WWI Ace Flies Under Arc de Triomphe

1919 Arc de Triomphe flight by Charles Godefroy.

1919 Arc de Triomphe flight by Charles Godefroy.

Flying a World War I plane through the famous Arc de Triomphe? Tres formidable!

I may not be the first guy to write this up (I’m not),  but the story certainly bears repeating.

When World War I ended, the French planned a victory parade on the Champs Élysées on July 14, 1919.

But, a problem arose when France’s High Command ordered its aviators to walk on foot rather than perform any flying duties – quite the insult to these brave people.

So a plan was devised by the aviators who selected one of their own – the Number One French flying ace Jean Navarre (born on August 8, 1895) – to fly a plane through the Arc de Triomphe.

WWI French ace, Jean Navarre.

WWI French ace, Jean Navarre.

Lt. Navarre, nicknamed the ‘Sentinel of Verdun’, was credited with 12 confirmed aerial victories and 15 unconfirmed ones. It was during his 12th kill on June 17, 1916, that Navarre was shot down, suffering severe head injuries from which he would never fully recover when the war ended on November 11, 1918. In fact, though he did not fly again after those injuries, he did return to active duty by 1918 – after two years of recovery.

So perhaps it was a bit of a surprise to bestow such an honor on Navarre… asking him to perform an aerial stunt so tricky…

“It’s crazy,” Robert Morane (co-designer of the Morane-Saulnier AI monoplane that Navarre would use in the stunt) warned him by pointing out the Arc’s inner walls were “not even 17 to 18 meters” apart.

“You are mistaken,” Navarre told him. “They are only 12.7 meters apart. My plane is 8.5 meters [wide]… I will succeed.”

Say what you will for Navarre, he was one brave man.

On July 10, 1919 at around 3PM, while practicing for the flight, Navarre flew his Morane-Saulnier AI parasol monoplane by attempted to fly under the wires and between telephone poles near a local aerodrome… and did it many times. But then he didn’t.

Depending on which forum you believe, newspapers said that Navarre gave his life trying to avoid a collision with less-experienced pilots. Wittnesses at the field said Navarre’s engine lost power at the critical moment of passing under the wires. And some other witnesses said he came in too high catching his wing on the wire. Others said he didn’t climb high enough and caught his landing gear on the wire.

One thing witnesses can agree on was that Navarre seemed to veer left, lose speed and the crash into a wall at the edge of a field and die.  He died at the age of 23.

Devastated but undeterred, the French pilots chose a replacement flier for the fly-over. This time they chose Charles Godefroy to fly under the Arc.

Charles Godefroy in 1919.

Charles Godefroy in 1919.

However… it also manta that Godefroy wouldn’t have any time to practice, so the French fliers decided to wait a little.

So… on August 7, 1919, three weeks after the parade, and under tremendous secrecy, Godefroy took off at 7:20AM from an airfield in Villacoublay in a Nieuport 11 Bébé biplane.

I’m sure many of you already know this, but the plane was called Bébé, which means ‘baby’, because it had a small wing span – 7.52 meters (24-feet eight-inches).

Flying to the Porte Maillot, and coming in from the west, he circled the Arc two times before beginning his historic run.

Flying along the Avenue de la Grande-Armée,  he gathered speed and drove the plane down and through the Arc.

He had to precise… whereby Navarre had mentioned that the width between the Arc was 12.7 meters wide, it was/is actually 14.5 meters (47-fet six inches) wide.

As he flew through the Arc, Godefroy actually flew over a street car that was passing through at that same moment causing its passengers who saw the plan dive low, to throw themselves to the ground, while other passerby’s ran away.

Check out the outstanding video of the flight through!

Reckless? You betcha!

According to an October 1919 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine, Godefroy shut off his plane’s motor and actually glided through the Arc before continuing on his way. I question that. Why would he take the risk of shutting down the engine and then have to cold-start it while flying? If he shut it down for safety reasons, the cold-start counters that. he may have let off the throttle, so the plane’s engine wasn’t screaming as he dove through the Arc, but I don’t believe he glided – he flew. Besides… look at the video… he pulls up and has climbing ability as he passes through!

Next Godefroy flew his monoplane to the Place de la Concorde and then returned back to his original airbase at Villacoublay.

Even though his mechanic came out and looked the bird’s engine, no one at the base knew what he had just succeeded in doing over the past half-hour flight.

For the record, one of the few people outside the French pilots who knew what was going to happen was Jaques Mortane, a journalist who filmed and photographed the flying circus.

Although newspaper articles ran stories on the daring flight, the actual showing of the film was banned by the Commissioner of Police.

And, although Godefroy’s name was kept out of the news articles and film, the secret was eventually blabbed. And while everyone in any sort of authority was unhappy with the stunt and feared copycats, out of respect to the French hero, Godefroy received a slap on the wrist with a warning not to do it again.

Perhaps more frightening for Godefroy, after his family found out about his tremendously risky, but totally awesome stunt, they made the poor guy give up flying.

And, perhaps feeling he could never top his air battle or stunt flying experiences, he agreed, and took the wine trade in Aubervillers, France. I guess he liked to get high any way possible.

He died at the age of 69, with the municipality of Soisy-sous-Montmorency naming a street after him and a memorial stone placed, which, if my French is any good (It’s not… so thank you Google Translate) is still there.

In 1981 and 1991, two other pilots shot their plane through the Arc.

About mreman47

Andrew was born in London, UK, raised in Toronto, Canada, and cavorted in Ohtawara, Japan for three years. He is married, has a son and a cat. He has over 35,000 comic books and a plethora of pioneer aviation-related tobacco and sports cards and likes to build LEGO dioramas. He has written and been an editor for various industrial magazines, has scripted comic books, ghost-written blogs for business sectors galore, and hates writing in the 3rd person. He also hates having to write this crap that no one will ever read. He works on his Pioneers Of Aviation - a cool blog on early fliers - even though it takes him so much time to do. He also wants to do more writing - for money, though. Help him out so he can stop talking in the 3rd person.
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