Published on February 1, 2013
“After waiting over three weeks, and almost deciding to give up his attempt to cross the Alps, at any rate for the present, Bielovucic was confronted with a favourable opportunity on the 25th ult., and immediately took advantage of it. During the previous night and early morning there had been heavy falls of snow, but the conditions overhead were good, and so preparations were made for the start. The snow was cleared away to provide a getting-away ground, and the Hanriot machine, the slight damaged sustained a fortnight previous having been made good, was thoroughly looked over.”
So began the voyage 100 years ago, reported in the issue of the Royal Aero Club’s newsletter Flight on this day in aviation history. The challenge was immense — in an era where machines were lucky to ascend safely a few thousand feet, the Peruvian pilot Juan Bielovucic Cavalié aimed to successfully make a crossing of a portion of the Alps, Europe’s tallest mountains. If he was successful, he would be only the second person in history to attempt the crossing. The first, Jorge Chávez Dartnell, another Peruvian aviator, had flown it 28 months earlier — and crashed just before landing, the plane falling from the sky from an altitude of 30 feet. Four days later, he died from blood loss, unable to recover from internal injuries. His final words, murmured to Juan Bielovucic, who had attended his friend’s deathbed, were, “Higher, always higher….”
The Flight and Destination
If Bielovucic was to be successful, he would have to plan well, equip his aeroplane with the best engine and propeller and then, above all, wait for just the right circumstances and weather before making his attempt. Flights over flat ground were dangerous enough in 1913, given the youth of aviation’s long and storied development. A flight over the tops of the mountains of the Alps was considered nearly suicidal. Along the route, the pilot would have to wind his way between peaks, fly over glaciers, climb through snow-covered passes and finally surmount a final ridge of 6,590 feet altitude.
If the engine were to seize up or fail, a crash anywhere along the route in freezing winter weather would certainly end in death. Certainly, no rescue would be coming until the Spring and by then, it would be months late. Yet if successful, Juan Bielovucic would have linked Switzerland and Italy by air, right over the heart of the Alps.
Satisfactory report as to the weather in the Pass and at Domo d’Ossola were received, and at 12 o’clock “Bielo” had started from Brigue. Ascending spirally to a great height, he disappeared in the direction of the Simplon, passing over the Saltine ravine. He was continuing to rise, and there was an anxious moment when the engine suddenly stopped.
It is not hard to imagine Juan Bielovucic at this moment, pumping fuel and oil furiously while pointing the nose of his Hanriot downward, hoping to keep the propeller windmilling so that the cylinders would crack back to life. This was a time before electric starters — if the prop stopped, there would be little hope of getting it turning again and certainly nobody could hand prop it to get it going again. Below, the snow-covered mountain ridges loomed, their beauty hiding their deadly nature.
Fortunately [the engine] started again, and in a few minutes the machine was over the Hospice [with its Augustine monks]. In fourteen minutes he had passed Simplon Village, and shortly after he was in sight of his goal. Carefully avoiding the dreaded Gondo Valley, he passed over the Monscera mountain and then vol planéd down to within a hundred yards or so of the monument to his countryman, Chavez. He had taken 26 minutes for the trip for the distance of between 12 and 13 miles. The Hanriot machine which was used was equipped with an 80-h.p. Gnome driving a Chauviere propeller.
Juan Bielovucic’s flight that winter day in 1913 was an incredible achievement and one which warranted the full attention of the Royal Aero Club. Whereas England was blessed with a relatively flat expanse of plains in the southeast, where much of the early flying took place, and whereas its mountains were reasonably sized and easily surmounted, this was not the case with the Alps. This great mountain range was the hallmark of Switzerland and stood as a great barrier that isolated the country and blocked entry to Italy from the north, dividing Europe.
That it had been successfully conquered was a point of the highest honor. For Juan Bielovucic, it also was a fitting tribute to his close friend, Jorge Chávez. It was proper also that this supreme victory over the Alps had been achieved by a Peruvian. Like Jorge Chávez, Juan Bielovucic had indeed gone, “Higher, always higher….” He would be remembered ever after, though he preferred to rest in the shadow of his friend’s legacy.
From the Archives
The First Dogfight? — the unlikely story of the world’s first aerial combat, when two friends were hired on opposite sides of a regional war in Mexico faced off against one another. But did it actually happen?
Today’s Aviation Trivia Question
What plane did Jorge Chávez choose to fly over the Alps and what was its engine and propeller?