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French aircraft designers leapt headlong into the future before World War I.

By Walter J. Boyne

It is wonderful to find a book that you have always wanted but could never locate, and even better to find it beautifully executed. For years I have been intrigued by fleeting glimpses of the pre-World War I Paris airshows, great gilded affairs of beautiful gossamer aircraft, each one possessed of some unusual aerodynamic feature. Until now, coverage of these aircraft has been limited to a few photographs.

To my knowledge, no one has ever before attempted to capture in book form the grandeur and sweep of the great aviation movement in France before World War I. Certainly no one has done it with the meticulous care, scholarly knowledge and special insight that author Leonard E. Opdycke has shown in his fine new book French Aeroplanes Before the Great War (Schiffer Military History, Atglen, Pa., 1999, $59.99). Known as Leo to his many friends who have benefited from his stewardship of two journals, WWI Aero and Skyways, Opdycke brings to his writing the special joy of the aviation aficionado–someone for whom nothing but the truth will suffice, but one who is as sensitive to the sculptural artistry of the airplanes as he is to their flying qualities (or lack of same).

In reading French Aeroplanes one is forcefully reminded of the bitter blow France suffered when it at last acknowledged that two previously unknown Americans were actually the first to fly. The claims of the Wright brothers had been derided, and many loyal Frenchmen never acknowledged their primacy even after the dazzling display put on by Wilbur at Le Mans in 1908. To this day, there are those who will argue that the honor of having made the first flight (with the definition of “first flight” receiving some modification) belongs to a Frenchman, Clément Ader.

The reaction is natural. Having been the first to fly, with the Montgolfier brothers’ balloons, the entire nation expected, as a natural right, to be the first in powered flight. French reaction to the news that it was not first was almost as fervent as if the country had been invaded. After 1908, everyone in France wished to restore France’s aviation leadership, and in the years between Le Mans and World War I, many gallant Gallic pioneers did exactly that.

Opdycke begins his story in the mythic past, covering the early inventors whose concepts of flight served more as inspiration for those who followed than as practical ideas. There were some who clearly saw the future, however, including Alphonse Penaud, whose ideas extended to the creation of the very first rubber-band-powered model, and whose patent described a monoplane with a retract-able undercarriage.

Included are 263 fact- and photo-filled pages detailing, in alphabetical order, the approximately 700 individuals who built, designed, flew or financed aircraft. Opdycke’s extensive research at the wonderful Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace at Le Bourget, in Paris, yielded many excellent and rare photos. These were supplemented by images from his own collection and from other sources. Most of the photos are sharp, but a few of the rarer aircraft are not, and some that have been taken from publications have suffered in the process. The majority, I suspect, will not have been seen by most of us.

Those who know Opdycke realize that he would never be guilty of that most heinous historical crime, hagiography, and can be sure that he tells the stories of the great French pioneers such as Clément Ader, Louis Blériot, Louis Breguet, Henri Fabre and others in a straightforward manner. If there is a fault to be found, it is that he often gives only brief descriptions of their post-1914 careers, when many of them really came into their full powers. The title of the book and space limitations precluded this, but one hungers to learn what happened later to Albessard, René Arnoux, Léon Levavasseur, Edmond de Marçay and their fellow geniuses.

An encyclopedia (Opdycke modestly refers to it as a catalog) like this is not something to be read at one sitting, but rather to be dipped into periodically. In doing so, the tremendous vitality of French aviation becomes apparent in the wide variety of airplane types and in the many designs that so clearly forecast the future.

Many readers will find that the most interesting aspect of this book is the very modern features that were found in so many of the aircraft. It is as if the French pioneers were not content merely with flying–they wished to leap headlong into the future, incorporating advanced concepts in some elements of their aircraft. Following are an even dozen of the more tantalizing examples:

The Alvarez et de Condé armored amphibian proposal featured an auxiliary power unit–not seen generally until the 1940s and later.

Arnoux designs featured a tailless configuration, sort of a “flying wing.” The later Arnoux designs were stable enough to be contenders in close-course racing.

The D’Artois used a mid-mounted engine, a long drive shaft and a propeller mounted at the tail, as did the Borel Torpille. Modern examples of that arrangement include the Douglas XB-42 and the Waco Aristocraft.

René Bertrand anticipated the Stipa-Caproni barrel fuselage. It would be interesting to know if the two designs had the same functional goals in mind.

The Coanda jet anticipated the Caproni-Campini. Opdycke gives Henri Coanda and his designs excellent photo coverage in this volume.

Anyone who admires the wing arrangement of the Beech Staggerwing (or the de Havilland DH-5) can find its antecedent in the Danton racing plane.

Those interested in buying a new Cirrus, with its built-in ballistic safety parachute, will probably also be interested in examining the Gangler monoplane, which promised the same degree of safety but by different means.

Perhaps you are accustomed to traveling first class, and enjoy the sleeping accommodations now found on Virgin Airways and Lufthansa. Check out the hammock provided in the Koechlin No. 1.

If you have tested your mettle with a jet-powered gyrocopter, or even thought about it, then you have to examine the Papin-Rouilly single-rotor, jet-tip helicopter.

On the other hand, if you flew Boeing B-47 Stratojets, you will be interested in the bicycle-tip gear arrangement of Robert Esnault-Pelterie’s REP.

Convair B-58 pilots–and anyone who has made paper airplanes–will admire the straightforward delta shape of the Roche et Laborde. It is actually a double delta, forecasting the Saab Draken.

Private pilots who have flown the Cessna Skymaster, or former military Cessna O-2 pilots, would find the Canton et Unné engine layout familiar.

Not all these ideas worked, nor did all–or perhaps even most–of the aircraft illustrated in the book ever fly. The important thing is that they signaled what might be done, and in almost every instance was done, in the future. Opdycke is comprehensive, however, and he includes a good sampling of aircraft designs that never could have flown. Oddly enough, even those have been repeated by later inventors, with the same lack of success. Among the nonstarters one can find multiple wings, transverse wings, circular wings, drum wings, ornithopters, triplane gliders and much more.

One thing is certain: Most libraries, public or private, do not have one-tenth of the information on this important period of aviation that is provided by Opdycke’s book. Even if your aviation interests lie primarily in other areas, you will be amused and instructed by French Aeroplanes Before the Great War.