with excitement. Blenot and Delagrange were so excited they could scarcely speak, and Kapferer could only gasp and could not talk at all. You would have almost died of laughter if you could have seen them.”

Wilbur, between August 1908 and January 1909, made more than a 100 demonstration flights in France and took up 60 passengers, astounding spectators and bringing on instant fame.

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