The Man Who Fell from the sky

Heroes of World War I, Jacques de Lesseps marked the beginnings of commercial aviation in Quebec. In 1926, he began to make aerial mapping of the Gaspé. This task starts a bold federal-provincial dispute that will lead to a tragic end.

by Jean-Marie Fallu

At the beginning of last century, France has a passion for "the airplane." In 1910, it is the world leader in this field and has built 800 units of 1300 existing in the world. Jacques de Lesseps, the youngest son of Viscount Ferdinand de Lesseps (French diplomat famous primarily as the builder of the Suez Canal, from 1859 to 1869, and instigator of the project to build the Panama Canal), is one of the pioneers of the air, such as Louis Bleriot, the Wright brothers and Roland Garros.

Jacques de Lesseps contact Louis Blériot in September 1909, so he learns to fly. The latter has just passed the first Channel crossing by plane two months ago. Lesseps will be the most brilliant student of Blériot: in December 1909, he became the first pilot to fly and land at night. In May 1910, he was the second - 10 months after Blériot - to cross the English Channel successfully. He participates in major air shows in Barcelona, Montreal, Toronto and New York.

Indeed, Montreal is the host in 1910 the second gathering global air (the first was held in Reims in the previous year). Twenty trains lead viewers to Aviation Week Montreal from June 27 to July 5, at the airfield of Lakeside, Pointe-Claire.Le Count Jacques de Lesseps, featured guest on the recommendation of Blériot, will not disappoint Montreal. Newspapers speak of his spectacular feats, its dizzying dives and full control of the aircraft. "It makes one shudder and gasp from the crowds and its dangerous dives is then cheered when at ground level, he puts his mechanical bird in a horizontal position and landed with the grace, the lightness of a pigeon." (La Presse, 27 June 1910) The triumph in passing over from Montreal to board the Scarab, the monoplane with which he had crossed the Channel and arrived in Montreal is that the day before. Parti de Valois, on the shores of Lake St. Louis, he goes to the Victoria Bridge, describes a circle around the town hall to greet the mayor, then flies over Mount Royal at an altitude of 600 m, traveling 58 km in 49 minutes.

The Mohawks of Kahnawake, who saw Lesseps fly over the river invited him to a ceremony where they coiffent of eagle feathers, symbolic and perform a dance called the honor Tehanerahontsowaner, which means "the head the great wings. "

Jacques de Lesseps is then reported to the Toronto Air Show, which opens July 9, becoming the first man to fly over the city. There he meets Grace Mackenzie (daughter of Sir William Mackenzie, president of the Canadian Northern Railway), whom he married in London the following year.

In October, he was the first to fly over the Statue of Liberty, her father had given to President Cleveland on behalf of the French government in 1886 to mark the centenary of the United States.

During the First World War, Count de Lesseps is a precursor of night flights. It delivers first night fighting against the attacking zeppelins Paris and performs 95 bombing missions at night - not to mention the photographic reconnaissance flights - against the railroads and chemical plants. He harvested eight citations for bravery, the Cross of Chevalier of the Legion of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross of the United States.

After the war, Lesseps contributes to the development of a new technique, aerial photography for the French airline (CAF), which specializes in this area and in photogrammetry is to say the preparation of maps from aerial photographs.

Honoré Mercier, Minister of Lands and Forests (this is not the prime minister from 1887 to 1891, but his son) want to do forest inventory Gaspé with a more efficient way as surveying, long and hard to train in this vast and rugged Gaspé, that Professor Coleman, who became president of the Royal Geographical Society of Canada, described in 1925 as a "wilderness without roads, inhabited only by wild beasts." Mercier is the minister's choice of CAF because of its good reputation in terms of aerial photography.

The photographic missions de Lesseps in Gaspésie take place during the summers 1926 and 1927. Director of operations and chief pilot, he is responsible to install a main seaplane seaplane base at Gaspé and secondary Val Brilliant, on the shores of Lake Matapédia. The choice of Gaspé Bay due to the quality of this body of water sheltered from the wind and its location, near the north coast and the Bay of Chaleur. The seaplane base includes a hangar, two planes of Franco-British Aviation, biplanes to three or four places. Two other seaplanes are used in 1927. The numbers include two pilots, an engineer and a photographer.

"Any time of day, the hum of aircraft leaving or arrival always excited the curiosity of those who lived further in the hills," wrote Father Alexander Dugré, SJ, staying in Gaspé. "The elegant machines rose water, took their rise and their direction Cloridorme or about Barachois, as they had to photograph the northern or southern Gaspé plateau. The roar back once done the work for the day, looked like the murmur of bees returning to the hive, the harvest done, and the hydro-planes were like flies burdened with the spoils when they slipped from the sky blue landing gently on the water that gushed. "(Annals of the Ursulines of Gaspé, vol. 1, 1925-1929, p. 243)

beginning, aerial photography only allowed to shoot panoramic oblique. Those performed by Jacques de Lesseps the coast used to produce postcards. Nearly 800 photographs of Gaspé villages will be printed in Paris in this form. The shots are made at an altitude of just over 3000 m. The photographer uses a store limited to 12 photographic plates of glass, so that two hours of mission he can count on up to eight stores and 96 plates. The forest inventory, he, is using a new process stereo.

In 1926 Lesseps performs more than 200 flight hours, photographing an area of 3,800 mi2 (9,800 km2). In 1927, 5,800 mi2 (15,000 km2). In total, the French company photographed over 31,000 mi2 (80,000 km2) of territory.

