Tuesday, March 28, 2023

The French Airman Who Took Off from Water, Set Back Down on It and Survived

                             Henri Fabré on the dock beside his invention.

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 viable.  Some had tried with disastrous results.  Until Henri Fabré.

On March 28, 1910 Fabré, 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 Marseilles near the Côte d’Azur, and successfully touched down on the water 1,500 feet later.  Fabré made three more flights that day until the plane, dubbed the Fabre Hydravion, crashed with minor damage.  By the end of the week Fabré was able to fly over three and a half miles.

Fabré in the air astride the top beam of the Fabre Hydravion.

Fabré, 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 Marseilles ship building family and educated at the Jesuit College there and then in engineering at the University of Marseilles.  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 float plane.  To do so, he had to make several innovations, especially the development of light, reliable pontoons.  To create a light weight but strong frame, Fabré designed and patented the Fabre beam—two girders joined by an internal system of rectangular struts, known as a warren truss. 

This enhanced photo illustrates the light weight but strong Fabre beams used in the wings and foreplane.

Fabré 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 in front 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 float plane technology beat a path to Fabré’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 bought Fabré pontoons which he used for the first successful U.S. float plane flight on January 26, 1911 at San Diego.  Curtis soon adapted the Fabré design with modifications to create an amphibious Model D.

Fabré 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.

Fabré never built another model.  Instead he turned his attention to the manufacture of pontoons 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.

This museum model of the Fabre Hydravion shows how fragile it appeared.  Note the Fabre beams used in the construction of the wing and foreplanes and the three pontoons.

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.

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