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American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics


    History of Flight from Around the World


    The history of French aviation began at the dawn of the 20th century. The French had been involved in human flight since 1783, when François Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis d'Arlandes flew over Paris in the first human flight in a hot air balloon. That same year, the scientist Jacques Alexandre Charles flew with Ainé Robert in the first hydrogen balloon flight. On 7 January 1785 Jean-Pierre Blanchard crossed the English Channel, from Dover to Calais, on board a hydrogen balloon. He was accompanied by John Jeffries, an American citizen, who was the first passenger to travel via air from the United Kingdom to France.

    The military usefulness of balloons quickly became apparent to the French. Late in 1870, when the Prussians besieged Paris, balloons allowed the military to stay in touch with authorities trying to organize resistance in the French provinces. Although the Paris airlift was not able to change the course of the military operations in the 1870-1871 war between France and Prussia, it had considerable impact on world opinion about aerostats.

    In 1784, just one year after the first flights of man-operated balloons, the French inventor G. Meusnier proposed a design for a streamlined propelled and steerable balloon. The design was a forerunner of dirigibles. The first flight of a dirigible was accomplished by another French pioneer, Henri Giffard, in September 1852 in an airship powered by a 3 HP steam-engine. In 1884, two French officers, Charles Renard and Arthur Krebs, made a five-mile trip aboard the dirigible, La France, powered by an electric motor.

    When internal combustion engines became available, Alberto Santos-Dumont, an inventive Brazilian living in Paris, understood their potential for powering dirigibles. He built simple and light ships and, in 1901, won the Deutsch de la Meurthe prize for the first flight from Saint-Cloud to the Eiffel Tower and back. The flight took less than 30 minutes.

    Then, in France, the transition from lighter-than-air balloons to aircraft took place. Col. Charles Renard and his assistant, Capt. Ferdinand Ferber, set up the first facility in the world for testing aircraft models as well as engines and propellers (1904) at Chalais-Meudon. Ferdinand Ferber designed and flew a motorized aircraft on 27 May 1905. It was the first flight in Europe of a perfectly stabilized and controlled plane. In October 1906, Santos-Dumont made the first official heavier-than-air powered flight in Europe. From that time on, aviation developed rapidly in France. Among the pioneers were the Voisin brothers, Henri Farman, Louis Blériot, and Robert Esnault.

    In 1909, other important aeronautical achievements took place in the country, including the first "Exposition internationale de locomotion aérienne" (now "International Aeronautical and Space Display"), which was held in in Paris for ground display; the first international aircraft-in-flight display, which was organized near Reims and included superb feats achieved by French and foreign pilots flying innovative aircraft; and a flight school subsidized by the government and set up by the Wright Brothers near Pau in the south of France.

    In 1910, Henri Fabre designed and flew the first seaplane over Berre Lake near Marseilles. That same year, Gustave Eiffel operated his first wind-tunnel near the Eiffel Tower and tested models up to 63 kilometers per hour.

    Another outstanding inventor was Robert Esnault-Pelterie, the pioneer of monoplanes powered by a radial engine with an odd number of cylinders. He also was the inventor of the control column, which allows immediate and instinctive reactions for roll and pitch control commands. He not only contributed to aviation development, he also is credited with long-term prospects in rocket propulsion and interplanetary trips.

    The aviation development in France during the early 1900s was spurred on by the Wright Brothers' historic flight in 1903, and by Wilbur Wright's displays in France in 1908. But preceeding the aviation pioneers of the 20th century, there was another French pioneer, Clément Ader. Born in 1841, Ader was an inventive engineer. He filed many patents in various fields, including land vehicles and telephone sets. But his main hobby was the observation of birds and bats. Ader built kites and small-scale gliders and measured, using dynamometers, the forces needed to keep them flying. He was the first engineer to know the value of lift and thrust needed for flying. In 1890, he made a short take-off aboard Eole, an airship powered by a steam engine. He managed to fly a distance of 50 meters at a height of a few decimeters.

    Ader's airships were very advanced for their time, but suffered from major handicaps, including a complex airframe with bat-like wings; a difficult aeroengine integration, owing to the use of a steam engine; and an ineffective control system without any roll command.

    Nevertheless, Ader must be recognized as the visionary prophet of aviation and its military applications in France. He gave the family name of "avions" to his aircraft and the name has been adopted by the French aeronautical community for designing propelled aeroplanes.

    Originally provided to AIAA for its Evolution of Flight Campaign, 2003.

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