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The crossing of the Alps: The First Attempt to Cross the Alps

chavezAfter sending this notice to the commissioners of the race, Chavez, Duray and his fitter, Mazeran, carried out the necessary checks for the following day and then rested. The night was calm and the weather was fine on Monday morning, September 19th. Chavez and his team traveled to the airfield. The hangar assigned to Chavez, where the Peruvian flag flew, opened its doors at 5.45 and there stood the Bleriot XI monoplane. The plane was towed to the top of the runway and the young aviator carried out the last inspection of his aircraft wearing his special flight gear, including gloves, a leather helmet and flight glasses. He jumped into the cockpit, carefully placing his barometer and his looms with maps, notes and drawings with the details he himself had sketched. Once everything was ready, he looked up and signaled to Mazeran, to start the engine. The whining of the engine alerted the public present at that early hour as well as the commissioners, who had attended that a take-off was imminent. Then, the aviator raised his hands as the departure signal and the Bleriot XI plane started the take off run. The monoplane took off at 06:16 hours and 10 seconds on Monday, September 19th, 1910. Thus, the first official departure had taken place from the Brigue airfield, as registered by the commissioners of the race.

sobrevolando el SimplonChavez’s Bleriot took off smoothly from the airfield and made his way upwards in spirals, reaching an altitude of 1,800 meters. At 2,000 meters he passed by the Aletsch peak, where he felt strong wind currents. When he reached an altitude of 2,200 meters, already over Simplon, the 50 HP Gnome engine was working well. In order to avoid some clouds, he ascended to 2,500 meters, but found himself shrouded in black clouds, battling strong winds that shook the fragile Bleriot. The Bleriot was at the mercy of the wind and the young pilot was forced to cling to the controls, as there were no safety belts in his plane. Eventually, Jorge Chavez escaped the whirlwind that engulfed the plane and began a rapid descent to return to the airfield in Brigue.

After this first attempt to cross the Alps, Jorge Chavez told his friend Joseph Christiaens: “Giving your life for nothing would be stupid. Giving your life to win, is beautiful”. These extraordinary words came from a person who had a clear concept of heroism. Chavez knew perfectly well that he faced serious dangers but this did not prevent the daring aviator from undertaking the glorious feat of crossing the Alps.

Jorge Chavez told Arturo Mercanti, commissioner of the race, all the details about his first attempt to cross the Alps on September 19, 1910:

“I departed this morning based on the information that Simplon showed good weather conditions. From the weather dispatches I knew perfectly well that in Italy the weather was awful. I was thinking about landing on Simplon if the weather prevented me from continuing, and I would restart my flight that same night or as soon as the conditions had allowed me, following the rules of the competition.

The climb was in spirals, as you surely saw, it was fast. Everything was going perfectly well. During the first 1800 meters, I did not feel a single current. When I reached 2000 meters, while passing next to the great ice mass of Aletsch –you must have had the feeling that I was flying on top of it - I started to feel strong gusts of wind. I continued to work with the pedals to reach at least 2200 meters. When I got there, I crossed the scenario in front of me and flew to the Simplon pass, crossing the Tunnetsch peak. Over the Rhone valley there was a strong current. If a balloon had been launched, I would have been warned in time. This forced me to be very aware not to lose balance and started climbing as high as possible.

The engine was working perfectly well at 2200 meters. Given that we had protected the pipelines, they did not clog, as for me, my special flight gear kept me warm.

Flying over the spur, I saw the hospice of Simplon just for a moment, for some clouds covered the place. I wanted to fly over the upper part of this vapor mass and I gradually reached 2500 meters. When I got there, I thought that I would be able to cross over those clouds as I had done in the pass. I saw many black clouds heading towards me, pushed by an extremely violent wind. This wind threw me some 60 meters down, and I must confess to you that I had to grab the throttle with all my strength to avoid falling off the plane. Then the current swept me upwards, against the Kaltwasser peak. Then, wrapped in a terrible wind whirl, I lost control of the plane. My Bleriot was just a toy, which went up and down upon the mercy of the wind. I thought I was lost. However, in a desperate attempt, I managed to turn left and exit the fatal wind whirl. You already know the rest.

I have deciced not to trust the dispathes of professor Maurer or of any of his men. When your life depends on it, it is insane to act the way they did. I will place Christiaens on Simplon; he will tell me if the pass and the valley have the conditions to perform the flight because this morning’s attempt has convinced me that the crossing of the Alps is perfectly feasible. It is a question of knowing the most adequate moment to do so.

Anyway, I will leave tomorrow morning. I’ve made up my mind.”

The decision made by Chavez, which he informed Arturo Mercanti, had to be postponed until September 23, given that the days that followed the first attempt presented bad weather throughout the route and forced the pilots to cancel all the flight schedules for the crossing of the Alps. Only Weymann made some test flights on board of his Farman bi-plane on the 19, 20 and 22, although these were very short flights for he faced many difficulties to gain altitude. By then, only two pilots remained in the competition: Peruvian Jorge Chavez and U.S. citizen Charles Weymann. Airmen Vicente Wiencziers, Bartolome Cattaneo and Marcelo Paillette, who had only limited themselves to travel the route by land and to observe the weather conditions, decided not to pursue in their attempt and decided to quit the competition.

Now that we have reviewed the preparations for the competition, the altitude record attained by Jorge Chavez and his attempt to cross the Alps on September 19, 1910, we arrive to a point in time where the pages of the Aviation history book record a feat of great importance performed by a young 23 year-old Peruvian. At all times he showed great courage and an iron and decisive will when he decided to overfly the impressive Alps in a heavier than air machine and to open in this way an air route between Switzerland and Italy. The hazards of this journey were enormous. If we wanted to make a comparison between this deed and the risks of the crossing of the English Channel, we would dare to say that the passage of the Alps entailed much more peril due to the prevailing weather conditions throughout the route such as low temperatures, strong winds and great turbulence, besides the high peaks, steep rocky slopes and gullies that had to be surpassed, and which did not provide any chance to turn back or to perform an emergency landing. Let us see how this heroic feat of the crossing of the Alps turned out.

Multimedia Archive: The crossing of the Alps

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