100 years since French daredevil pilot completed Arc de Triomphe stunt

One French daredevil flier has been dominating the news in recent days - but it's 100 years since another pilot committed an even more daring stunt.

100 years since French daredevil pilot completed Arc de Triomphe stunt
Charles Godefroy completes his Arc de Triomphe stunt in 1919. Photo: AFP

Early on a Thursday morning 100 years ago, a French WWI veteran took off on a secret mission that would propel him into the record books – a daredevil flight under the monumental Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

Charles Godefroy pulled off the stunt on August 7, 1919, to the astonishment of crowds gathered below on the Champs-Elysees.

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Zapata above the Champs-Elysées on July 14th. Photo: AFP

Dozens fled or threw themselves on the ground as the biplane whizzed just a few metres over their heads.

It was the same site where 100 years later French inventor Franky Zapata would wow Bastille Day crowds with his flying hoverboard.

Like other airmen who fought during World War 1, Godefroy took offence when pilots were ordered to march alongside other soldiers during the national Bastille Day military parade just a few weeks earlier on July 14.

He was determined to remind the country of pilots' exploits and sacrifices during the war, and began preparing his flight with the help of a journalist friend, Jacques Mortane.

Other aviation pioneers had already renounced the attempt, including Roland Garros who claimed that trying to fit through the narrow 14.5-metre (48-foot) opening would lead to an untimely death, according to French historian Philippe Gras.

But Godefroy had practised by flying under a bridge at Miramas on the Mediterranean coast and chose a Nieuport fighter plane with a wingspan of just nine metres.

Mortane was waiting when Godefroy zoomed under the monument at around 8:00 am and captured the feat on film.

Despite having flouted any number of military rules, Godefroy got off with a mere warning from his superiors and became a hero in his hometown of La Fleche in western France, which erected a plaque in his honour.

Since then, several illicit flights under the arch have been made over the years while other daredevils have buzzed under the much wider arches of the Eiffel Tower.

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How to make the most of France’s ‘night of museums’ this weekend

More than 3,000 French museums will stay open long past their bedtimes on Saturday May 14th for the 18th Long Night of Museums.

How to make the most of France's 'night of museums' this weekend

The annual event takes place on the third Saturday in May each year in towns and cities across the whole of Europe. There are temporary exhibitions, themed guided visits, musical entertainment, lectures, concerts, food tasting, historical reconstructions and re-enactments, and film projections. Best news of all, almost everything is free. 

Here’s The Local’s guide to getting the most out of the night:

Plan, plan, then throwaway the plan

Consult the online programme and map out your route. A little preparation will make the night much easier – 3,000 museums will be open long into the night in France, and you don’t want to waste hours standing on a bridge arguing about where to go next. 

The site has suggestions for major cities, including Lyon, Dijon, Bourges, Strasbourg, Lille, Rouen, Bordeaux, Toulouse, and Marseilles. And four museums that have been closed to the public for years – Musée de Cluny in Paris, the Musée de Valenciennes, the Forum antique de Bavay in Nord and the Musée départemental Albert-Khan in Boulogne-Billancourt – are reopening on the night.

So, decide where you’re going beforehand – then feel free to dump your carefully plotted plan in a bin when you overhear someone else talking about this extraordinary thing they have discovered and go with the flow.

Be patient

When you are consulting the official website, try not to scream. You have to navigate a map rather than a traditional programme format – though, at least, this year it’s broken down in to French regions, which is marginally less frustrating.

It is actually much easier if you know the specific museums you are interested in visiting, as they have individual programmes of events. But half the fun of a night like this is visiting somewhere you’ve never been before.

Wear comfortable shoes and travel light

Wear shoes for the long haul rather than the first impression. There will be distances to cover and you might even find yourself dancing in the middle of a museum. 

And blisters are never a good partner with great art. Leave your skateboard and shopping trolley at home, they will just prove a nuisance when you are going through security checks.

Come early – or late – to avoid endless queues

Arriving at the Louvre at 8pm is always going to mean a giant queue. And nothing ruins a night quicker than spending most of it standing in an unmoving line. Try to escape peak times at the major museums – but check they’re not doing something interesting that you don’t want to miss – hip hop dance classes in the Department of Oriental Antiquities, in the Louvre’s Richelieu wing, for example…

Go somewhere you’ve never been to before

Do a lucky dip. Pick somewhere you’ve never heard of and know nothing about. What about the Musée de Valenciennes, which reopens after years of being closed to the public, for example. Its giving visitors the chance to see its fine art under ultraviolet light – which will reveal things you wouldn’t normally see.

Or you could delve deep into the Aude Departmental Archives, in Carcassonne, and discover the amazing life stories of some of the region’s historical figures

Make it social

Gather the troops, this is a night for multi-generations of family and friends. Art, history and culture, is very much a shared experience and you can usually find something that everyone loves – or hates.

Plan a pitstop

You will always need refreshing and wouldn’t a night of culture be wonderfully enhanced by a delicious picnic on the banks of the Seine, if you’re in Paris. 

Your mind will need a little pause from all the intellectual overload. Find a spot, listen to the music (there’s always music from somewhere) and watch the Bateaux Mouches go by as you eat a baguette with some good local cheese and some saucisson.