History of Flight from Around the World
An increasing number of attempts to fly with vehicles heavier than air took place in Belgium at the end of last century. The most famous was by Vincent De Groof, who launched his flying machine from a balloon piloted by an English pilot. He survived a first jump of 100 meters, but a second experiment in 1874 ended in a deadly accident.
The first flight in Belgium took place in November 1908 with an airplane built by "les freres Voisin" and powered by a Belgian Vivinus 100-horsepower motor. The plane was piloted by Baron Pierre de Caters. He also was the first pilot to fly in Africa (December 1909) and India (December 1910). De Caters competed with Louis Bleriot at an air meeting in Frankfurt in 1909 and was the first to receive a Belgian pilot licence in December of that same year.
The first Belgian woman to fly a plane was Helene Dutrieu, who, after little training, flew a "La Demoiselle." In spite of a near fatal landing, she began more thorough training and received the 27th Belgian pilot licence. In 1911 she won the "Coup du Roi" in Florence after competing with 14 male pilots. She also achieved several altitude and distance records in New York.
The period before World War I saw the creation of a large number of small airfields and pilot schools in the country. The driving force for the further development was the large potential of air transport in Congo. From 1911 on, attempts were made to use a "Farman" with a 50-horsepower motor for local transport near the Equator, but the attempts were unsuccessful due to the difficult climate. A special contest held in 1912 to find the best hydro-aeroplane for tropical applications was won by a French pilot on an aeroplane called "Borel."
Most of the airplanes used by Belgian pilots at the numerous meetings and shows were of French origin but equipped with Belgian engines. They were used to achieve a long series of duration, altitude, and distance records by a large number of pilots, including Charles van den Born, Jan Olieslagers, and Elie Hanouille, who was the first Belgium to perform a loop.
A new company, JERO, was created by the Bollekens brothers to construct and repair JERO-FARMAN F16s and F20s for the Belgian army. Their main competitor was Leon de Brouckere, who founded a factory in Herstal, near Liege, to construct the Deperdussin under licence.
By the beginning of World War I, 104 Belgian pilots had earned a licence, of which 50 were military personnel. Factories and pilot schools were transferred to France and Belgian pilots participated actively in the hostilities in Europe and central Africa.
Shortly after the First World War several companies were created for for civil transport, including SNETA (Syndicat National pour l'Etude des Transports Aeriens) and CENAC (Comite d'Etudes pour la Navigation Aerienne au Congo). SNETA organized regular flights on De Havilland DH9s, and in 1923 SNETA and the Belgian government began the national airline Sabena.
LARA (Ligne Aerienne Roi Albert) began operationis in the Congo, connecting several cities on the Congo River by hydro-airplanes. In the same period there were efforts to link Belgium with its colony by air transport. The first flight was made in 1925 with a Handley-Page powered by 3 engines of 850 total horsepower (one Rolls Royce and two Siddely). The trip took 51 days for a total of only 75 hours and 25 minutes of flight. The same itinerary (8000 kilometers) was made in 1930 in eight days and nine hours and 25 minutes on a Breget XIX. Regular flights were made from 1935 on with a Fokker F VII (four days with six passengers) and later with a Savoia-Marchetti S93 (three days with eight passengers)
In parallel with the air transport was the development of the aeronautical industry. SABCA's first project was a small aeroplane called the Sabca J1, which was powered by the engine of a FN motorcycle. The company also constructed "Sabca" 1500 with a 200 HP engine and some gliders. It later assembled the Handley-Page, Fokker F VII, and the Savoia-Marchetti used by Sabena.
The Avions Fairey factory was created in 1931 and began building 83 Filefly airplanes for the Belgian army. They were later replaced by the Fox II M, designed by Belgian engineer Marcel Lobelle, who also conceived the Swordfish. In 1939 the company received an order for 80 Hurricanes, but it could not finish them before hostilities started.
Originally provided to AIAA for its Evolution of Flight Campaign, 2003.
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