The Construction of an Image in Aviation: the Case of René Fonck and the French Press (1917-1926)

  • Fonck, « as des as » déchu ? Composition et recompositions d’une figure aviatrice par la presse française (1917-1926)


The case of René Fonck is exceptional. The pilot became an ace late in May 1917 but his military performance soon earned him attention in the French press. He was nicknamed “Guynemer’s avenger”, the “invincible boche killer”, “knight of the sky”, and the modern sportsman; in other words, he was indentified in the general newspapers whereas industrial modernity was impersonal. Elected a “député-aviateur” after the war, Fonck extended his aspirations with repeated successes. As a public figure, he seemed to fly over common people and triggered the imaginary of flying, still in the making. Although it later became a weapon, aviation first incarnated constant progress and fascinated the public in the 1920s. However, Fonck’s missed attempt to fly over the Atlantic on September 1926 revealed his limits, which were relayed by the press. The hero now shown as a mere mortal was defeated. This article aims to analyze the way the French press crafted the figure of Fonck from an aerial imaginary that was touched by the absolute.

Le cas de René Fonck est exceptionnel : tard inscrit au tableau des as, en mai 1917, ses performances militaires lui attirent rapidement les faveurs de la presse française. Il devient le « vengeur de Guynemer », « invincible tueur de boche », « chevalier du ciel », sportsman moderne, figure aisément identifiée et représentée par les journaux civils à l’heure de la guerre impersonnelle. « Député-aviateur » après la guerre, repoussant toujours l’horizon des attentes par ses succès, la figure imaginée de Fonck semble évoluer au-dessus des mortels et entretient la fascination du grand public comme de la presse pour le moyen aérien en constants progrès. Cependant, manquant sa tentative de raid transatlantique en 1926, Fonck affiche ses limites. Les différents journaux prennent parti pour ou contre le héros, déchu car ayant déçu. Cet article vise à analyser la manière dont la presse française a composé la figure médiatique de Fonck à partir d’un imaginaire aéronautique empreint d’absolu.



The case of René Fonck’s (1894-1953) is quite an exceptional one. Arriving late on the list of WW1 flying aces – after his fifth confirmed success on an enemy plane on May 13, 1917 – Fonck quickly received the praises of the French press due to his military performances1. This was especially after he had supposedly “avenged” the shooting down and killing of the beloved Georges Guynemer. His place in French imagination thus appeared rather different than that of other fighter aces like Dorme or Nungesser. Ending the war with 75 confirmed successes, Fonck was elected to the Parliament (as a member of the “Bleu Horizon” Chamber) and President of the Ligue Aéronautique de France. Similarly to another ace, Alfred Heurtaux2, Fonck became a “député-aviateur” Fonck became all the more interesting for the press in that he seemed to fly from success to success, always extending the horizon of aspiration3 in the context of “the passion for wings”4. In early 1919, the 24-year-old pilot confirmed the stereotype of the irresistible airman, a new republican hero incarnating the modernity and the vitality of his nation.

Fonck’s attempt to fly over the Atlantic in 1926 stimulated exceptional popular infatuation and this was sustained by daily updates in newspapers which provided details of the preparations carried out by the Frenchman in the United States. Disillusion was huge as Fonck’s plane eventually crashed while he tried to take off on September 21, 1926. This was a turning point in the narrative of his life as afterwards he only rarely appeared in French newspapers and in politics until his death on June 18, 1953.

This explains why the period of his life from 1917 to 1926 is the best-documented. Alongside archives telling of his activities during the war, in Parliament and on airfields, a number of articles with a focus on the pilot published in –specialized or not– French newspapers show how the public image of René Fonck was shaped and reshaped depending on the time of writing5. Through words and pictures, we have access to representations of Fonck in the popular imagination and, more globally, to aspects of an aeronautical culture which was still in the making in the early 1920s. As Michel Vovelle was to write, literature is a “support électroscope [qui] frémit et enregistre aussi plus vite les frissons de la sensibilité collective”6. Newspaper articles are the most immediate expression of this through the need to characterize news-reporting and oblige reporters to provide impressions at the time of writing. Through their studies made over a short period of time, we can understand the continuities and the changes made to the way René Fonck was represented and how original he is in aerial imagination of this time.

