It’s a quirk of history that Louis Blériot’s July 1909 crossing of the English Channel, a mere 22-mile hop, is much better known than a far more impressive flight that took place just over four years later, when another Frenchman, Roland Garros, crossed the Mediterranean Sea nonstop, flying from France to Tunisia in a Morane-Saulnier H monoplane. Garros’ flight took seven hours and 53 minutes—he supposedly had eight hours’ fuel aboard—and covered 470 miles. About 240 miles of the distance was admittedly flown over the islands of Corsica and Sardinia, but nobody had ever hazarded a flight across that much water behind so primitive an engine—an 80-hp, 9-cylinder Gnome rotary. Yet Garros later became far better known for installing deflectors on his propeller, which allowed a machine gun to be fired through it, and for having France’s most important tennis stadium named in his honor.
A group of largely young French volunteers, the Replic’Air Association, has amplified at least a bit of that neglected history. They built a near-replica of Garros’ Morane-Saulnier and, this past September 22, the 100th anniversary of his flight, sent the featherlight machine across the Med once more. (Their airplane is a Morane-Saulnier G, a two-seat version of the H. The group wants to be able to give rides to its members and supporters rather than letting the pilot have all the fun.) Yet even they weren’t sporty enough to do it behind a Gnome engine; they instead mounted a modern Australian Rotec 7-cylinder, 110-hp radial. Their replica also used modern materials where it made sense, and the project was created using the latest computer-aided techniques and tools, since the group has substantial support from France’s aerospace industry.
Nevertheless, the airframe was built exactly according to the original plans, which were used to create Catia 3D digitized documents so that now others can more easily build their own replicas. The fuselage and wings were made up of ash and spruce frames, with ribs tensioned by webs of piano wire and turnbuckles. The pilot relied on wing-warping for roll control, but then World War I Morane-Saulnier fighters little different from the Type H seemed to dogfight just fine with wing-warping. Indeed, Garros’ Morane-Saulnier L, with which he shot down three German aircraft during April 1915—marking the first combat use of a gun firing through the prop—can be considered the world’s first true fighter.