“Huh!” He said. “I never would have thought that would fit in there…”
A ground-hugging silver Morane-Saulnier A.1. monoplane whooshed by us between a pair of telephone poles at a small aerodrome outside Paris.
“Who could?” I said to Johnnie Connelly, a reporter I knew who freelanced for the New York Herald. “As far as they know, no one’s ever done it before.”
“And those poles are supposed to represent the opening beneath the Arc?” he asked.
“Yep, width-wise. But these measurements have never been right to begin with,” I said. “Some of these guys like Monsieur Morane, who designed this airplane, say it should be about 17 meters. The pilot, Navarre, he insists it’s about twelve and a half. A friend back in the States studied architecture in Paris. One of his professeurs gave him the assignment to make measurements, real and estimated, on most of the monuments in the city. The Arc was one of them. Navarre’s about right, but it doesn’t matter to him because his wingspan is eight and a half meters. And, like I said…he’s crazy.”
“So he has some room to spare?” Johnnie said.
“Yeah, if he was driving that Hispano-Suiza roadster he ran that Paris gendarme over with. But with a fast one-winger like this bullet? Hooo-weee, you’d better be right on the button in three dimensions, brother.”
“So you think I can talk to Navarre? This sounds pretty ballsy, especially if the authorities don’t know about it,” Johnnie said.
The popping sound of a spitting rotary aircraft engine throttling back broke up our conversation. It felt good to speak English again, even though I’d been living and fighting in France since 1917.
Johnnie and I’d become friends when he wrote a story about those of us Americans who chose to stay with the Aviation Militaire through the Lafayette Flying Corps and not join the United States Air Service when America entered the war. I may not have had many victories—just three confirmed, though I know I had five more, c’est la guerre—but I knew an amateur operation when I saw it. So I stayed with my last French Escadrille, Spa 157.
I’d talked to guys like Frank Baylies, God rest his soul, and Ted Parsons and a bunch of other guys who came to France through the Foreign Legion and the so-called Lafayette Flying Corps of Americans in French escadrilles.
“So how’d you get to know Navarre? He’s a legend they say.” Johnnie said.
“Well, my first squadron assignment was serving with his old Escadrille Number 67. By the time I arrived, though, he’d been taken out of the air because of wounds and a head injury.”
“Yeah, Jean Marie Dominique Navarre, La Sentinelle de Verdun, the Sentinel of Verdun, one of the most beloved French aviators to survive the war. Put in an asylum for a few weeks because he went a little off his nut,” I said.
I ran into Johnnie in Paris in late June, so he hadn’t heard about the great plan.
“Here’s the deal. Once the Germans quit at Versailles, the French government needs to put on a big display of patriotic élan to help restore some of the national spirit lost since ‘14. France may have won the War, but it lost a lot of its men to the guns and Huns along that snaking, suppurating wound of the front.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. Mutinies in the trenches, minor riots in Paris,” Johnnie said. “So what’s that got to do with…” he ducked and placed his hands over his ears as Navarre made another pass between the poles at about 120 miles per hour. “He is crazy, isn’t he?”
“So, this month, they’re going to hold a grand display and parade along the Champs Élysées, past the Arc de Triomphe. Representatives of all of France’s armed forces will march, except for what passes for its remaining cavalry and some officers. Those guys get to ride what horseflesh is still left standing or uneaten after the Armistice,” I said.
“Even you flyboys marching?”
“Yep. You’d think we’d get to fly over the crowd in formation? No, we have to march, too, like the rest of the trench-footed poilus. There’s a bit of airborne ego involved.”
“And, from what I hear, Navarre has one of the biggest.”
“Yeah. So here’s what happened. A bunch of French pilots, myself included even though I’m just a Reb from Georgia, gathered at the Fouquet cafe bar to discuss this ‘affront’ to our service and station. After too long a time, too many arguments and definitely too much brandy, the big shots, the ones with the most hardware on their chests, elected to stage a dramatic protest by doing what you see Navarre practicing,” I said.
“Why Navarre?” Johnnie asked.
“Oh, I don’t know. He’s still alive for one thing, instead of flying with the angels like their beloved Guynemer. And Nungesser, the people’s fighter? He’s still limping around after his last crash. He’s the one suggested his great friend and mentor, Navarre. Plus, I think he feels he’s got something to prove.”
