This Bastille Day, we take time to recognize some of the most fantastic, colorful personalities in early French flight.
Jules Védrines (1881-1919)
Védrines was born in Saint-Denis, an industrial neighborhood in Paris. Unlike his peers, who were often wealthy sportsmen or came from extremely well-off families, Védrines was a rough-and-tumble, foul-mouthed, and unpredictable aviator.
Védrines’ most notable accomplishments include taking first in the 1911 Paris-Madrid cross-country race, winning the Gordon Bennett Trophy in Chicago in 1912, and flying from Paris to Cairo in 1912.
While flying from Paris to Cairo, Védrines was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment when he chose to fly across German airspace, violating German law. Aside from his life as an aviator, Védrines was an active socialist, running as a candidate for the Chamber of Deputies in 1912. Although his campaign was unsuccessful, Védrines later served his country by completing over a thousand clandestine missions during World War I.
Alberto Santos-Dumont (1873-1932)
Santos-Dumont was Brazilian, not Parisian, but he spent most of his adult life in Paris and achieved many of his aeronautical accomplishments there. Santos-Dumont was the first person in Europe to actually get off the ground when he flew a kite-like structure called the 14-Bis in November of 1906.
Santos – jokingly called Le Petit Santos by his French counterparts – was obsessed with the notion of flight. Santos went so far as to hang his dining room table and chairs in the air so that when friends visited for dinner, they would have to climb a step ladder to get to their seats. Even while eating, Santos had to be in the air.
After he died in 1932, Santos’ heart was preserved and later placed on display, inside a trophy in Rio de Janeiro's Aeronautic Museum.
Hubert Latham (1883-1912)
Hubert Latham started proving himself from his very first day as a pilot. At the age of 26, during his test for his pilot’s license, Latham broke a French endurance record by staying in the air for an hour and seven minutes.
Latham also tried twice to become the first person to fly across the English Channel. In his failure, Latham achieved a different first. When he crashed his Antoinette monoplane into the Channel, he officially became the first man to land an airplane in a body of water.
Latham’s adventurous spirit knew no bounds. He lead African safaris, ballooned across the English Channel, and traveled the world. When French President Armand Fallières asked Latham about his profession, Latham famously replied, “Monsieur le President, je suis un homme du monde.” (“Mr. President, I am a man of the world.”)
Louis Blériot (1872-1936)
Although he was not quite as dramatic as the other personalities described, we would be remiss not to mention the industrialist that made flight possible for so many aviators during this time period: Louis Blériot.
Blériot founded a highly successful aircraft manufacturing company and flew his own plane, the popular Blériot XI, across the English Channel, becoming the first to do so. Blériot crossed the Channel in just 37 minutes, flying an average speed of 77 kilometers (48 miles) per hour.
Several notable pilots flew the Blériot XI, including Jules Védrines during his 1912 flight from Paris to Cairo.
As the nation of France takes time to commemorate the storming of the Bastille and celebrate French unity, we salute some of the aviation heroes that have honored their country through their achievements in early flight.