Aviation history : Flying First Over The Alps


Today, flying across the Alps is little more than a short climb followed by an easy flight looking down on the majesty of the mountains below.  Yet back in the early days of aviation, the Alps were a formidable challenge for aircraft.  Even almost a decade after the Wright Brothers first flew, the highest-flying airplanes could barely climb above 10,000 feet.


Jorge Chávez-Dartnell (also named Geo Chávez) was born in 1887 in Paris of Peruvian parents. While he was studying to become an engineer, he had been aware of the progress made in the early years of aviation. After he graduated, he began working in airplane maintenance. In 1910, he studied to become a pilot and obtained his international pilot license, which allowed him to participate in various competitions, where he attained great results. He had come rapidly to the fore in the aviation world. On 8 September 1910, he had beaten the world altitude record reaching 2652 m. aboard his new Bleriot XI monoplane when he was trying the operation of the aircraft; he would need all the height he could get to later make it safely through the Simplon Pass. It is to be reminded that, on 25 July 1909, the Blériot XI biplane gained lasting fame when Louis Blériot crossed the English Channel from Calais to Dover.


The Aero Club of Italy had offered a prize amounting to US$14,000 (70,000-lira) for the first to fly over the Simplon Pass (2009 meters) from Brig in Switzerland to Milan Taliedo (now Milano Linate Airport) in Italy, a distance of 150 km, in less than 24 hours. At the age of 23, Chávez joined the Gran Premio della Traversata delle Alpi (Crossing Alps Gran Prix) in 1910.


Several unsuccessful attempts were made by Chávez and his rivals, before the Peruvian made another attempt on Friday 23 September 1910. The weather on the Swiss side of the pass was perfect with a clear blue sky and no wind at the take-off field. Chávez left the meadow near Brig at 1:29pm in a Blériot XI monoplane; he flew over the Simplon at 6,600 feet and about 1:50pm began his approach. His plane was severely buffeted by strong winds and turbulence from the mountains. At 2:19pm, a few minutes from Domodossola in Italy where he had to refuel, Chávez’s Blériot was a mere 10 m. from the ground, lost a wing and crashed. Chávez fell receiving fatal injuries and died four days later on 27 September 1910. According to the testimony of his friend and fellow aviator Juan Bielovucic, Chávez’s dying words were reported to be Arriba, siempre arriba! (Higher, Always Higher!), which is now the motto of the Peruvian Air Force. It is believed that the airplane had been damaged previously and inadequately repaired, which caused the aircraft to break under the heavy winds of the mountains.



Stamp of the series issued on 15 September 1937 for the Conferencia Técnica Interamericana de Aviación.

The Peruvian world aviation pioneer Jorge Chávez-Dartnell was the first person to fly across the Alps on 23 September 1910. As one of the earliest aviation pioneers, Jorge Chávez courageously pushed aviation technology to the limit and inspired others to follow his lead. The International Airport of Lima, inaugurated in 1960, is named after him (Aeropuerto Internacional Jorge Chávez); 23 September, the anniversary of his famous flight, is celebrated as el Día de la Aviación Nacional en el Perú.


On 13 July 1913, the Swiss pioneer Oskar Bider took off in a Blériot XI at 4 a.m. in Bern for Italy; he stopped in Domodossola for fuel as planned allowing him to carry a minimum load over the highest point of the Alps (the Jungfraujoch) and then finished his journey in Milan. He waited 13 days in Milan for good weather conditions and then flew back to Bern. Bider thus became the first aviator to cross the Alps in both directions.


On 15 September 1937, Peru issued a set of 4 stamps to commemorate the Conferencia Técnica Interamericana de Aviación, held in Lima from 15 to 27 September 1937. The town, where Chávez’s flight ended, is called Domodossola, earlier known as Domo d’Ossola (in the Ossola valley, Piemont, Italy). However, the stamp of the series showing Chávez mentions the name of Domossola, which is a misspelling of the city’s name.


Postcard showing a picture of Chavez’s Blériot XI over the Simplon on Friday 23 September 1910.



Cover addressed to Lt. Jesse G. Johnson with good-will cruise cachet.

The text on both stamps reads: JORGE CHÁVEZ  HÉROE PERUANO QUE TRASMONTÓ


It is interesting to note that, in contrast to stamp on the left, the stamp on the right (magenta, issued on 20 December 1936) correctly spells the name of Domodossala. This stamp also notes: Arriba, siempre arriba!, which means: Higher, Always Higher!.


Aviator Jorge Chávez Maximum Card.

Red circular cancel related to the Conferencia Técnica Interamericana de Aviación.

Red and white colors of the Peruvian state flag.


Cover commemorating the 50th anniversary of Oskar Bider’s crossing the Alps

in a Blériot XI on 13 July 1913.