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British Industrial History

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Louis Paulhan

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December 1910. The Paulhan Biplane.

Isidore Auguste Marie Louis Paulhan, known as Louis Paulhan, (20 July 1883 Pézenas – 10 February 1963 Saint-Jean-de-Luz) was a French pilot who in 1910 flew "Le Canard", the world's first seaplane, designed by Henri Fabre.

Louis Paulhan's career began from making model aircraft. Stationed in Paris as a balloon pilot during his military service, he won a competition in which the first prize was to be a full-size construction of the winning design. His model was so complex that instead he was given a Voisin airframe. With the help of family and friends, he obtained an engine and taught himself to fly in 1908. He was issued with French pilot licence No.10.

Fairly quickly, he established himself as gifted aviator. Paulhan took part in many airshows, including Douai in July 1909, where he set new records for altitude (150m) and duration (1h 07m), covering 47 km, and Rheims, where he crashed. In Lyon, flying a Farman, he broke three records: Height (920 m), speed (20km in 19 minutes) and weight carried (a 73 kilo/160lb passenger).

In January 1910 Paulhan was invited to America to take part in airshows and competitions, at the Los Angeles International Air Meet. He arrived with two Blériot monoplanes and two Farman biplanes. The Wright Brothers, though not taking part in the event, were there with their lawyers to prevent Paulhan and Glenn Curtiss flying. The Wrights claimed that the ailerons on their aircraft infringed patents. Paulhan flew anyway, winning all of the prizes and $19,000. He set up a new altitude record (4,164 ft), beating his own previous record (1,900 ft), and a new endurance record (1hr 49mn 40sec). He gave William Randolph Hearst his first experience of flight. However, he seems to have let down William Boeing, who had been enthused by the new invention of the aeroplane.

While attending the first American Air Meet in Los Angeles, Boeing asked nearly every aviator for a ride, but no one said yes except Louis Paulhan. For three days Boeing waited, but on the 4th day he discovered Paulhan had already left the meet. Possibly, one of the biggest missed opportunities in Paulhan's life was the ride he never gave Boeing.

From Los Angeles, Paulhan moved on to give exhibitions in Salt Lake City, Utah, where the Deseret News headline announced that the "Air King is Here to Fly." He also appeared in New Orleans and made the first ever aeroplane flight in Texas.

On 17 February, a Federal judge ordered Paulhan to pay $25,000 for every paid display. Furious, he cancelled his American tour and went to New York to challenge the Wright brothers by giving public demonstration flights for free. The dispute rumbled on and in March an agreement was reached whereby he could continue to give flying exhibitions in his Farman biplane on condition that he pay a $6,000 a week bond, pending the outcome of the case. The affair threatened the planned international aviation meet to be hosted by the Aero Club of America for the Gordon Bennett trophy, won the previous year by Glenn Curtiss. According to Courtlandt Field Bishop, president of the Aero Club of America, all the leading foreign aviators had assured him that they would not appear in the country until the case was decided. If Paulhan won, they would compete; if he lost they did "not care to place themselves within the jurisdiction of American courts." Paulhan eventually left quietly for France.

The Wrights' patent case dragged on for many more years, involving Curtiss and many other pilots and manufacturers.

Returning to Europe, Paulhan continued his flying expolits. In April 1910, he won the £10,000 prize offered for flying from London to Manchester, a distance of 195miles. The prize had been offered in 1906 by the Daily Mail for the first pilot to fly from London to Manchester within 24 hours. The flight had to start and finish within five miles of the Daily Mail office in each city, with no more than two landings en route. In 1906 this would have seemed a safe bet — the best European fliers at that time could only stay aloft for seconds! Paulhan arrived in Manchester 12 hours after setting out from London, having spent 4 hours 12 minutes in the air and beating the British contender, Claude Grahame-White. There is a blue plaque on a house in Paulhan Road, Burnage, Manchester at the site of his winning landing.

Also in 1910, Paulhan was one of the first pilots to fly a seaplane, the Canard designed by Henri Fabre, and won £10,000 for the most flights taken in the year and helped to design triplanes for the French army.

In February 1912, he opened a seaplane flying school in Villefranche-sur-Mer before moving to Arcachon with Léo Neveu to take the first aerial photographs.

In World War I, Paulhan was mobilised as a fighter pilot. Decorated on the Serbian front, he was not only the most experienced but also the oldest aviator. In flight he was sometimes accompanied by a machine gunner or, it seems, by a mechanic carrying out repairs in flight.

Paulhan became a seaplane builder, building machines under licence from Curtiss. He worked at the construction of metal seaplanes with the engineer Pillard until the day when his only son, Rene, died on 10 May 1937, at the presentation of a fighter plane. He contributed to the manufacture of Dewoitine planes, but retired to St-Jean-de-Luz, which he rarely left before his death.

In 1960, Paulhan was invited by Air France to be one of the passengers on its inaugural non-stop flight from Paris to Los Angeles.

Louis Paulhan died on 10 February 1963. He is buried in his home town of Pézenas where a monument has been erected in commemoration.

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