Aviation Lives in North East France.
The tiny part of the world consisting of Nord, pas de Calais and Picardy (recently combined into one region this year), has always been a homeland of powered, manned flight. You would never tell as you just pass through.
In 1908 the American Wright brothers came to France to demonstrate the military advantages of their almost primeval ‘Wright Flyer’ machine to the French army. They had invented the first controllable powered aircraft and knew that its evolution was going to explode. The Wright’s demonstration flights came to the attention of two other brothers living in northern Picardy. They were Rene and Gaston Caudron and they were French. They worked in the rural countryside with their Father on a farm in the Somme basin close to nowhere in particular. The new world of aviation grasped the interest and imagination of the Caudron brothers in captivating style. They were going to be involved, build an aircraft for themselves and ultimately a factory and flying school. The rest is great French history.
In August 1908, Rene and Gaston began to build their first aircraft on their farm at Romiotte, resting close to the Somme estuary. It was a large biplane and was to be powered by two engines. They had no financial resources or any real equipment or storage. They had just their sheer enthusiasm, imagination and dogged tenacity that enabled them to complete it. Initially, they were unable to locate suitable engines for their design. They wanted to try it out though and fly it as a glider. The merry farmyard horse was called Luciole. It was decided that she would launch their biplane ‘glider’ into the sky by towing a cart for a few test flights. The trial flying was exciting and successful. By 1909 the Caudrons had found suitable engines and flew it under power. By 1910, they were able to make a return flight of 10 kilometres.
They went on to construct a smaller, single engine biplane powered by a 25 horse power motor from the Italian Anzani company. Their aircraft seemed easy to fly and relatively reliable for the time. The Caudron brothers were off. They were to stamp their names in the history books of aviation.
The Caudrons created a factory in the town of Rue, close to their home and farm. There they built the first G-3 and G-4 aircraft for the French military. They also established a civil flying school at Le Crotoy on the gently sloping and wide open beaches on the edge of the Somme estuary. Later the flying school doubled as a military training ground for pilots in the French army.
Production of Caudron aircraft was on a grand scale. They produced versions of their machines, the G-3, G-4, R4 and R11 types for the military. By the time WW2 came along in 1939, the Caudron factory empire had manufactured over 10,000 aircraft and the flying school had trained over 17,000 pilots. The Caudrons had landed their aircraft on Mont Blanc, created an aircraft factory in China and Caudron aircraft had been produced under licence in several countries including Britain. No mean feat for two country farm hands!
During WW1 as the German military advance pushed against France, the factory had to be moved to Issy-les Moulineux in a suburban area of Paris. A further aircraft factory was also created at Lyon Bron aerodrome in SE France. Gaston was killed there conducting a test flight in 1915. Production at all factories ceased with the capitulation of France in 1940.
Rene died peacefully in 1959 very close to his home roots in Vron, just across the northern border of Picardy. He is buried there. Visitors can view a plaque commemorating the brother’s birth on the side of their family house at Favieres in Picardy. There is also a tall monument as memory to the Caudron Brothers right at the entrance to the still working farm where they laboured as young men. The tourist office at Rue presents a permanent exhibition marking their achievements. Entrance is free and the display is so full of detail from their aeronautical contribution to the world. The rapid advance of their design and aircraft creation seemingly so similar to much later models is quite extraordinary.
Louis Bleriot was another northern France aeronautical adventurer. He was born in Cambrai, a town at the east of the region. He had acquired an intense interest in aeroplanes and flying during his early life. He designed, flew and crashed a number of aircraft of his own construction. He was the first person to create a flyable and controllable monoplane. It had Just one wing instead of the usual two.
The Daily Mail newspaper in Britain had offered a prize of 1000 pounds to the first person who was able to fly across the English Channel from one country to another. The first international manned and powered flight. It was 1909 and Bleriot was determined to win it.
He used his own design of aircraft, the Bleriot X1 monoplane. This was very advanced for the time. The conditions of the prize dictated that any attempt had to be made between sunrise and sunset. On the 25 July 1909 at 4.41 am the weather conditions seemed fine. Bleriot set off from a position on the beach just outside Sangatte, to the west of Calais, to make the crossing. There was a good crowd of well wishers to see him off.
He flew at a height of about 250 feet and a speed of around 45 mph in the open cockpit aeroplane. He had no compass but intended to follow the escorting French Navel frigate to find the way. About half way across the weather became foggy and Bleriot lost sight of the escort which, incidentally, had his young wife on board. He pressed on and eventually spotted the English coast close to Dover. He responded to hand signals from a person appointed to meet him and landed close to Dover castle. The landing was bumpy and his aircraft was quite badly damaged but he had done it. It was the first powered international air flight and it was a landmark in the unfolding progress of aviation. It took place from the beaches of Nord, pas de Calais.
During the Second World War, France was occupied by Germany between 1940 and 1944. The Germans were intent on invading Britain that they could see so tantalizingly close, just across the Channel from Calais. The German military were technically very capable. They developed and evolved their aeronautical prowess to try and achieve their national aims.
In the region just to the south east of Calais, the occupying force established locations where flying weapons would be directed at the enemy. Initially it was the V1 flying bomb and later the V2 rocket. They were to deploy devastating explosives on London. The V2 had an engine that ran for just 65 seconds. In that time the rocket would achieve supersonic speed, reach the edge of space and would begin its descent to the target. The early research and development of these weapons had been conducted by a German scientist called Vernher von Braun. This technology that found its way in the little corner of north east France led ultimately to the first manned moon landing. Visitors can visit the remains of the launching sites that are still intact. The quality of the science astonished the world.
North east France is a small corner of the woods where aviation developed to staggering proportions. Arguably even more so than was achieved by the inventors of manned powered flight in the United States, the Wright Brothers. It is a curious little secret of the French. Much of the Gallic contribution to aeronautical advance is rather humbly not well marked in France.
In recent years the progress has continued. In June 1979 the first manned, pedal powered navigation of the English Channel took place. The aircraft was called Gossamer Albatross and was built by the Americans. It took off from a position near to Folkestone in England and landed on the beach at Cap Gris-Nez, close to Calais. That really was a milestone in the ecological evolution of aviation. During 2015, the French based giant, Airbus, created a two seat, purely battery powered aircraft. The design is contemporary and pristine. It took off from just outside Calais and flew across the channel to England. That too, was a milestone in the continuing evolving nature of flight. It will ultimately benefit us all in our lives and it happened from the Cote d’ Opale, Nord, pas de Calais.
I like flying and aviation and I like France. I have always felt quite pleased that my tastes lie in the same place. The English Channel in many ways has been the mother of invention for aviation but so much aeronautical intellect has its DNA in northern France. There have been many French pioneers over the last 100 years. World class aviation and space exploration is very much alive and vibrant in the wider France of today.