Belgium is a small country of 30,258 km2 and has always been since written history the battlefield of Europe. One of the first occasions to use a balloon for observing enemy positions, was during the combats along the French- Belgians border in 1794. On 26th June 1794 the French General Jourdan defeated the Austrians at the battle of Fleurus near Charleroi in the south of Belgium, having been informed on the positions held by his opponents by his observers aboard a balloon, called "L'Entreprenant" ("The Enterprising").
Belgium became independent in 1830. The coal mines, the steel industry and the Antwerp harbour turned the country into the second most important industrial power by the middle of the 19th Century, at which point a handful of precursors started studying the problems of human flight. The wealth of the country allowed for quite a few of them to actually invest in ballooning and flying experiments.
The first Belgian attempting to fly was the Brugge-born Vincent de Groof who tried out his invention in London in 1874. Unfortunately, he was killed as he was dropped with his flying device from the shuttle balloon.
Flying in Belgium really started with balloonists in the second part of the 19th century. Some French aerostats were demonstrated in Belgium at the occasion of several festivities. On 27th august 1877, Frans De Pauw flew his balloon "Le Saturne" from Antwerp on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of the birth of the famous Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens. Some rich enthusiasts eventually acquired their own balloons and organised trips during weekends.
In 1887, the Ministry of Defence decided to equip the Antwerp fortified camp with a balloon unit for artillery spotting assignments.
One of the balloons in use with the Belgian Army at the start of the century
In 1901, the Aéro-Club of Belgium was created and gathered some of experimenters, balloonists and others peoples interested in what then called aviation. The Aero Club helped to establish airfields in Casteau, Berchem St Agathe, Kiewit, Sint Job in 't Goor and other places in Belgium. In 1904, the Aero-Club started the publication of the "La Conquête de l'Air", monthly newspaper, which is still published today.
However, no Belgians can be listed in the then most advanced experimenters as the Wrights, Santos-Dumont or Ferber. There was a lot of projects and experiments but mostly unsuccessful.
The Gent week
Powered flight started with the shows held by French aviators in Belgium. In 1908 no less than 14 various aircraft demonstrations were organised all around the country, one of the most significant being the "Week of Gent" between 25th May and 2nd of June. Gent therefore witnessed the first flight by an aeroplane in Belgium. This manifestation also birthed two world premieres: the first flight ever with a passenger as Henry Farman piloted Ernest Archdeacon into the sky. The next day Farman, a man of the world, followed up on his first feat, this time taking with him a lady.
After the Gent airshow, something had drastically changed the spirit in Belgium. The public wanted to see and be able to worship the "air aces"
In 1909, an aviation week was organised at Tournai between the 5th and the 14th of September. There were at least five participants, yet only a few were able to get off the ground. The French Paulhan flew his Farman. Henri Crombez tried to fly the Debongnies monoplane and Henry Vandamme crashed the Scrive hang glider, being hurt in the process.
This manifestation was followed by other shows in Spa and Antwerp the course of the same year. In Antwerp some Belgian pilots and aircraft manufacturers endeavoured to get their contraptions into the air. Amongst the names on the program could be noticed some future celebrities such as Olieslagers and E.O. Tips, Tips being the first Belgian to fly a Belgian-built machine of his own design. The French De la Vaux flew his Zodiac III dirigible balloon. Prince Albert, future King of Belgium, took the opportunity to fly with De la Vaux, feat that was heavily frowned upon by King Leopold II .
In 1910, the Aero-Club of Belgium organised a flying week in Brussels at the Stokkel Hippodrome. Eleven Belgian pilots were listed on the program : Pierre de Caters, Jan Olieslagers, Charles Van den Born, Joseph Christiaens, Jules Tyck, Jules de Laminne, Nicolas Kinet, Alphonse de Ridder, Leon Verstraeten, Joseph d'Hespel, and Alfred Lanser.
Olieslagers established a new world record flying at a height of 1,524 metres.
The Stockel flight weeks has been covered in Contact N°4
The same year other air shows were equally organised in Oostende, Verviers, Kiewit, Antwerp, Etterbeek, Liège, Mouscron and Kortrijk.
A notable fact for the year 1911 was the organisation of the first "Air Round Trip of Belgium" from 6th to 23rd August. Ten Belgian and eight French pilots took part in this competition covering a distance of 687 km to be completed in five stages. Jules Tyck won the contest.
Early in1911, Fernand Lescart left Belgium for Congo. With the financial help of King Albert, Lescart wanted to investigate the possibilities of flight in the heart of Africa. Hot and humid climate did not allow Lescart to fly. He twice destroyed his Farman and finally he returned to Belgium. However in 1913, a work group was installed to study the possibility to link the main townships of Congo by means of flying boats.
A Flying Boat contest was organised in 1912 by the Aero-Club and the Temse and Bornem town authorities to determine which of the existing flying boats was best suited for use on the Congo stream. The contest would eventually open new perspectives thereby aiming at encouraging the manufacturing of float planes adapted for use in the Colony of Belgian Congo.
This airshow has been covered in Contact N°8
After the de Caters’ initial success in the area of aircraft manufacturing, the way was now open to other pioneers. Between 1909 and 1914 quite a few Belgians build and flew their own designs. Research done by BAHA members turned up a list of more than 100 of these forerunners.
One of these machines is still being preserved in the collection of the Royal Army Museum, the Battaille Triplane.
The Battaille Triplane
César Battaille was the son of an industrialist. Born in 1882, in Basècle, Battaille developed engineering and artistic skills at an early age already. César was living near Tournai where in 1909 he fell in love with aviation whilst attending the locally-held Aviation Week and which led to his studying of scientific matters that would allow him to develop his triplane. The machine was build in the course of the years 1910-11.
First flight took place on 16th August 1911. Between 1911 and 1914, the machine was
tested, updated and flown by César Battaille and the French pilot Jean Chassagne. After WWI, César Battaille took to sculpturing and concentrated on the technical management of his family’s factory.