With the end of the First World War, massive victory parades were the order of the day, and France planned theirs on July 14, 1919 (Bastille Day). But the pilots of the L’Armée de L’Air were incensed that they would be required to march on foot with the common soldiers. No plans had been made for a flyover during the parade. A group of aggrieved pilots assembled in a bar along the Champs-Élysées and decided that a demonstration of the skill and bravery of the French airmen must be undertaken. The only thing to do, in their minds, was to fly a plane through Arc de Triomphe, one of France’s iconic structures and a monument to soldiers of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. It is not recorded if consumption of alcohol was a factor in this decision.
The honor of performing the protest stunt fell on French ace Jean Navarre, but perhaps in a testament to the wisdom—or lack thereof—in this idea, Navarre was killed in a crash while flying at low-altitude in preparation for the stunt. Undaunted, another French pilot, Charles Godefroy, stepped in to take his place. Godefroy was a particularly skilled aviator who had been seriously wounded as an infantryman and returned to service as a pilot and flying instructor. He chose a Nieuport 11 Bébé for the daring flight, which had a wingspan of just under 25 feet. This would give Godefroy about 12 feet of clearance on either side as he passed through the main vault of the Arc.
Godefroy missed the chance to perform his protest stunt during the parade, but remained determined to make the flight. One month later, on August 7, with cameras rolling to record the feat, Godefroy took off from Villacoublay Aerodrome southwest of Paris, circled the Arc, dropped to as low as 15 feet above the ground, and roared down the Avenue de la Grande-Armée as pedestrians scattered and bus passengers dove for cover. The Bébé made a single pass through the Arc with room to spare, and Godefroy returned to Villacoublay before anybody had even noticed he was gone.
The next day, the French government was in an uproar, and the film of Godefroy’s flight was banned from cinemas over fear that others might attempt to repeat his feat. (Two other pilots have since flown through the Arc, in 1981 and 1991.) However, Goderfroy was not even reprimanded, and he soon retired from the military, returned to his wine business, and lived to the ripe age of 70.
It would seem there is something in the blood of a fighter pilot that takes particular umbrage when their service isn’t recognized, and they demonstrate their displeasure by flying big airplanes through small places. In 1968, the British government inexplicably omitted any sort of aerial demonstration during festivities to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Royal Air Force. Incensed at this snub, RAF Flight Lieutenant Alan Pollock flew his Hawker Hunter felt that some sort of demonstration was in order. Leaving other members of his wing behind, Pollock beat up the RAF West Raynham airfield, then flew at low level to London. There circled the Houses of Parliament three times, dipped his wings over the Royal Air Force Memorial as a salute to fallen RAF pilots, then flew his Hunter under the top span of London’s famous Tower Bridge. He then returned to his base flying inverted 200 feet above the ground. Unlike Godefroy, Pollock was set to be court-martialed, but was released from service on medical grounds before the trial could commence. In both cases, the lack of discipline may well have been tacit approval from commanders for such audacity. After all, Godefroy’s and Pollock’s bosses were likely fighter pilots themselves.
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