The crossing of the Alps: The heroic feat of the crossing of the Alps
On Friday, September 23rd, 1910, the weather forecasts from Simplon announced that although the northern slope was perfectly calm, great gusts of wind blew over the valley of Simplon. The reports also announced splendid weather over the Monscera pass and the Italian route. With these weather reports, there were very few chances that the two remaining competitors, Chavez and Weymann, would attempt to take off. On Thursday, Jorge Chavez had covered the route by land, to become more familiar with it, checking his notes and the maps he had sketched.
When he received the weather report, he considered the favorable weather conditions on the Italian side of the route and decided to make another observation trip to make sure that the forecasts provided by the land observers were accurate. During this trip, he noted that the wind in the Krumbach was strong, some 15 meters per second approximately and that, on the other hand, in the direction of the Monscera Pass, according to the observation of his friend, aviator Louis Paulhan, the wind was favorablly calm for the flight. With this information, Chavez decided to begin his quest. Thus, he returned rapidly to Brigue to climb into his Bleriot plane and attempt to conquer the Alps.
Press here to view the animation of the flight path taken by Jorge Chavez over the Alps.
Chavez jumped out of the car and went to his hangar. His fitter Maseran towed his Bleriot XI monoplane to the top of the runway while he donned his flight gear, leather protection helmet and glasses. When his plane was ready, Chavez inspected it, checked the cockpit and ordered Mazeran to start the engine by turning the blade. He then raised his arms and gave the departure signal. Chavez’s assistants let go and the fragile monoplane rolled smoothly down the runway. The plane gained speed, lifted its tail off the ground, continued accelerating and at 13:29 hours, according to the report of Commissioner Arturo Mercanti, Chavez’s Bleriot took off from the Brigue field, leaving behind only the sound of its 50-horse power Gnome engine.
The plane gained altitude easily, and wound its way upward in spirals, over the city of Brigue and over the field, until the land observers located at the starting point lost sight of it.
Later, it was spotted as it approached Simplon, as it flew around the Staldhorn peak and then round the Shienhorn peak, flying to the right of the Simplon Hotel, some 300 meters above the summit. Once he crossed Simplon, Chavez flew over the Hospice field, leaving behind the last opportunity to make a landing. He flew over the Gathenhorn reefs, surrounded the Seehorn, entered the narrow gorge, between the East peak and Pioltone peak and emerged out into the Toce Valley. Then, he passed over Vegogna and appeared in the Piedmonte region.
Chavez approached the small town of Domodossola, the first stage of the flight from Brigue to Milan. The crowd that had gathered at the airfield greeted the heroic aviator. Jorge Chavez, the young Peruvian, had crossed the mountains; he had conquered the impressive and dreaded Alps, and he knew he was the first man to achieve this feat by plane. However, there was no time to celebrate, the flight continued. The Bleriot approached the Domodossola field to refuel and pursue the flight to Milan, the final destination of the competition. The clock struck 14:10 hours. A few more minutes and he would land. Chavez reduced the power of the engine and began the descent towards the Domodossola field, happy in the knowledge of his great achievement. After a 45-minute flight, at 14:14 hours and only 20 meters from the landing strip, catastrophe struck. The wings of the Bleriot XI partially broke and crumpled, causing the plane, which was already out of control, to crash. The engine embedded in the ground, the blade was destroyed and the pilot lay under the fuselage and wings.
A 23-year-old Peruvian had conquered the Alps, but the courageous young pilot was now lying among the wreckage of the Bleriot XI plane, alive, but badly injured. Arthur Duray ran towards the site of the crash, accompanied by Dr Rondollini and Dr Robbiola. Given that he was unable to find the body of his friend, he started to move the parts of the plane. When he picked up one of the wings, he saw the pilot lying on his side, bleeding from the mouth and the men finally managed to free Jorge Chavez from the wreckage. Duray later states that Chavez was conscious, that he constantly called him by his name and complained about pain in both legs. The rescue team put a splint on both his legs, transferred him into a vehicle and headed to the San Biaggio Hospital in Domodossola.
The injured airman was accompanied by Giusseppe Borgnis, assistant doctor at the Domodossola hospital, by Doctor Pasini di Alfonsine, doctor of the organizer committee and by Rodolfo Attilio and Luigi Squarcia, both Red Cross members. When they arrived at the hospital, Doctor Alfonso Veggia, the Principal of the Hospital received them. Luigi Barzini, journalist of the Corriere della Sera Milan newspaper, friend of Chavez and Duray arrived a little later.
Airman Arthur Duray, loyal friend and tireless manager of Jorge Chavez, who had arrived at Domodossola to help him with the landing witnessed the unfortunate accident and told his version of the accident. His story is written below.
“The wings had surrendered at twenty meters from the ground. He descended perfectly, came down flying slowly with little restarts of the motor. All at once, crack, the wings broke off and refolded themselves behind; they closed like those of a dove. The machine crashed on its nose and then turned over on its back, breaking into pieces. There was nothing left: it is a mass of shapeless scrap; the steering wheel was cut away; the propeller was split and broken, an entire plank of the fuselage had disappeared, the undercarriage was unrecognizable. Think: he was lying under the broken machine with his face against the ground. He had not lost cognizance, he called me…. ¡My poor old friend! The same feat as Delagrange and Watcher
The machine was tired; it had struggled too much with the wind. It is terrible!
Arthur Duray picked up the barometer, which was broken, and realized that it had only worked when the Bleriot plane was descending to one thousand feet. From this, we can infer that Chavez could not have used it to guide him during the flight; he had just used visual aids to direct him. Duray said “Despite all of this, he has managed to cross”.
This is how Arturo Mercanti, commissioner of the race, narrated the accident suffered by Jorge Chavez on his arrival to Domodossola:
“We know that when he reached some ten meters above the ground, he turned on the engine to straighten the plane and land. In that moment, the wings of the plane flattened themselves and the airplane started to fall. Part Lumber 547 was discovered among the rubble of the plane. This was the union between the fuselage and the wing, which showed evident signs of a former breakdown, which had been carelessly repaired by using some nails… the crossing of the Alps was over, but the sensitivity of human beings fulfilled the tragic faith, maybe a result of the unconscious hands of an artisan in a hurry.”
This statement tells us that a part of the joint between the fuselage and the wing showed signs of a former breakdown, ill repaired, which could have caused problems in a very critical area of the plane. We must add that the Bleriot XI underwent strong turbulence and vibrations, besides the sudden changes in altitude due to the rising and descending air currents and cross winds in former flights, including the latter one. Probably this was the cause of the partial detachment of the wings and their folding behind, which made the plane lose air dynamics and making it impossible for the pilot to control it and finally causing it to crash with a front impact of approximately 45 degrees. Although Duray affirmed that the plane was totally destroyed, the pictures show that the wings were practically intact, but of course, folded towards the back of the fuselage. We can also see that the wheels were not deformed, and that the tail empennage and part of the back fuselage had not been affected.
On Friday September 23, after Chavez had fulfilled the feat of crossing the Alps, North American Charles Weymann took off from Brigue in his Farman bi-plane. He climbed above the field but was unable to reach the necessary altitude to cross the Alps, forcing him to descend and land on the Brigue air field. Thus, he cancelled the flight and abandoned the competition.
On Saturday September 24, 1910, the day after the great crossing of the Alps, Chavez received the visit of his friends Arthur Duray, Luigi Barzini and Joseph Christiaens. Duray, showed his friend a handful of documents, he told his friend Chavez that he was bringing him the latest telegrams that had come from all over the world. Chavez looked at his beloved friend and told him: “We must answer them”.
Multimedia Archive: The crossing of the Alps