The Daring Mr. Moisant
The most celebrated American aviator of 1910 took up flying as an act of revenge.
- By Gavin Mortimer
- AirSpaceMag.com, December 30, 2010
Library of Congress
Trivia question: Why is the three-letter identifier for Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport “MSY” instead of “NOI” or something equally intuitive? No? It stands for Moisant Stock Yards, the name of the land upon which the airport was constructed. And who, you might wonder, was Moisant?
A century ago John Bevins Moisant was every bit as famous as Glenn Curtiss and the Wright boys—maybe more so, because the small, balding American was considered the world’s most daring aviator. His story appeared in comic books, his profile ran in women’s magazines, and scientific journals reported on his construction of an aluminum airplane, which had never been built. “Impossible,” cried the Wrights, who overlooked the fact that Moisant had always been a revolutionary.
John Moisant was born in Chicago in 1875, one of eight children and the youngest of four brothers. After the death of their parents the siblings moved to El Salvador and bought a coffee plantation. In 1907 the two elder brothers were arrested on charges of plotting to overthrow the country’s tyrannical president, Fernando Figueroa—charges cooked up after the Moisants refused to give bribes to the corrupt regime.
With the U.S. State Department refusing to intercede on his brothers’ behalf, John Moisant resolved to free them of his own accord, and, aided by neighboring Nicaragua, a bitter enemy of El Salvador, he acquired a gunboat and 300 soldiers. What ensued was one of the most daring attempts at regime change ever seen, but the insurgents were eventually put to flight by the Salvodoran army.
Figueroa put a price on John Moisant’s head and fixed a date for the execution of his brothers. This prompted the U.S. government to finally step in, and President Theodore Roosevelt warned of dire consequences if the Americans were killed. The brothers were soon released and the family, all except John, were allowed to return to their plantation.
Moisant went into banking in neighboring Guatemala, but President Figueroa was never far from his thoughts. In early 1909 Moisant read a newspaper article about the evolution of the airplane, and was struck by an idea: He would learn to fly, then return to Salvador to finish his revolution by air.
Moisant travelled to Europe and enrolled in a French aviation school, mastering the art of flying with astonishing ease. On August 17, 1910 he became the first aviator to cross the English Channel with a passenger, touching down in a field of oats six miles inland from the English coast. Standing beside the passenger [his French mechanic] and surrounded by impressed reporters, Moisant revealed that, “I took up flying as a hobby eight or nine months ago. This is the sixth time I have been in the air, and the machine I am using is the only one I have ever flown in.”
Moisant was lauded on both sides of the Channel, with the French newspaper France Patrie hailing his “energy, audacity and intrepidity.” The British in particular were fascinated by the American aviator, a man with “eyes of agate,” who was small in stature [he was 5 feet 3 inches] but big in heart. “One would expect that this journey of his across the Channel would knock his nerves up,” wrote the Westminster Gazette, “ but he maintains a calm equal to that of the Trafalgar Square lions.”