Lesseps, the first man to admire the Gaspe Peninsula from the air, can not resist the charm of the peninsula. He demonstrated in a letter to his friend the journalist Olivar Asselin: "You can not imagine the beautiful and moving performance that may be in the skies of Gaspé. Can be seen at high altitude, occurring off the coast of Gaspé Bay of Chaleur to the many and deep cuts, and northern, steeper and more regular. [.] What a wonderful vision also offers color contrast between the vast peninsula and the sea washes it: on one side, the green velvet and silky forests, artistically draped according to the whim of the mountains and valleys of the another, the blue sky, together with that of the Gulf under the dazzling sun. "(Jules Bélanger," From new about Jacques de Lesseps, "GASPÉSIE, vol. XXX, No. 1, March 1991, p. 6-13 ) Jacques de Lesseps took with him his four children in Gaspé: his son, Guy and Francis, aged 14 and 13, spend their time at the seaplane base, and two daughters, the eldest of Elizabeth and Catherine (Betty and Kiki ), entrusted to the care of the Ursulines.

But the turmoil not long to shake the mission of Lesseps. The federal government, claiming the exclusive jurisdiction of aerospace objects to that Québec has recourse to a foreign company. Quebec maintains an airline doing business in a province that is outside of it. Ottawa requires, among other things, that the FCA creates a Canadian subsidiary, and especially the drivers and engineers are British subjects! The FCA therefore based the French-Canadian Airline (CAFC). It calls for temporary certificates for its pilots, based on the international reputation of the chief pilot Jacques de Lesseps. But the federal government remains adamant: the Gaspé seaplane can not be operated without a federal license, pilots can fly without a Canadian license and to get one, you must be a British subject! The CAFC therefore offers an aviator Quebec Romeo Vachon. who refuses, finding the salary inadequate. No progress will be made, and under the authority of his client, the Province of Quebec, that works Lesseps.

the fall of 1926, the matter escalates into a real constitutional dispute. The Constitution of Canada, the Act of the British North America, of course, did not include anything about that in 1867, but the federal government does not want to let the provinces take the sector. In August 1927, officers from the RCMP and the CRA (Royal Canadian Air Force) are presented in Gaspé. Noting that the company does not meet federal regulations, they impose a fine of 25 dollars to one of the drivers and warn that future infractions will result in stiffer penalties. The CAFC was forced to cease operations. Quebec submits the dispute to the Supreme Court of Canada, in 1930, recognizes the authority of the provinces in the field of aviation. But the federal government appealed to the Legal Committee of the Privy Council in London, who in 1931 assigned exclusive jurisdiction in aeronautics.

This is the first battle, 50 years before the name, "people of the air"! The Montreal Daily Star of blends of the case and tries repeatedly to discredit Jacques de Lesseps in order to weaken the government and its minister Taschereau Honoré Mercier. Convened in Val Brilliant by Mercier, Lesseps would like to go there to defend his honor, despite adverse weather conditions. October 18, 1927, he took off from Gaspe to 13 h. A pilot Val Brilliant is trying to prevent it not to leave because of the fog that has fallen on Lake Matapédia, but the plane has taken off.

Around 15 pm, we hear the roar of the aircraft above the Val Brilliant, but the fog prevented a landing. It activates the siren of the mill, it is the bells of the church, it shines all night the powerful spotlights the company's railroad. In vain. Three days later, on October 21, there is a wing of the aircraft on the beach of Baie-des-Sables, near Matane, and the hull, almost intact, not far on the beach of Sainte-Félicité. Lesseps he attempted to land on the river?
"On October 23, we learned that the Count Jacques de Lesseps, [.] Left for a trip a few hours, had not yet returned after several days of absence, we read in the annals of the Ursulines of 1927 Gaspé. The growing concern among the population of Gaspé, very friendly to the pilot, they began research [.]. We scanned the coast of the peninsula, we asked the deep sea: the coast and the sea kept their secret.

No trace of the two unfortunate. [.] But one of the first day of December, the treacherous wave, tired of having tossed the body of the poor count for more than a month, came to reject it on the distant shores of Newfoundland. "(Annals Ursuline Gaspé, vol. 1, 1925-1929, p. 241-242) On December 5, the body of Jacques de Lesseps is indeed found on a beach on the west coast of Newfoundland. That of his mechanic, Theodor Chichenko, will never be found. According to his wishes, was buried in Gaspé Lesseps. The funeral will be held on December 14.

The CAFC will continue its photographic missions in Quebec until 1931. Its activities will be transferred in 1928 from Gaspe to Val Brilliant and Notre-Dame-du-Lac, and in 1929 in Sillery and north of Montreal. Jacques de Lesseps had quickly made many friends in Quebec: an underwriting committee was formed to erect a monument to him. Honoré Mercier was president, and the architect Ernest Cormier, secretary.

Contributed to various personalities, including journalist Olivar Asselin, a close friend of Lesseps. A sculpture by Henri Hébert representing "the man with the big wings" was opened in 1932, restored and reinstalled in front Gaspe Basin in 1988. That year, the two daughters of the count and two of the Ursulines, who had occupied them in 1927 attended the ceremony.


Ex-director of the Musée de la Gaspésie and GASPÉSIE magazine, Jean-Marie Fallu, historian and museum professional, directed since 1997 Heritage 1534, a business consultant in museum studies, heritage and cultural tourism. He is the author of the television series The Visit Heritage.

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