My Airships/Chapter 12

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THIS brings me to the Deutsch prize of aerial navigation, offered in the spring of 1900, while I was navigating my "No. 3," and after I had on at least one occasion—all unknowing—steered over what was to be its exact course from the Eiffel Tower to the Seine at Bagatelle (see page 127).

This prize of 100,000 francs, founded by M. Deutsch (de la Meurthe), a member of the Paris Aéro Club, was to be awarded by the Scientific Commission of that organisation to the first dirigible balloon or air-ship that between 1st May and 1st October 1900, 1901, 1902, 1903, and 1904 should rise from the Parc d'Aerostation of the Aéro Club at St Cloud and, without touching ground and by its own self-contained means on board alone, describe a closed curve in such a way that the axis of the Eiffel Tower should be within the interior of the circuit, and return to the point of departure in the maximum time of half-an-hour. Should more than one accomplish the task in the same year the 100,000 francs were to be divided in proportion to the respective times.

The Aéro Club's Scientific Commission had been named expressly for the purpose of formulating these and such other conditions of the foundation as it might deem proper, and by reason of certain of them I had made no attempt to win the prize with my "Santos-Dumont, No. 4." The course from the Aéro Club's Pare d'Aerostation to the Eiffel Tower and return was 11 kilometres (nearly 7 miles), and this distance, plus the turning round the Tower, must be accomplished in thirty minutes. This meant in a perfect calm a necessary speed of 25 kilometres (15 miles) per hour for the straight stretches—a speed I could not be sure to maintain all the way in my "No. 4."

Another condition formulated by the Scientific Commission was that its members, who were to be the judges of all trials, must be notified twenty-four hours in advance of each attempt. Naturally, the operation of such a condition would be to nullify as much as possible all minute time calculations based either on a given rate of speed through perfect calm or such air current as might be prevailing twenty-four hours previous to the hour of trial. Though Paris is situated in a basin, surrounded on all sides by hills, its air currents are peculiarly variable, and brusque meteorological changes are extremely common.

I foresaw also that when a competitor had once committed the formal act of assembling a Scientific Commission on a slope of the River Seine so far away from Paris as St Cloud he would be under a kind of moral pressure to go on with his trial, no matter how the air currents might have increased, and no matter in what kind of weather—wet, dry, or simply humid—he might find himself.

Again, this moral pressure to go on with the trial against the aeronaut's better judgment must extend even to the event of an unlucky change in the state of the air-ship itself. One does not convoke a body of prominent personages to a distant riverside for nothing, yet in the twenty-four hours between notification and trial even a well-watched elongated balloon might well lose a little of its tautness unperceived. A previous day's preliminary trial might easily derange so uncertain an engine as the petroleum motor of the year 1900. And, finally, I saw that the competitor would be barred by common courtesy from convoking the Commission at the very hour most favourable for dirigible balloon experiments over Paris—the calm of the dawn. The duellist may call out his friends at that sacred hour, but not the air-ship captain.

In founding the Santos-Dumont prize with the 4000 francs awarded to me by the Aéro Club for my work in the year 1900 it will be observed that I made no such conditions by the way. I did not wish to complicate the trial by imposing a minimum velocity, the check of a special committee, or any limitation of time of trial during the day. I was sure that even under the widest conditions it would be a great deal to come back to the starting-point after having reached a post publicly pointed out in advance—a thing that was unheard of before the year 1901.

The conditions of the Santos-Dumont prize, therefore, left competitors free to choose the state of the air least unfavourable to them, as the calm of late evening or early morning. Nor would I inflict on them the possible surprises of a period of waiting between the convocation and the meeting of a Scientific Commission, itself in my eyes quite unnecessary in these days, when the army of newspaper reporters of a great capital is always ready to mobilise without notice, at any hour
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and spot, on the bare prospect of news. The newspaper men of Paris would be my Scientific Commission.

As I had excluded myself from trying for the Santos-Dumont prize I naturally wished to show that it would not be impossible to fulfil its conditions. My "No. 5"—composed of the enlarged balloon of the "No. 4" and the new keel, motor, and propeller already described—was now ready for trial. In it, on the first attempt, I fulfilled the conditions of my own prize foundation.

This was on July 12th, 1901, after a practice flight the day before. At 4.30 A.M. I steered my air-ship from the park of the Aéro Club at St Cloud to the Longchamps racecourse. I did not at that moment take time to ask permission of the Jockey Club, which, however, a few days later placed that admirable open space at my disposition. Ten times in succession I made the circuit of Longchamps, stopping each time at a point designed beforehand.

After these first evolutions, which altogether made up a distance of about 35 kilometres (22 miles), I set out for Puteaux, and after an excursion of about 3 kilometres (2 miles), done in nine minutes, I steered back again to Longchamps.

I was by this time so well satisfied with the dirigibility of my "No. 5" that I began looking for the Eiffel Tower. It had disappeared in the mists of the morning, but its direction was well known to me, so I steered for it as well as I might.

In ten minutes I had come within 200 metres (40 rods) of the Champ de Mars. At this moment one of the cords managing my rudder broke. It was absolutely necessary to repair it at once, and to repair it I must descend to earth. With perfect ease I pulled forward the guide rope, shifted my centre of gravity, and drove the airship diagonally downward, landing gently in the Trocadero Gardens. Good-natured workmen ran to me from all directions.

Did I need anything? they asked.

Yes; I needed a ladder. And in less time than it takes to write it a ladder was found and placed in position. While two of these discreet and intelligent volunteers held it I climbed some twenty rounds to its top, and was able to repair the damaged rudder connection.

I started off again, mounting diagonally to my chosen altitude, turned the Eiffel Tower in a wide curve, and returned to Longchamps in a
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straight course without further incident after a trip which, including the stop for repairs, had lasted one hour and six minutes. Then after a few minutes' conversation I took my flight back to the St Cloud Aerodrome, passing the Seine at an altitude of 200 metres (over 600 feet), and housing the still perfectly-inflated air-ship in its shed as though it were a simple automobile.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.

The author died in 1932, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.