The crossing of the Alps: The preparations
In April 1910, Arturo Mercanti proposed the crossing of the Alps as the main competition of the “Milan Air Circuit” meet, according to the recommendation of the Air Congress, which met in Paris in January of that same year. At the time when Arturo Mercanti was organizing this interesting air flight by, there were very few trained pilots with the conditions to face such a risky air challenge. Peruvian engineer and Airman Jorge Chavez had proven to be an outstanding pilot in the different air meets that had being held at the time. Let us recall that he had just started flying on February that year and that he had been a pilot for a very short time. At the beginning of 1910, the existing planes did not meet the necessary characteristics to fly over the Alps, for they would need to fly over 2 100 meters. Besides, they would need to fly at this altitude for a long time and face extremely strong winds in the area. Until then, aviators had only managed to reach altitudes of 1 290 meters, and the flight speed had not exceeded 80 kilometers per hour in relatively short courses, in addition to the fact that only in few occasions they had faced winds of over 30 kilometers per hour. To overcome the existing limitations, the organizers decided to motivate and encourage airmen, airplane designers and manufacturers, offering a significant and attractive prize for the crossing of the Alps race. In effect, the prize was set to 100 000 lire.
The sponsors of the competition chose two alternatives flight paths across the Alps. If the first route were chosen, the planes would have to climb to a high altitude and cross the Alps at their highest point. The alternative was to take off at a high point, fly over the mountain range and descend onto the plains of Italy. As the flight involved the perilous crossing of the Alps, it appeared logical to take a well-known route accessible by road. The Simplon Pass was selected, as it was the closest to Milan and the fastest route between France and Italy. It was also accessible by road, which would facilitate the organization of air navigation support over the Alps, thus significantly reducing costs. Once the flight path was decided upon, the starting point was established as Brigue (Switzerland) located at 870 meters above sea level and the finishing point would be in Milan (Italy). The aviators would fly down the Saltina and the Diveria Valley; pass the Simplon peak at an altitude of 2,008 meters, cross the Simplon Pass, at an altitude of 1,480 meters above sea level. Domodossola was chosen as the arrival town, at 277 meters above sea level. The pilots were then to continue through Toce, up to Lake Mayor, at 194 meters above sea level. Having crossed Lake Mayor at its narrowest point from Stressa to Laveno, the pilots would head towards their destination Milan, at 100 meters above sea level. The total flight would be about 150 kilometers.
The commissioners of the race stated, that pilots would be provided with facilities such as route signs, weather forecasts, communication systems and the necessary provisions for a search and rescue. In terms of route signs, red and white fabric strips were made, which were 20 to 30 meters in length and 5 to 8 meters wide. These were used to mark both the left and right sides of the flight path. In order to make sure they would withstand high winds and be visible from the air, they were placed on flat land, rooftops and at the bottom of hills. Regarding the weather forecasts, Switzerland and Italy decided to share the responsibility between them. The area between Brigue and Gondo was assigned to Switzerland, to professor Maurer, director of the Zurich Central Weather Station, and the area between Gondo and Milan was assigned to Italy, to professor Gamba, director of the Pavia Geophysical Observatory. In terms of communications, both civil and military technicians from Switzerland and Italy worked together to improve both telephone and telegraph infrastructure along the route. These were designated for the transmission of weather forecasts throughout the route; regarding cloud density and wind speed, as well as air traffic control following the take-off from Brigue. Regarding search and rescue operations, the commissioners’ board agreed that each participant would need a fast vehicle, capable of transporting the mechanics and any spare parts for the planes in case of an emergency landing. The commissioners would provide vehicles to follow and control the airplanes along the route. In order to provide assistance in case of an emergency landing or an accident, first aid posts were set up manned by specialized alpine aid staff from both Italy and Switzerland.
The preparations for the great race were underway. The Swiss and Italian committees coordinated to provide all the facilities for the crossing of the Alps. In the meantime, other European cities were holding important air competitions, where airplane designers and aviators showed the high degree of training they had attained to perform the most daring feats. Altitude competitions also began and new altitude records were set: In Reims, Jorge Chavez reached 1,150 meters and J. Armstrong Drexel, flying a Bleriot in the competition carried out in Lanark (Scotland), reached 2,052 meters dismissing Maurer’s hypothesis that the limit for human beings was 2,000 meters.
On August 18, 1910, Jorge Chavez had already considered participating in the Milan air competition, which challenged pilots to cross the Alps. Therefore, during his trip to Brigue, accompanied by his friend and manager Arthur, Jorge Chavez called the Italian committee requesting the presence of the route commissioners to study and travel the flight path by land. In his official report, Arturo Mercanti, states that Chavez arrived in Brigue, where he and Duray met with meteorology professor Cebria, from Italy and professor Maurer, from Switzerland. They studied the route in detail; the commissioners provided the drawings, maps and every note available. Mercanti later wrote that during the first conversations held with Chavez, the young pilot impressed the commissioners with his knowledge of the area. Once he completed the route by land, his advice was sought in order to improve preparations for the competition and he was invited to register as a competitor. However, before signing up and despite his great knowledge, Chavez wanted to make sure the attempt was feasible, as he intended on abandoning all other competitions to focus all his efforts exclusively on this competition and on the preparations required to cross the Alps. This shows that he intended to be well prepared to meet his objective, thus confirming what he had stated in Reims: “I want to do something useful in aviation.”
In the early hours of the following day, on August 19, 1910, they departed by car on a trip that enabled them to study the route from Domodossola to Milan; the mountains, plains, wind conditions and the possible landing spots, as well as the width of the passes and gorges. Jorge Chavez made detailed notes and comments on each aspect of the route.
On the morning of August 20, 1910 Jorge Chavez, accompanied by Arthur Duray, visited the offices of Arturo Mercanti and requested a registration form for the flight competition which he filled in and signed. After making the respective payment, he said.
“I’ve made up my mind. I have signed up for le Havre and Bordeaux, but I will not go. I will send a telegraph to Bleriot to get me a new plane ready. Instead of a wheel, I will add a pedal on the tail to brake in the landings and a crutch in the front, to prevent the plane from falling on its nose in case of an emergency landing”.
Thus, Jorge Chavez signed up as a participant for the crossing of the Alps competition, the most important competition in the Milan International Air Meet.
Later, Chavez told Arturo Mercanti:
“I have already telegraphed Louis Bleriot and have ordered a new plane. Bleriot should deliver me the monoplane on the morning of September 8”.
“On September 8, if the weather permits it, I will test the plane. I will beat the world altitude record. You will see the altitude record of the world over Paris. That night, I will send the monoplane to Brigue”.
Then he continued:
“You will have the kindness to help us send our cars and the three folds”.
Three folds were the necessary documents to cross the border without making any payments. He continued:
“Duray will take all the necessary parts to repair the plane in case of a breakdown; we will also need a fast car, to take the fitters and the parts. We will be in Brigue eight days before the start of the flights. We want to study the route in detail. We want to be very sure”.
Thus, he purchased the new Bleriot XI monoplane, which he used to beat the world altitude record and then used to cross the impressive Alps mountain range. The cost of the Bleriot XI plane was 50,000 francs, some 2,000 Peruvian pounds of that time, and was made in France by the aviator Louis Bleriot, who was also a renowned designer, project maker and constructor.
Multimedia Archive: The crossing of the Alps