I've always found it a curiosity that Lima's international airport, built in 1960, is named after Jorge Chavez - a man who never visited Peru and who died in a plane crash. How, then, did this man, who was born and bred in France, come to be a Peruvian national hero?
Jorge Chavez Dartnell (he often went by the name 'Geo') was born in Paris in 1887, one of six children. His parents, Manuel Chavez Moreyra and Maria Rosa Dartnell Guisse de Chavez, were both Peruvian, but had moved to France in 1884 to escape the political turmoil in Peru following the loss to Chile in the War of the Pacific (1879 - 1883). Despite being immigrants, they were a wealthy family, with Manuel Chavez being a successful banker.
As a result, Jorge received a good education, and graduated with a degree in Engineering from the recently-opened Violet School of Electricity and Industrial Mechanics in 1908. During his studies, Chavez showed great athletic prowess, excelling in the 400m hurdles and middle-distance running, as well as representing France at rugby.
Jorge's father died the same year that he graduated, and the estate left enabled the 21-year-old to indulge his passions, including cycling, motor racing, shooting ... and the emerging field of aviation.
He obtained his international pilot's license at the Henry & Maurice Farman School of Aviation in 1910, and from then on, began pushing the boundaries of air flight, with voyages of increasing height and length, as he participated in competitions in France and other European countries, including the UK. It was only seven years since the Wright Brothers had made their historic first flight, and excitement for this new mode of transport was feverish.
On August 8th, 1910, Chavez gained fame for flying a Blériot monoplane to Blackpool in England, during which he reached an altitude of 1,647 m (5,405 ft). Then on September 6th, he improved on this by flying at 2,700 m (8,700 ft) over the city of Issy in France.
Buoyed by these successes, Chavez decided to attempt the first air crossing of the Alps, in response to the Aero Club of Italy offering a prize of 100,000 Lira (about $20,000, at the time) to the first aviator to make the trip alive.
The challenge garnered a great deal of public interest and a large number of aviators signed up to participate in the challenge. However, the competition organisers narrowed the field down to five, based on their skills and performances in the various competitions in which they had participated. Chavez was one of these, aged only 23.
On September 23rd, 1910, after several delays owing to bad weather, he took off from Ried-Brig (known as Brigue in French, and Briga in Italian) in Switzerland, and followed a route through the Simplon Pass. Before departing, he is alleged to have said, "Whatever happens, I shall be found on the other side of the Alps".
Fifty-one minutes later Chavez arrived at his destination, the city of Domodossola in Italy, but just as his Bleriot XI was a mere 20 m ( 66 ft) above the landing strip, the wings crumpled and the plane crashed to the ground. It is believed that the airplane had been previously damaged and inadequately repaired, so that it was unable to withstand the strong air currents and cross winds in the mountains.
Heavily injured, but conscious, Chavez was rushed to hospital, where he lay for four days, before dying of massive blood loss. His last words were, "Higher. Always higher.", according to the testimony of his friend and fellow aviator, Juan Bielovucic. Studies of the medical records suggest that, with more modern techniques, such as blood transfusion, he could have survived his injuries.
The death of Jorge Chavez caused great consternation in the aviation world. His funeral in Paris was attended by Peru's ex-President, Jose Pardo and three French ministers. Brig and Domodossola, the start and end points of his last flight, dedicated monuments to the deceased aviator.
In Peru, churches held funeral services in Chavez's memory, who became an icon for aviation-related institutions, such as the Air Force. The remains of his ill-fated Bleriot XI were delivered to Peru, amid much fanfare, in March 1911.
Then, in 1957, the remains of Chavez himself were repatriated to Peru from France. The air journey made from Paris to Lima in a French Air Force twin-propellor plane, carrying his disinterred bones, took eight days, making stops at Blida in Algeria, Dakar in Senegal, Natal and then Rio in Brazil, and Santa Cruz in Bolivia. An epic flight worthy of one of aviation's great pioneers!