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Over the Alps

Georges Chavez's Tragic Victory
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Georges ChavezGeorges Chavez (1887-1910) was Peruvian in nationality, although he was born and lived in Paris. He was an able pilot and well-liked by his fellow aviators. In 1910 he was one of five pilots who took up the challenge of making a flight from Switzerland, through the Simplon Pass, to Milan in connection with an Aviation Meeting that was being held there. 

Two weeks previously, he had set a new altitude record of 2,652 m. (8,840 ft.) on his Blériot XI. He would need all the height he could get to make it safely through the Simplon Pass. To the West, the mountains towered to 13,000 ft. (3,900 m.) while at its peak the pass touched 6,600 ft. (2,000 m.) The total distance to Milan was 94 miles (151 km), but the rules of the competition allowed fliers to make the journey in stages. The first leg, through the mountains, would be 25 miles (40 km) long. In the late summer, a number of competitors gathered on the Swiss side of the pass at the town of Brig, where the railway to Italy disappeared into the Simplon Tunnel, to attempt the dangerous flight.

Several unsuccessful attempts were made by Chavez, and his rivals Weymann and Taddeoli, before the Peruvian made another attempt on 23 September 1910. The weather on the Swiss side of the pass was perfect with a clear blue sky and no wind at the take-off field. The smoke from a marker-fire at the mouth of the pass, which showed competitors the wind strength there, was also rising vertically. At 1:30 p.m.  Georges Chavez took off in his Blériot, made two great climbing circles of the town and headed into the pass. This time he successfully reached the Simplon Hospice, situated at the head of the pass. His plane passed over this refuge and began to descend. 

There was more wind on the Italian side, though, and Chavez was forced to fly down a steep ravine to the east, called the Gorges du Gondo, rather than carry on in the face of the wind. By going this way he was adding several miles to the journey. The black peaks towered above the tiny wooden monoplane as it passed between them. Its pilot pressed on in heroic isolation as he struggled with the controls to keep his plane level in the cold, turbulent mountain air. At times the Blériot would gain or drop up to 60 feet (20 m.) as it hit a particularly strong current. Occasionally it came within feet of the great rock faces. However, forty-one minutes after take off he was sighted by ecstatic spectators waiting on the landing field at Domodosola on the Italian side of the pass. He cut the engine and glided down to land. He had done it!

Georges Chavez in the Simplon Pass
Georges Chavez's Blériot dwarfed by the mountains: 23 September 1910

But tragedy struck when the Blériot was a mere 30 ft. (10 m.) from the ground. To the horror of the jubilant spectators, as Chavez was gliding in it suddenly plunged to earth. The pilot was gravely injured and taken to hospital, where he died four days later. What happened is uncertain. Some eye-witnesses claimed the Blériot had suffered structural failure. But it seems more likely that Chavez was so numbed with cold and fatigue that he let the aircraft lose airspeed and stall where there was no room for recovery. His dying words were reported to be "Arriba, siempre arriba" ('Higher, always higher'), which is now the motto of the Peruvian Air Force.

Georges Chavez's fatal crash
The crash site at Domodosola

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