In his last months, before Jorge Chávez died in September 1910, he made headlines across Europe during a frenetic summer of competitive flying. A gifted athlete and recent engineering graduate, Chávez—born to wealthy Peruvian parents in Paris—had just earned his international pilot’s license at age 23. He became interested in flying after attending the Great Aviation Week of Champagne in 1909, where he met French aviator Louis Paulhan. Paulhan encouraged the young Peruvian to attend the Farman Flight School at Mourmelon-le-Grand, and Chávez agreed to purchase a Farman biplane.
After soloing on February 10, Chávez took part in an exhaustive round of aviation meets throughout Europe. According to one account, he competed on 94 days in his first five months of flying that spring and summer. He soon exchanged the Farman for a Blériot XI, convinced that the monoplane would serve him better as he aimed ever higher and faster. In addition to impressing veteran pilots with his rapidly increasing skill, he began setting records—for example, establishing an altitude record of 5,405 feet in England.
When Italian promoter Arturo Mercanti offered a large purse to the first person to fly over the Alps, Chávez joined a group that originally numbered 13 fliers—though that number was quickly thinned to the only two airmen seen as qualified by contest officials. Competing with the Peruvian would be American Charles Weymann, in a Farman.
Bad weather delayed the contest for several days. When it finally cleared, Weymann attempted the Simplon Pass three times—but each time his carburetor iced up before he could achieve sufficient altitude to clear the heights. After Chávez took off near Brig, Switzerland, on the afternoon of September 23, onlookers saw him clinging desperately to his perch, buffeted by gusting winds. He held on, reaching the Italian side of the Alps 40 minutes later. But as Chávez neared the town of Domodossola, where he hoped to land, the Blériot’s wings suddenly collapsed, sending him earthward.
Jorge Chávez survived for four days, in great pain from two broken legs and internal injuries, before saying his last words, “Higher, always higher.” Today there are monuments to him in three nations: Switzerland, Italy and Peru, where his legacy includes Lima’s Jorge Chávez International Airport.
Originally published in the September 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.