Patrouille de France visit recalls first French air demo in Canada

News Article / April 27, 2017

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The oldest air demonstration team in the world, La Patrouille de France, will perform in Gatineau, Québec, with the Canadian Forces Snowbirds at Aero150 on April 30, 2017. On May 1 and 2, they will conduct flypasts in Ottawa, Montréal and the city of Quebec before departing from 3 Wing Bagotville, Québec, on May 4 for their return to France.

Quebec aeronautical historian and former Royal Canadian Air Force reservist George Fuller reflects on a similar event 99 years ago, when Canada witnessed its first air demonstration from another country, flown by First World War French flying ace Lieutenant Georges Flachaire. 

By George Fuller

The first and only up-to-date warplane to fly over the Province of Québec during the First World War came to Montréal on a remarkable journey in stages that began at Washington, D.C. on June 4, 1918.

Until then, the only aircraft from outside Québec to fly within the province had been a few Canadian-built Curtiss JN-4 training biplanes from Royal Air Force Canada (RAFC) airfields in Ontario, and Canada's first military airplane, the 1914 Burgess-Dunne floatplane. The floatplane was flown from Vermont, U.S., to Québec and then shipped overseas for service with the short-lived Canadian Aviation Corps – although it was never flown again.

After entering the war against Germany in April 1917, the United States welcomed aid from its allies in bringing its inadequate air services to combat readiness. A delegation of French experts, including veteran pilots, brought a few warplanes with them to the U.S. for demonstration and training purposes.

Boosted by a visit to Montréal by the famous Marshal Joseph Jacques Césaire Joffre (the French general who, from the start of the First World War until the end of 1916, served as Commander-in-Chief of French forces on the Western Front) in May 1917, a charitable organization had been formed there to aid war victims in France.

A fund raising gala, the Foire Montréalaise, was planned for Parc Lafontaine in June 1918. The star attraction would be a flying demonstration by "ace" French fighter pilot Lieutenant Georges Flachaire in one of the latest French fighter biplanes, a Spad 13. 

After stops at Buffalo, New York, and RAFC airfields at Leaside (near Toronto), Deseronto, and Brockville, all in Ontario, he completed the longest flight to date to a Canadian destination in the evening of June 5, 1917, landing in the infield of the Blue Bonnets racetrack (later to become the Montréal Hippodrome).

The biplane swerved into a fence after touching down in the fading light. Lieutenant Flachaire was not injured, but repairs to the Spad could not be completed until June 14. Arrangements were made for him to fly from the Polo Grounds at Bois Franc (later the site of Cartierville Airport).

Georges Flachaire’s service

 Lieutenant Georges Flachaire scored eight victories flying Nieuport Scouts out of Lyon-Bron Airport with Escadrille 67 of the French Air Force. For his service, he received:

  • The Légion d’Honeur (France’s highest order, created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802)
  • The Médaille Militaire (created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1852 for military service, especially for acts of courage in combat)
  • The Croix de Guerre (awarded for bravery to military personnel mentioned in dispatches –  Recipients of the Légion d'Honneur and Médaille Militaire were automatically entitled to the Croix de Guerre)
  • The Military Cross from Great Britain (awarded in recognition of distinguished and meritorious services in time of war to officers—both foreign and domestic—of certain ranks).

On Saturday, June 15, he treated Montréalers to a memorable quarter-hour aerobatic display over the park. He brought the Spad down to within 200 feet [61 metres] of the ground, the French military markings clearly visible to the excited spectators. He flew on to Bois Franc for another brief performance. On Sunday, he again thrilled the crowds at the Foire. He also flew over to the athletic grounds at Kahnawake (then called Caughnawaga) and in a Mohawk ceremony he was named "Giant War Eagle".

Lieutenant Flachaire departed from Bois Franc on Wednesday, June 19. With stops at the Barriefield Army camp, near Kingston, and at Deseronto, he reached Leaside six hours and 10 minutes later. That evening, he was fêted in Toronto. After stops at Buffalo, New York, and Erie, Pennsylvania, he arrived safely at Cleveland, Ohio, on June 23.

Lieutenant Flachaire died in Venezuela in 1973 at 81. His remarkable flight and his tremendous war service deserve our remembrance, especially as his fellow countrymen visit Canada during our 150th anniversary year.

This article originally appeared in “Beyond the Sunset” on September 24, 2001, published by La Fondation Aérovision Québec. It was revised on January 31, 2015, and has been edited for style and length.

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