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The History of Aviation in northern France

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The tiny part of the world consisting of the departments of Nord, Pas de Calais and a slice of northern Picardy has been a homeland of powered, manned flight since the start of its history. You would never tell as you pass through it though…

The Caudron Brothers of Picardy

In 1908 the American Wright brothers visited France to demonstrate the military advantages of their primitive ‘Wright Flyer’ machine, the first controllable powered aircraft, to the French army. The Wrightss demonstration flights came to the attention of two French brothers living in northern Picardy. Rene and Gaston Caudron worked on their father’s farm in the Somme basin but the brave new world of aviation grasped the imagination of the Caudron brothers. They designed and built an aircraft for themselves. Their skills developed and led to a factory and flying school. The rest is great French history.

They had no financial resources and no real equipment. They just had bags of enthusiasm, imagination and dogged tenacity and it was that which enabled them to complete their project. Their farmyard horse Luciole assisted with the early glider  launches but just  a year later they were using an engine and flying for 10km at a time. The Caudrons created a factory in the town of Rue, close to their home and farm. There they built the first G-3 and G-4 aircraft for the French military. They also established a civil flying school at Le Crotoy on the gently sloping beaches.

The Caudron brothers also had a factory in China, and produced aircraft under licence in several countries including Britain, by 1939. When WWII broke out, production ceased but the Caudrons left their mark on aviation history for ever.

Where to find out more: The tourist office at Rue, Picardy has a great exhibition dedicated to the Caudrons, entrance is free.

Louis Bleriot – the first to fly the Channel

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Born in the town of Cambrai, Nord in 1872, Bleriot created the first flyable, controlled monoplane which had one wing instead of two. The Bleriot XI was advanced for its day and when in 1909 the British Daily Mail newspaper offered £1000 to the first person to fly across the English Channel, making it the first international manned, powered flight – Bleriot took up the challenge.

On 25 July 1909 at 4.41 a.m. he set off from the beach near Sangatte, Calai, cheered on by a small crowd. Flying at a height of about 250 feet (76m), at 45 miles per hour in an open cockpit, he had no compass and intended to follow a French navy frigate to find the way.

Half way across a thick fog descended, Bleriot lost sight of the boat.  He pressed on and eventually spotted the English coast and the sight of a man appointed to steer him in with hand signals.

He crash landed near Dover and made aviation history.

Bob Lyons is an ex pilot turned travel writer.

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