Charles Godefroy (29 December 1888 at La Flèche (Sarthe) – 11 December 1958 at Soisy-sous-Montmorency, (Val d'Oise), north of Paris) was a French aviator who became famous by his spectacular flight passing through the Arc de Triomphe in Paris in 1919.
World War I
He was called up for military service in 1914 at the age of 26 years. After being wounded and a stay in hospital, he entered the French Air Force on 1 September 1917. He completed his training on a Nieuport fighter at Miramas in November 1918. Because of his abilities as a pilot, he quickly became a flying instructor.
Arc de Triomphe flight
For the occasion of the victory parade on the Champs Élysées on 14 July 1919, marking the end of hostilities in World War I, the military command ordered the airmen to participate “on foot” – like the infantry. This was a provocation to the pilots, who regarded themselves as “heroes of the air”. At a meeting in the “Fouquet” bar located on the Champs Élysées, a group of aviators decided to address this affront by selecting one of them to fly through the Arc de Triomphe during the parade. The choice fell on Jean Navarre, who had twelve air victories and was considered to be an ace among the fighter pilots. However, Navarre was killed in a practice flight on 10 July. With 500 flying hours, Charles Godefroy considered himself experienced enough to take over the task, which excited the young aviator. With his close companion, the journalist Jacques Mortane, he inspected the Arc de Triomphe several times to examine the air route and the air currents; then he began to practice at the bridge over the Small Rhône at Miramas.
On 7 August 1919, three weeks after the victory parade, under cover of secrecy and dressed in his warrant officer uniform, Charles Godefroy took off at 7.20 a.m. from the airfield of Villacoublay in a biplane “Nieuport 11 Bébé” (Bébé = baby - because of its low wing span of 24.67 ft / 24’8’’ or 7.52 m). He reached the Porte Maillot shortly thereafter. Coming from the west, he circled the Arc de Triomphe twice and began the approach along the Avenue de la Grande-Armée. He gathered speed and forced the plane down and through the Arc. He did not have much clearance – the width of the Arc is 47.57 ft / 47’6’’ (14.50 m). He passed at a low level over a tram in which passengers threw themselves to the ground, and many passers-by ran away frightened. Godefroy flew over the Place de la Concorde before returning to the airfield, where his mechanic checked over the engine. No one at the airfield had taken any notice of the flight, which had lasted half an hour.
The journalist Jacques Mortane had the whole event filmed and photographed. Articles have been published in many newspapers. The film screening was banned by the Commissioner of Police.
Godefroy stayed officially in the background, but his name could not be kept secret for long. The authorities disapproved of the event and were afraid of it being imitated, but Godefroy escaped with only a warning.
After this exploit, Godefroy had to promise his family to give up flying. Thereafter, he attended to his wine trade in Aubervilliers. He died shortly before his 70th birthday at Soisy-sous-Montmorency. The municipality named a street after him and set up a memorial stone. Since then, there have been two other flights under the Arc – in 1981 and in 1991. Charles Godefroy, however, will always have the honor of being the first.