Patrice Hammonnet, 38, a tall man with little round glasses, would like the world to know that aviation was born in France.
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"You've heard of Clément Ader, right?" he asks. Ader built the Eole, a steam-powered monoplane with wing-warping, and made a 160-foot, fairly uncontrolled, low-level flight in it on October 9, 1890, 13 years before the Wrights' first powered flights.
"And the word 'avion'-do you know where this comes from?" The Avion was the second aircraft Ader built and flew. " 'Avion' originally stood for 'appareil volant imitant l'ouiseau naturelle,' " he declares proudly. Roughly translated: a flying machine that imitates a bird's natural flight. "And that is French!"
Hammonnet is a member of the French aircraft restoration group Memorial Flight, and his perspective-that "France" and "aviation" are synonymous-is one shared by pretty much everyone at the Ferté Alais airshow, held in the tiny French village of Cerny. Every May since 1974, fans of European (especially French) aviation have gathered at the remote grass airfield here, about 40 miles south of Paris, for an airshow focused on antique aircraft.
For most Americans, aviation history begins with the Wright brothers. But the French have their own brothers: Joseph and Jacques Montgolfier, who in 1783 sent two people off on the world's first manned flight: a seven-mile trip in a hot-air balloon. Ever since, the French have been ardently devoted to their nation's aviation history.
The Wrights' 1903 flights only ignited the imaginations of the French, who had been developing heavier-than-air craft for years. In the early 1900s, a number of French designers threw their hats in the ring-brothers Gabriel and Charles Voisin, Alberto Santos-Dumont, and Armand Deperdussin, to name a few-with results ranging from moderate success to breaking up over (and in) the Seine.
Largely a tribute to French aviation, the Ferté Alais airshow (named after a nearby town) was started by local pilot Jean-Baptiste Salis, who died in 1967. His family, together with other members of the Jean-Baptiste Salis Association, manage the airfield, and used it to stage the airshow itself. In 1997, French publishing giant Larivière took over management of the show (the Salis association continues to contribute pilots, aircraft, and acts). Since then, the entry fee has soared to 26 Euros-about $31 per person-which angers the traditionalists. Among them is Memorial Flight, an organization of 30 volunteers who restore vintage airplanes to flying condition. Though the group rehabilitates its antiques in a hangar adjacent to the Musée de l'Air at Le Bourget airport, just north of Paris, they hangar their completed craft at the Cerny Aerodrome.
Today is the day before the 2005 show opens to the public. The members of Memorial Flight tow their meticulously restored birds out to the runway. There's a Blériot XI 2, the same type in which Louis Blériot made the first aerial crossing of the English Channel, in 1909; a Royal Aircraft Factory SE5a, which was, along with the Sopwith Camel, the most successful British fighter of World War I; a Fokker DR-I tri-wing, the type made famous by World War I ace Manfred von Richthofen-the Red Baron; and a Morane-Saulnier AI type XXIX, a French aircraft that saw little combat in World War I but afterward became a popular trainer. They are all small-under 2,000 pounds-with engines capable of 80 to 200 horsepower and top speeds ranging from about 70 to 140 mph. Today the sky is low overcast and the windsock waves lazily, indicating a mild wind-perfect for getting and keeping these lightweight, modestly powered old airplanes aloft.
One of the airplanes remaining in the hangar is Memorial Flight's 1918 SPAD XIII. "Preparing the SPAD to fly is like tuning a piano," says Arnaud Mars, 31, who works full time at the Musée de l'Air, in addition to volunteering as a Memorial Flight restorer. "All the cables have to be strung and tightened perfectly in order for the SPAD to fly." Today there's no time, so the SPAD-the oldest XIII in the world and the only one still flying-stays in the hangar.
After running through the systems on his airplane, each pilot signals to the person standing at the propeller to give it a whirl. There's a marvelous sound the engine on a very old airplane makes as it "catches," then roars to life.