On May 21, 1927, my father was in the crowd of more than 100,000 people who gathered at this airfield near Paris to await the arrival of Charles Lindbergh at the end of his transatlantic solo flight, the first one ever.
So that’s why I decided to take a not-terribly-nice bicycle ride through some grimy suburbs out to Le Bourget, because of family history.
Of course nobody in that crowd, as they stood looking up at the empty sky for that one little aircraft to appear, could have imagined that air travel would ever burgeon into the global plague that it has become today. And none of them knew, yet, that Lindbergh would eventually out himself as a Nazi sympathizer. But at the time it was all very exciting, history-in-the-making, and I don’t want to knock it.
I didn’t think I was going to like the Air and Space Museum at Le Bourget, but parts of it turned out to be very interesting, especially the detailed exhibit on the history of manned balloon flight in the 18th and 19th centuries — which I was right in the mood for because I had just taken a ten-minute balloon flight in Paris the day before and had no trouble imagining myself as an intrepid balloonist, LOL.
I remember hearing from my grandparents that in their childhood everyone considered balloon flight to be the most promising transportation technology for the decades to come. A time traveler from the late 19th century would no doubt be amazed at how few balloons there are in the skies today, and how many loud and stinking heavier-than-air machines.
In 1783 the Montgolfier brothers carried out the first successful manned flights of hot air balloons, which of course are documented in the museum.
Though I am not a big fan of air travel today, I did enjoy the museum exhibits about early attempts at heavier-than-air flight, and the exhibits of early aircraft from the first third of the 20th century.
The nice thing about this part of the museum is that you can walk around on aerial ramps, as though you were walking up in the air among all these old planes.
These early planes reminded me of the novel Vol de Nuit (in English Night Flight) by the French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900-1944), who is best known today as the author of Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince), written in 1943 and published posthumously in 1946.
Vol de Nuit is an earlier book, published in 1931 and based loosely on Saint-Exupéry’s experiences as an airmail pilot in Argentina during the first attempts to establish an airmail system with small planes between South America and Europe.
The Italian composer Luigi Dallapiccola (1904–1975) visited Saint-Exupéry in Paris and obtained his permission to write an opera based on Vol de Nuit. The result, Volo di Notte, is a one-act opera that was first performed in 1940. I saw it several times in a fine production at the Frankfurt Opera in 2004, 2005 and 2012.
At various places in the Air and Space Museum there are enlarged excerpts of old French newspapers, reporting dramatic news events from the era of the earliest heavier-than-air flights.
The newspapers in my photo are about two assassinations in the year 1914, one of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo in June 1914 and the other a month later of the French socialist leader Jean Jaurès in Paris.
At Le Bourget I skipped the exhibits of obnoxious military aircraft, and I did not pay extra to go inside a Concorde or a Boeing, because I have always thought the Concorde was a stupid idea, and I’ve been in more than enough Boeings already.
Cycling to Le Bourget
When I cycled from Paris to Le Bourget I just took the most direct route straight up the N2 from Porte de la Villette to the airfield and museum of Le Bourget, a distance of seven or eight kilometers. This was quick but not very nice, so if I ever do this again I think I will try to find some better route.
My photo shows the beginning of the town of Le Bourget, which is not a terribly attractive place to cycle to or through.
By the way, the highway N2 in Le Bourget is called Avenue du 8 Mai 1945, because the Second World War ended on that day – or it might have ended on May 7 or May 9, depending on who you ask. All you loyal readers of my post on the Surrender Museum in Reims might recall that the first capitulation was signed there on May 7, 1945.
My photos in this post are from 2006. I revised the text in 2017.
See my posts on the nearby city of Saint-Denis, France.