The Morane made another swing around the airfield and glided to a landing so both aircraft and hero could get more fuel.
“Think I can go talk to him?” Johnnie asked.
“Sure, you can try. He’s still a prickly bastard. Always was even before he got conked on his noggin. Really loved his hero status. Worked it like a charm in the cafes and on the mademoiselles. Hell, he’s still only 23,” I said as we walked to where the Morane rolled to a stop.
You could feel the heat coming off the engine as the pilot dropped over the cockpit coaming to the ground. You could feel the heat coming off him, too.
“Non, non, non,” we could hear him yelling at his crew and then turned on the guys in charge of the practice. He waved his hand from one pole to the other and back again and then counted on his gloved fingers. At that point, he stalked toward us with a glower that was setting back Franco-American amity to pre-1763 levels.
“Jean, s’il vous plaît. Pourriez-vous parler à un ami du journal américain?” I asked, smiling my most charmingly southern of southern charm smiles.
“Non!” was all he said, pulling off the silk stocking he wore over his pomaded coif rather than a standard leather helmet.
“Sorry, Johnnie. Maybe if we each were holding a bottle of Laberdolive Armagnac he might slow down a mite. But it looks like he’s got the bit in his teeth today.”
“Oh, well. Nothing ventured…” Johnnie said.
“Look,” I said. “They’re hanging the telephone wires back up. I guess he wants to practice the “under the Arc” part, too, now.”
“Say, mate, you’re a pretty good pilot. What do you think of this stunt?”
“Me? Well, I think you’d better hope for a calm day with decent light. Trying something like this in twilight is practically asking for a funeral. Ol’ Nimmie Prince, the Oh-riginal Lafayette boy, was near broke in half when his Nieuport hit telephone wires while he was attempting a twilight landing.”
“Really?” Johnnie said, as he wet his finger and stuck into the air like he was hailing a cab in the city. “Wind’s picking up from the west. Did you say that no one’s ever flown under through the Arc? Ever?”
“Well, not exactly. The sainted Guynemer said it was too risky. And he’d take on four, five Fokkers all by his lonesome, so that’s pretty good authority. Roland Garros wouldn’t think of it either.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“Wait, here goes Navarre up again.”
Down the piste the Morane roared and lifted, like a silver hawk.
“Pretty little bird, ain’t she?” I said to Johnnie. “But I’d use a smaller plane. Maybe an old Nieuport Bébé. Slower, wings are only about seven and a half meters wide. Under the right circumstances, in that little kite, I know a few guys who could make that flight.”
“Like who? Could Navarre?”
We turned as the Morane banked and came toward the poles like a bat out of hell. At first, I felt the breeze on my face, the dust stinging my eyes. And then it switched to my right cheek.
“Wind’s shifting. He’d better give it some throttle and veer off to try it again,” I said, a lot louder than I had been talking.
We saw the Morane flutter a little, heard the throttle open up and then saw Navarre plow right ahead. His Morane lifted a little and the wing caught the wires. It was as if a rider had sawed on the reins and his mount slowed and reared. The Morane twisted in the wires, veered to the left and piled into a wall to the left.
“What the hell happened,” Johnnie said, breathless as we ran to the smoking silver bird.
“It was like I said. Too much airplane, too much wind, too bullet-proof a pilot.”
When we reached the aircraft, we could see the Sentinel of Verdun, the great hero of France, had lost his last fight, this time with technology, the wind and maybe his ego. Or maybe, in some strange way, he’d won. He’d triumphed over fear, doubt and unrealistic expectations.
Four days later, a well-known instructor pilot named Charles Godefroy flew beneath the Arc de Triomphe, much to the dismay of the General staff and much to the glee of we who fought in the air for France.
“He flew a smaller airplane, a biplane just as you suggested,” Johnnie said. He and I decided to watch the whole affair from his hotel window. It was bloody spectacular, just as I’d predicted. Just as I knew he’d come down the Avenue de la Grande Armée. Just as I remembered it when I won that bet with Putnam and Viallet I could do it late one afternoon in early ’17.
But that’s a story for another time, another bottle .
Catching up for some missed days’ stories for my Story-A-Day May effort. For this one, I was asked to write a story based on that first line up there: “Huh!” He said. “I never would have thought that would fit in there…”
As a World War One aviation aficionado, I remembered this brouhaha. I gave it a little fictional touch (and much too long a narrative) and came up with this draft story.