In war, and later in peacetime, several aspects of René Fonck’s life were to set him apart from the representations made of other pilots. Although he was elected Member of Parliament in 1919, he remained an airman in the eyes of newspaper columnists. His association with the imaginary world above kept him above the man in the street and excluded him from criticism right up to the time of a failed attempt which was all the more embarrassing as it happened on an airfield.

1. The “Ace of Aces”: a “Knight of the Sky” in the Great Impersonal War (1917-1918)

1.1. Aviation: a cherished topic of the press during the war

Even before 1914, the image of the pilot came in the scope of a “diversely mobilized patriotic culture”7. In Parliament, as well as in newspapers, tributes to fighter pilots had never been subject to debate and they contributed to maintaining the morale of the public and, at the same time, convincing civil society that it was capable of playing a role in the war alongside the military8. The difficulties encountered in February 1916 during the Verdun offensive eventually convinced official instances of the interest to lower the level of censure and allow for the identification of aces9. They were easily identifiable heroic figures that could be shown to civilians at the time of an impersonal war where the poilus were covered in mud in the trenches. The detail provided by journalists on the question of official German losses demonstrates how propagandists took an interest in this means of communication10. When René Fonck became a fighter ace on May 191711, he joined a prestigious hierarchy forged both by military command that allowed for the homologations, and by a war press which followed and actively relayed the exploits of these aces12. A small number of leading actors were used as a way of portraying the war from a positive perspective due partly to the fact that aviation had been considered as a sport before 191413.

Necessarily violent, death had always been part of the “dramaturgy of the Air”. The adaptation of the first civil pilots to the military context therefore happened quite naturally14. Aerial warfare is imbibed with a profoundly aesthetic dimension that fascinated spectators of these combats, and this was whether they were pilots in their cockpits, soldiers or war reporters on the ground who adhered all the more naturally that they admired the “sublime” reality of these modern fights15. It is from this perspective that the war experience of these fighter aces was turned into a narrative by French journalists who constructed airborne figures endowed with mythical potential. The aces were very popular both in France and Germany16.

The omnipresence of the tales of fighter aces appearing in civilian newspapers – as opposed to those intended for reading by soldiers on the front– was all the more justified in that there was public demand and this opened the way for a reinforcement in the efficiency of the “bourrage de crâne” in aerial matters17. This explains why a relatively independent journal such as La Guerre aérienne illustrée headed by the former sport journalist Jacques Mortane participated strongly in the war effort18.

1.2. How the image of Fonck merged into the myth of the flying ace

While increasing its autonomy, aviation forged its identity by using iconic figures who incarnated guiding values and principles. Jean Navarre the “sentinelle de Verdun”, and later Georges Guynemer, a favorite of the press and first “ace of aces” to be clearly identifiable by the general public – are the two main figures of early French fighter aviation19. They are – among the other aces – formal variations of the same myth of the flying ace which was identified by Céline Bryon-Portet through the use of mythemes and whose main symbols in had already been constituted in 191720. These were inserted into reporters’ narratives and were used to construct the image of the new ace, René Fonck

The pilots who became known as “knights of the sky” as early as 1915 seemingly revived the notion of the noble war which climbed above the industrial and impersonal war where millions of soldiers were crammed into trenches21. Stories about aerial warfare used all types of codes associated with this image, especially the more ethical ones. Fighter pilots were described as chivalrous patriots who were rather modest in relation to their successes and their comrades. Le Petit Parisien thus explained to the reader in May 1918 that “[René Fonck] had not changed. His 45 victories, his large number of decorations and his fame had not altered his modesty and simplicity. He wears the ribbons of his medals as little as possible and this includes his Croix de guerre.”22 Remaining humble despite his many successes and stating that he was only doing his duty, the young man was the perfect demonstration of the chivalrous ideal. However, demonstrating that there was a gap between the stories which appeared in the newspapers, Fonck’s commandant in the Escadrille 103, Jean d’Harcourt, was later to testify in a file which remains confidential that “Fonck was far from being insensitive to rewards which satisfied his instinct for justice and his legitimate desire for glory”23.

