Switzerland celebrates the 100th Anniversary of the First Trans-Alpine Aircraft Flight

Events, Hotels, Things to Do, What's New — By Sonja Holverson on October 6, 2010 at 11:30 am

There’s an important historical celebration in the tiny Swiss village called Ried-Brig situated on the lower Alpine slopes of the “Matterhorn side” of the Rhone River Valley which is bordered on both sides by the Swiss Alps in the Canton of Wallis. (And you thought that the Rhone River Valley was only in France? The source is in the Swiss Alps and it flows into Lake Geneva, passes through the city of Geneva before arriving in France were  it makes its long journey South down to the Mediterranean).  One hundred years ago this Autumn, in that modest Swiss village near the Simplon Pass at 7’000  feet flying altitude, Geo Chavez age 23, born in Paris in 1887 to wealthy Peruvian parents, became the first aviator to fly across the Alps in one of those new “flying machines”.

Geo Chavez: image courtesy of the Chavez Hotel

This was 7 years after the Wright brothers’ famous flight at the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk in the USA but the geography was quite different! Mountain flying had not been attempted right away yet a century ago and it is still dangerous today. However, during a contest organized during an air show in Reims, France sponsored by The Milan Air Club which offered a huge financial incentive (for that time) for a Trans Alpine flight prompted a rush of many pilots to enter. Chavez, a well educated engineer and highly athletic young man became involved in flying in Champagne, France where he was encouraged by a well known French aviator, Louis Paulhan.  Chavez bought his first aircraft in the beginning of 1910, entered flight school and agreed with Paulhan to participate in air competitions which were all the rage at the time (and still are, by the way). Chavez had only flown a few months but had already participated in more than 90 days of competition and had even set the world record for the highest flying altitude of 8 ‘700 feet at an air show in Paris just two weeks before the Trans Alpine competition. This was higher than the altitude he needed to gain for the crossing of the Simplon Pass but conditions were extremely different and the winds in the Alps are gusty and unpredictable. When he arrived at Reid-Brig for the Trans Alpine challenge he had only been flying for seven months of his life.

The masses of spectators arrived from all over including Italy in the tiny Swiss village of Reid-Brig to witness the men with their flying machines. Trains were packed with standing room only and even the freight and livestock cars carried excited passengers. The little village farmers were stunned with the invasion bit I could find no information on where they all slept. After all, this is the Pre-Alps in Switzerland in late September. It can snow.

But remember that was a frenetic and decisive time for aviation before the First World War. There were air shows and flight competitions all over Europe and the US with daring and sometimes foolish young men in fairly flimsy aircraft trying to set world records on aircraft that was still being invented.

The flight was to start in Reid-Brig, Switzerland fly over the Simplon Pass, land in Domodossola, Italy just on the other side of the Alps, and then continue over Lake Maggiore  to Milan over relatively  flat terrain. The race could be done anytime between September 17 and September 26 but had to be completed in one day. Stop-overs were permitted. There was a meteorologist who came to village and forecasted  only 2 days that would be even possible to attempt the challenge. The world thought the pilots were mad since flying over the Simplon Pass would mean having to go practically straight up which reduced their engine power by 35%.  Furthermore, descending anywhere in the rocky, precipitous gorges of the Simplong Pass would mean certain death. After being delayed several days in Reid-Brig due to poor weather conditions, there were only 2 pilots left who even dared take off: German-American Charles Weymann in his Farman biplane and of course, our hero, Geo Chavez in his Blériot XI monoplane.

Geo Chavez prepares to take off: image courtesy of the Hotel Chavez

These types of planes, especially the Bleriot of Chavez had difficulty getting lift going up over the mountains so the conditions had to be perfect.  A north wind was required for the lift at the beginning but that meant there would be turbulence once the aircraft had reached altitude and possibly on the other side of the Alps. German-American pilot Charles Weymann could get the lift to gain enough altitude. But on September 23, our hero, Geo Chavez,  reported as calm, cool and perhaps full of cognac which he drank at the little café which would later be named after him and turned into a hotel,  boarded his paperweight aircraft in his asbestos-line suite  and prepared for takeoff. His airplane, a Bleriot make which was known as not a good climber was lifted by the north wind and Chavez got his take-off and cork-screwed upward and actually made it over the Simplon Pass! A world’s record! However, the victory was to be tragic. Sure enough, Chavez hit turbulence on the other side of the Alps near the plains area of Domodossola .  The successful but short 45 minute flight ended when the aircraft’s wings collapsed forcing a nose-first crash and then a tip over which crushed our hero. The young man survived 4 days in an Italian hospital and is today celebrated an as aviation hero in four countries: Peru, France, Switzerland, and Italy.

This year there is a significant anniversary of this daring achievement being the centenarian, but actually the village has been celebrating this amazing for generations. The hotel that was established and named after our aviation hero, Hotel Chavez is owned and managed by third generation, Lilian Chavez and Joseph Steiner Erpen. A small 3* delightful property, the Hotel Chavez offers excellent culinary experiences in their Chavez Stuba to aviation pilgrims and alpine enthusiasts. To celebrate the 100 year anniversary of Geo Chavez’s Trans Alpine flight, they have a “high-flyer” menu complied from 4 different countries. The special aviation menu is 8 courses and includes wines from the Wallis region as well as their own Chavez wine production and local mineral water. The menu is about $120 without accommodations but if you’re a guest in the hotel, the room and the menu would cost about $180 per person for a double including a sumptuous alpine breakfast.

The last cognac for Chavez: image courtesy of the Hotel Chavez

Far from the hustle and bustle of urban life, the small hotel Chavez with 20 beds with bath is just minutes from the Alpine town of Brig which has direct Swiss Rail train service to Lausanne and Geneva as well as the other direction. The atmosphere is informal and personal and I can guarantee there will be lots of story-telling. Being near the Simplon Pass there are many hiking trails of all levels and in the winter there is skiing at nearby Ross-Rothward.  The scenery is gorgeous with views of the Simplon Pass as well as the Rhone River Valley.

Hotel Chavez: image courtesy of the Hotel Chavez

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Hotel-Restaurant Chavez

Simplon Strasse 27

3911 Ried-Brig

TEL 041 27 923 1308

infor@hotelchavez.ch

www.hotelchavez.ch

Tags: Brig, Domodossola, Geneva, hotel, Italy, Lausanne, Milan, Peru, Pre-Alps, ski, Switzerland, “Lake Maggiore “, “Ross-Rothward”, “Swiss Rail”