Wills’s Aviation Card #24 – French Dirigible “Capazza”

24History Behind The Card: French Dirigible ‘Capazza’
Card #24 of 50, W.D.& H.O Wills, Aviation series 1910

  • Name: Louis Henri Capazza January 17, 1862-December 28 1928, born in Bastia, Corsica, France

Call it a flight of fancy.

Despite Wills’s tobacco card depicting it, the French dirigible ‘Capazza’ was never constructed.

Conceptualized by Jean-Louis Capazza, a respected aviation expert, Wills’s nonetheless believed that by the time it went to print or soon after, this lenticular-type dirigible would be flying.

The Wills’s card does note that the aircraft was ‘not yet completed’, but there is no evidence that an attempt was actually made to build it.

Capazza was a semi-professional balloonist born in Corsica.

In case you are like me, Corsica is an island in the Mediterranean Sea belonging to France (i knew that). It is located west of the Italian Peninsula, southeast of the French mainland (I didn’t know that).

He lived in Belgium in between 1892-1898[1] then emigrated to the USA in about 1920. He died on December 28, 1928 in Paris after contracting pneumonia in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

While he was a balloonist of some reknown, it’s the Ethiopia – that whole Africa-thing that really made his career.

Louis Henri Capazza - now that's the look of a serious aviator!

Louis Henri Capazza – now that’s the look of a berkut! See below.

His first balloon ascent was on November 14, 1886 above Bastia and Ajaccio on board his own balloon Gabizos. He made over 35 balloon flights during his lifetime.

He also like to jump out of his balloon.

His first balloon flight and para-descent (parachute) was made in 1892 from Villette, France – he had invented a type of parachute and made (survived) two jumps.

It was during one of those jumps, he used a unique balloon which utilized a large parachute in place of the traditional net. After launching, during the flight the balloon was ripped on purpose, allowing his parachute to perform a safe descent.

He was also a pilot of the airship Lebaudy in France – more on that below.

During a flight attempt in August 1892 at the Welsh Harp, England, the balloon slipped out of the net, and launched without him. The crowd turned into an angry mob, and tried to kill him.

Oh, those wacky mobs.

On November 14, 1899 he made the first balloon crossing of the Mediterranean Sea in his  “Gabizos” balloon with Alphonse Fondère. They from Marseille, France at 4.30AM and landed at 10AM Appietto, Corsica.

On a flight attempt on May 7, 1903 his balloon caught fire on inflation.

Despite his love-affair with aviation, he studied to be a professional P.Eng engineer, and worked as a traffic superintendent for French Railways. In 1883, he entered the Service of the Geological Survey to study the problems relating to the installation of the railway network of Corsica.

I would assume there were many.

I’m going to swipe directly from Wikipedia here:

“Noticed by Savorgnan de Brazza during its rise of 1886, Capazza became one of his best collaborators and was one of the founders of French Congo. He excelled in all his various endeavours – as a courageous explorer, administrator of territories, organizser of large business firms or banking, of mining railway companies and financial adviser in Morocco.
He was successively named member of the Council of the French Bank of Africa, then Superior council of the colonies and moreover administrator of the company Radio-France. He played even a certain diplomatic part, especially in 1911, at the time of the Franco-German disagreement in Morocco; according to Mr. François Berger, then secretary of the Commission of the Senate he deployed in this business “of marvellous qualities.” He also suggested exchanging a territory of Means-Congo against the German rights to Morocco and was thus at the origin of the treaty which avoided the war.”

Back to the aviation stuff.

It was while Capazza was working for the Lebaudy company as an engineer, that he got into a bit of trouble, which probably spoiled his reputation as the dirigible industry—which may be why the Capazza balloon was never built. This is just me guessing, however.

There is some speculation that following the 1908 crash of the ‘Clément-Bayard No.1’ just prior to it being delivered to Russia, blame was placed onto Capazza who was in charge of the project.

Now… since I can’t leave you hanging regarding the whole Clément-Bayard No.1 story, here’s some background information: Maison Clément-Bayard was an early automobile manufacturer who in 1908 contracted with the Société Astra des Constructions Aéronautiques—a French manufacturer of the Astra-Torres type airships—to construct a French military airship designated as the ‘Clément-Bayard No.1’.

Astra was asked to manufacture the envelope, while Maison Clément-Bayard built the gondola and engines.

The ‘Clément-Bayard No.1’ looked cylindrical like all other dirigibles built and had four large lobes at the rear of the balloon for directional stability but otherwise it looked nothing like the conceptual drawing of the Capazza on Wills’s card #24.

In 1909 after 29 successful test flights, including traveling 200-kilometers (125-miles) on a trip to break the national endurance and speed records, it was offered up for sale to the French Government for 500,000 French Francs, who subsequently turned it down as being too expensive.

It’s my guess that the French government was perhaps looking at the viability of heavier-than-air craft – aeroplanes, and so was less enthusiastic about spending money on the ‘older’ dirigible technology, despite the successful test flights it had performed.

Nonplussed, the ‘Clément-Bayard No.1’ was offered to Tsar Nicholas II who purchased it for the Russian Army. Oh, those Russians!

However, trouble occurred during a demonstration of the dirigible prior to delivery.

Clément-Bayard Airship No 1, The "Adjudant Vincenot" circa 1910. Caption from Popular Mechanics magazine 1910.

Clément-Bayard Airship No 1, The “Adjudant Vincenot” circa 1910. Caption from Popular Mechanics magazine 1910.

Demonstrating it in Paris to the Russians, pilot Louis Capazza flew it to a then-record height of 1,200-meters (4,000-feet) and then on a second attempt a few hours later, up to 1,550-meters (5,080-feet).

However, upon landing Capazza cut power to the engines before the ground crew had control thereby allowing a gust of wind to wrest it from them and push the dirigible into a copse of trees tearing the envelope before it sank in the nearby Seine River.

Ha! Can you imagine the look on the Russians’ face when that happened? I assume that Capazza landed in the drink, as well, but I can not confirm or deny.

Perhaps with a better deal in place, the dirigible was rescued, repaired and delivered to the Russians who renamed it ‘Berkut’, which might mean ‘scraps’, but my Russian is rusty.

Actually, a berkut is a golden eagle… a bird of prey, and as pretty cool name for an airship… though a big, bulky dirigible hardly inspires the same image of an eagle in flight.

The ‘Clément-Bayard No.1/Berkut’ was 56.25-meters (184-feet, 7-inches) long with a diameter of 10.58-meters (34.75-inches) and a volume of 3,500-cubic meters (126,600-cubic feet). The dirigible was powered by two Maison Clément-Bayard motors able to produce 115-horsepower each.

As for the Capazza… take a look at the Wills’s tobacco card at the top… a dirigible that was never built. Too bad… it looked great. Stupid wind.

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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4 Responses to Wills’s Aviation Card #24 – French Dirigible “Capazza”

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