The relationship between pilots and their opponents is another means of understanding this difference between the reality of the pilots’ war experience and the way it was slotted into a chivalrous narrative. Just like the knights of medieval times, pilots were supposedly fighting aerial duels on an equal footing in planes which were unstable and agile mounts which sometimes reared and needed to be handled with dexterity24. This explains why Fonck was photographed by Le Miroir posing in front of his noble steed and humbly showing the “coat of arms of his victim” In olden days, an opponent’s banner would be taken as to symbolise his defeat25. (fig. 1). This analogy to the past was generally extended to describe attacks from behind as giving the attacker the advantage of surprise when, in reality, it had more in common with an assassination than it had to a proper duel26. This was especially true in the final years of the war, when squadron formation became the standard27.

(Fig. 1)

“Fonck after one of his recent victories”, Le Miroir, no 251, September 15, 1918, p. 15.

Image 10000000000001A00000024E8E0B14E548188565.jpg

(BDIC, 2013-54014;

As aerial warfare increased in size, the myth of the knights of the sky gradually fell apart in the later months of the conflict28. Towards the end of the war, Fonck’s patrol flew in triangle or in diamond formation to cover the flanks of the “ace of aces” using three or four planes29. The tactic of attacking from behind and/or with the sun in the back that Fonck used to surprise his enemies was therefore covered up by journalists and they used more glorious animalistic metaphors to describe his behaviour30. Fonck, himself, compared his behaviour to a “bird of prey [inspired] by [his] instinct [which] flies very high to let himself fall on the opponent”31.

Forging a distance between the reality of combats and the way they were depicted, these journalistic portraits contributed nonetheless to democratizing war heroism which had previously been the reserve of generals32. Fonck was a young mechanic before the war. However, from the day he became an ace, he became part of an elitist corporation and an “absolute aristocracy among the glorious combatants of the fifth arm”33. Publications such as La Guerre aérienne illustrée echoed this by explaining to its readers that “fighter force is […] a universally praised, glorious elite “and that being part of it was like receiving a certificate of distinction attesting the consecration of exceptional qualities. […] The names of those in the force were held up for the admiration of the crowds and the press enumerates and comments on the victories.”34 This universality and this exceptionality of the image of the ace reinforced its mythical dimension.

As they counted the successes of each pilot and described aerial battles, reporters put particular emphasis on the sportive dimension of performances which, in reality, were more like assassinations. Doing so was made all the easier as journalists, who were used to describing the acrobatic and fast sport of flying planes, had moved into war journalism35. Contributing to the modern cult of performance, the competition for victories became a powerful stimulation both for pilots and for the public. For this reason, aerial warfare quickly turned into a sporting and military event where winners were followed intensely. Jacques Mortane – a former sports journalist who became redactor in chief of La Guerre aérienne illustrée – contributed largely to spreading the comparison between the ace and a heroic sportsman36. In January 1917, he described aerial combats as “terrifying, harrowing and glorious matches that captivate us today”37. Fonck was later depicted as a competitor, “rival of the Sous-Lieutenant Madon with whom he engaged a glorious match to shoot down the Boches38.

The number of confirmed successes were ranked and aces appeared on a list of winners at the top of which was always a young and healthy “ace of aces.” After the death of Georges Guynemer (53 victories) and the wounding of Charles Nungesser (43 victories), the position was hold by René Fonck who totaled 75 confirmed kills by the end of the war. For the press he became a record holder (“recordman”) who became particularly famous after shooting down six enemy aircraft in the same day (May 9, 1918)39. The following month, a photo of Fonck was featured on the front cover of La Guerre aérienne illustrée and the photo had been placed inside the dial of a clock showing to the second the alleged time of the victory in order to underline the magnificence of Fonck’s performance (fig. 2)40. Placing Fonck alongside other fighter pilots through the use of mythemes, journalists also singled out Fonck in readers’ minds through the use of special features.

(Fig. 2)

The first sextuplé of René Fonck on the cover of La Guerre aérienne illustrée on July 13, 1918.

