It happened on an August 7 in Paris. In 1919, a few weeks after the victory parade on the Champs-Elysées marking the end of the First World War, a never-before-seen and historical event will fly across the Paris sky.
For the Military Parade on Bastille Day, pilots from the Air Forces are ordered to parade under the cheering of the Parisians, but only by foot, like infantry soldiers and gunners. For these aviators, WWI air heroes, this is the greatest affront. A group of surly aviators – gathered at the Fouquet's – decides to mark the occasion and show their dissatisfaction. As a sign of rebellion, they have decided one of them will fly through the Arc de Triomphe during the military parade.
Jean Navarre – one of the best pilots at this time – is chosen, but he kills himself during a training flight a few days before the event. It is then Charles Godefroy who is entrusted with the heavy task of achieving this spectacular figure, then considered as impossible by many aviators. “Whoever will try to go through will kill themselves”, Roland Garros even claimed.
After studying the architecture of the Arc de Triomphe, the ways they can get through and the draughts, as well as top secret several training flights through a bridge in South of France, the young French aviator is ready. He requisitions his journalist friend Jacques Mortane to film the event that will ultimately not take place on Bastille Day’s official parade, but a few weeks later, on August 7, 1919.
August 7, 1919 at 7:20a.m. Despite a bit of fog, Godefroy takes off from the Villacoublay airfield aboard a biplane plane, the Nieuport 11, a legendary model from the First World War nicknamed Baby because of its small size. After flying around the Arc de Triomphe twice, the aviator goes for it. Forced to fly at low altitude – the Arc de Triomphe vault being only 29-meter high – he narrowly avoids a tramway where passengers – scared to see a plane flying quick towards them – lay down in terror.
The task is not easy; the Nieuport 11 is 9-meter wide for a 14.50-meter wingspan only. Launched at about 150km/h (93.2mph), Godefroy achieves his spectacular passage through the Arc de Triomphe becoming the first aviator to have achieved this exploit.
The day after, Godefroy’s exploit is one the cover of every newspaper, and the air heroes’ honor is avenged. Arrested shortly after his flight, the young pilot is quickly freed thanks to a popular support movement, but his license is removed by the authorities. This spectacular trip in the Parisian sky was his last flight.
“I wanted to tell the French how unfairly treated the aviation has been on the day of the Victory parade, only giving them a tiny representation, buried in the parade of our glorious troops”, he stated in Petit Parisien newspaper.
Over 60 years after his exploit, on October 18, 1981, another aviator – fighter pilot Alain Marchand – also flew through the Arc de Triomphe aboard his plane.