The Wright Brothers may have been first, but for a number of reasons within the first decade of flight the French leapt ahead of the Americans and their chief rival Glenn Curtis in technical innovation and the advancement of aviation. It was not really so surprising. In the early decades of the 20th Century French science and engineering led the world in many areas.
Perhaps one of the most important advancements in aviation was the development of a floatplane—an aircraft that could take off and land on water. Everyone knew that such a development was crucial in making air travel practical over long distances and commercially. Some had tried with disastrous results. Until Henri Fabre.
On March 28, 1910 Fabre, who had never before flown an airplane of any type, took off from the Étang de Berre, a tidal lagoon by the small port of Martigues northwest of Marseille near the Côte d'Azur, and successfully touched down on the water 1,500 feet later. Fabre made three more flights that day until the plane, dubbed the Fabre Hydravion, crashed with minor damage. By the end of the week Fabre was able to fly over three and a half miles.
Fabre, born on November 28, 1882 had the perfect combination of background and training to become the first to build and fly a seaplane. He was born into a prominent Marseille ship building company and educated at the Jesuit College there. Unlike the Wrights, Curtis and other American aviation pioneers who were basically tinkering mechanics, Fabre was a trained scientist and engineer. He immersed himself with everything that was known about aircraft and especially propeller design.
By 1906 he began to work on solving the challenges of building a floatplane. To do so, he had to make several innovations, especially the development of light, reliable pontoons. To create a light weight but strong frame, Fabre designed and patented the Fabre beam.
Fabre was assisted in the construction and testing of his aircraft by Marius Burdin, a former mechanic for Captain Ferdinand Ferber, the Army officer considered the father of French aviation, and by naval architect Léon Sebille.
Together this highly skilled team built a fragile looking buy deceptively sturdy monoplane with a frame and the leading edges of the single wing and two small foreplanes made of Fabre beams. The pilot sat on a bicycle seat with legs astride the top beam of the frame. A double-bladed Gnome Omega rotary 7-cylinder pusher engine provided the power. The whole contraption sat on three pontoons, one mounted below the bottom frame beam before the pilot, and two from the wings, all supported by strong guy wires.
Word of the successful flights soon got around and soon others interested in floatplane technology beat a path to Fabre’s door. Gabriel and Charles Voisin, proprietors of France’s first aircraft manufacturing company, bought several Fabre pontoons for use on their own Voisin Canard, a land based aircraft they converted for the French Navy. Glenn Curtis, known as the father of American Naval aviation also bough Fabre pontoons which he used for the first successful U.S. floatplane flight on January 26, 1911 at San Diego. Curtis soon adapted the Fabre design with modifications to create an amphibious Model D.
Fabre took the Hydravion to the prestigious Concours de Canots Automobiles de Monaco for a demonstration flight on April 12, 1911. This time mechanic Burdin was at the controls when he crashed and smashed the aircraft beyond repair.
Fabre never built another model. Instead he turned his attention to the manufacture of pontoon for others, the exploitation of the Fabre beam, and other engineering and business pursuits. He led a long and honored life and was still seen rowing on in the harbor of Marseilles as late as 1971. He died on June 30, 1983 at the age of 101, the last of the original aviation pioneers.
As for the Hydravion, its parts were salvaged after its last flight. Eventually it was re-assembled and restored. It is now on display at the Musée de l'Air in Paris.