Poulet and Benoist: The Frenchmen’s Journey

The Frenchmen Poulet and Benoist are renowned for attempting the first flight to Australia.

Date Published May 16, 2018
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The Frenchmen Etienne Poulet and Jean Benoist were keen aviators. They are renowned for having attempted to execute the first flight to Australia, despite failing to satisfy the Great Air Race competition’s nationality requisites.

Preceding the Great Air Race’s announcement, a young and virile Poulet had already achieved a great deal of aviation success. For instance, in 1914 he raised aviation standards when he flew consecutively for 16 hours, 28 minutes, and 56 seconds—this was, at the time, an extremely impressive achievement! Although he piloted this flight alone, it was, arguably, his friend and skilled mechanic, Jean Benoist, who made the flight possible.

Poulet’s success did not stop here; he casually broke a few more records during WWI! In May 1916, Poulet set the altitude record of 6,700 metres for a one-seater aircraft, and not long after, he managed to set new world altitude records for two and three passenger aircraft.

With all this experience up his sleeve, Poulet was destined for global recognition, and no doubt harboured a penchant for success (which explains why he entered an Australian- only race!)

Furthermore, with Poulet’s remarkable flying ability in mind, the French Foreign Office in Paris sent a cable to the Acting Australian Prime Minister, which asked if a Frenchman could compete in the Great Air Race.

To Poulet and the French Office’s dismay, the request was denied. They were informed that the race was for Australian pilots, and that only aircraft of British production could be entered into the race.

Being the proud man he was, Poulet did not let this news impede his journey to stardom—he still set out to be the first man to fly from Europe to Australia. He thus purchased his plane for the journey—a Caudron aircraft. The model was a G4 biplane with twin 80 h.p. Le Rhone rotary engines.

Poulet made the calculated decision to support himself financially during his journey, because no aircraft manufacturer would! Interestingly, he received no financial support from Caudron company stakeholders. This is not surprising—why would the company fund him when there was no financial incentive to win the race?! (Frenchmen were of course ineligible contestants).

Poulet thus budgeted and used 60,000 Francs—which at the time equated to 12,000 US dollars.

After budgeting his expenses, Poulet sought out his familiar flying companion, Jean Benoist, who agreed to accompany him on the long and challenging journey to Australia. They had a rough start due to harsh weather, and thus left France a day later than expected: on the 14th of October 1919.

They had an extremely challenging journey, with multiple stops and technical failures—and the news of Ross Smith’s success constantly loomed over their shoulders. By the time the Frenchmen arrived in Thailand they were 57 days out of Paris.

Thailand offered rougher terrain than the pair had envisioned: the Thai mountains, for instance, were treacherous. Consequently, the pair unanimously decided that their plane could sustain no more physical hardships, and thus chose to end their courageous journey in Thailand. This was still a significant achievement for the time.

Ross Smith was of course to arrive in Australia only two days later—and managed to carry out his journey in a much quicker fashion!

It will be interesting to see if any of the centenary E-race participants are forced to withdraw from the race due to technical failures. It is more likely, though, that our advanced technology and media will prevent this from occurring.

Material sourced from:

Eustis, Nelson. The Greatest Air Race: England- Australia 1919. Rigby Limited, 1969.

 

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