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November 3, 2019

Flying Through the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, 1919

For the occasion of the victory parade on the Champs Élysées on 14 July 1919, marking the end of hostilities in World War I, the military command ordered the airmen to participate “on foot” – like the infantry. This was a provocation to the pilots, who regarded themselves as “heroes of the air”.

At a meeting in the Fouquet bar on the Champs Élysées, a group of aviators decided to address this affront by selecting one of them to fly through the Arc de Triomphe during the parade. The choice fell on Jean Navarre, who had 12 air victories and was considered to be an ace among the fighter pilots. However, Navarre was killed in a practice flight on 10 July. With 500 flying hours, Charles Godefroy volunteered for the task. With his close companion, the journalist Jacques Mortane, he inspected the Arc de Triomphe several times to examine the air route and the air currents; then he began to practice at the bridge over the Small Rhône at Miramas.

Charles Godefroy flying his plane, “Bébé” through the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, 1919. (Photo by Jacques Mortane)

On 7 August 1919, three weeks after the victory parade, under cover of secrecy and dressed in his warrant officer uniform, Charles Godefroy took off at 7:20 a.m. from the airfield of Villacoublay in a Nieuport 27 sesquiplane. He reached the Porte Maillot shortly thereafter. Coming from the west, he circled the Arc de Triomphe twice and began his approach along the Avenue de la Grande-Armée. He gathered speed and forced the plane down and through the Arc. He did not have much clearance – the width of the Arc is 14.50 m (47.6 ft), not much more than his aircraft’s wingspan of 8.21 m (26.9 ft). He passed at a low level over a tram in which passengers threw themselves to the ground, and many passers-by ran away frightened.

Godefroy then flew over the Place de la Concorde and returned to the airfield, where his mechanic checked over the engine. No one at the airfield had taken any notice of the flight, which had lasted half an hour.

When the story broke the next day (August 8, 1919), authorities were livid. The military and political leaders were quick to react. Their primary fear was that other pilots would attempt to repeat Godefroy’s feat — they were wrong, of course, because once it had been done, few others felt it would be worth the risk. Jacques Mortane’s movie cameras both worked perfectly and he had the film of a lifetime, yet when he approached the theaters, authorities learned of the film’s existence. They banned its showing, fearing that it might incite others.

Godefroy attempted to keep his participation secret, but eventually, he was found out. Nonetheless, to avoid a public flogging and trial, authorities only issued him a warning. He received no disciplinary action. Even if he was never punished, Godefroy would give up on flying permanently. He returned to his wine business at Aubervilliers and lived out the remainder of his life in relative anonymity.


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