The Daring Mr. Moisant

The most celebrated American aviator of 1910 took up flying as an act of revenge.

(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?

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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.”

Moisant’s popularity didn’t go unnoticed by Cortlandt Field Bishop, president of the Aero Club of America, who was in England signing up pilots to compete in the prestigious International Aviation Cup being held that fall at New York’s Belmont Park. In Moisant Bishop saw an American capable of challenging Europe’s finest aviators.

Moisant agreed to represent America, and arrived home on October 8 to be greeted by hordes of wellwishers. He was tailed by the press wherever he went, and though he refused to answer questions concerning El Salvador, he was happy to talk on all subjects aeronautical. Moisant used an interview with the New York Evening Sun to criticise those who saw no potential in the aircraft as a military weapon. “People talk of shooting at flying machines from the ground and warding off an attack in that way. We can travel seventy miles an hour, more than that soon, and can go up 5,000 feet or more. Can they hit us under those conditions?” Moisant also predicted that future generations of Americans “will use airplanes as we use automobiles.”

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