Image 1000000000000229000002F35707BBD0A46163F2.jpg

(BDIC, 2012-112537;

1.3. Fonck, the “Invincible Avenger”

In many respects, the image of Fonck ascribed by journalists was quite different to that of the ideal ace41. While reporters highlighted the spirit and the enthusiasm of Georges Guynemer, or the carefree attitude of Charles Nungesser, René Fonck was depicted as a cold-blooded, methodical tactician who was unbeatable due to his speed in the air. These descriptions were built from the technique he used in combat as well as on the physical aspects and attitudes that reporters could observe during interviews42. L’Illustration thus reported to its readers that:

Fonck is a man of average stature with broad shoulders, who stands straight, only makes few gestures, looks squat and thin all together. The serious expression of his face contrasts with the youth of his features. He is twenty-two years old, speaks with an equal voice, expresses himself using short sentences taking the time to think about them first. The simplicity of his military uniform, the sobriety of his attitude and his self-control which radiates from his person are lone indicators that he is special43.

Alongside the classic modesty of the flying ace, Fonck’s image is reflected particularly when recalling the thorough method he used to shoot down enemy airplanes. This image was a recurrent topic of comments made about Fonck. Jacques Mortane – with whom Fonck sympathized – used the exceptional visual acuity of the pilot to compare him to a striking eagle. “His look is very peculiar: the eyes that lie behind his creased eyelids are of a rare mobility. When they stare at you, they gleam like the blue of steel. One can imagine what the eagle looks like when it swoops on its opponent.”44 Just as the reference to metal reminds us of some aspects of modern warfare, the reader can understand the fusion between the pilot and his plane: a man’s eyes merge with the wings of the machine and this paves the way to the metaphor of the noble eagle that swoops on its prey. Another recurrent avian metaphor was the use of the stork. This was symbol used by the groupe de combat 12, the name of the unit within which Fonck fought his aerial war. As Fonck’s reputation grew inside the unit (the SPA 103) its planes became known as “Fonck’s storks” due to their flanks being emblazoned with images of this long-winged bird. (fig. 3). That they did so had a powerful meaning as this migratory white bird was the symbol of the so-called “lost provinces” (Alsace and Moselle) upon which the memory of Third Republic patriotism had been built45. Following the death of Georges Guynemer on September 11, 1917 Jacques Mortane was, again, to extend the metaphor writing:

From the thick clouds within which they hid themselves from view, the Storks swooped in a show of wonderful might and beauty; they rushed on to the surprised and panicked black birds. The long beak of the vengeful birds had soon reached the heart of fast sparrow hawks and enormous vultures46.

(Fig. 3)

Fonck’s stork exposed in the Trocadero Palace on March 1919.

Image 10000000000002C30000020FA5653E006DFF2108.jpg

(Bibliothèque nationale de France, Meurisse, 70846,

The thin-beaked storks of the squadron became vengeful and triumphant against the enemy birds of prey that, in the reader’s imagination, were dark and sneaky. French journalists – in particular Jacques Mortane and Jean Daçay – quickly concluded that Fonck had avenged the beloved ace Guynemer by killing his killer47. In the eyes of the press Fonck became “Guynemer’s avenger” at a time when – as the Adjudant Paul Hatin put it – “revenge ennobled”48. Fonck’s being named so was exceptional and it established a direct link between the two “ace of aces”. At the same time it maintained the transcendental dimension of a military corps in the making: one which was made up of knights of the air that defended the honor of their fallen comrades. This singularized Fonck while comforting the idea of his invincibility – a notion confirmed by the fact that his plane was never hit by a bullet. The invincibility associated with Fonck was added to an heroic dimension which meant that victory against inferior opposition was almost inevitable.

Nicknamed “the Invincible” [Fonck] is convinced that he is superior to every single enemy pilot and that nothing except luck, or the stray bullet of a panic-stricken enemy, can prevent him from being so. [He is] a thoroughbred […] a phenomenon, and the exception in a human specialty49.

With the excitement of aerial combat differing from that of the industrial war, the French press constructed the image of René Fonck from preexisting representations and, at the same time, provided him with distinguishing features relating to both his physical appearance and his war record. As a mythical flying ace the Vosgian pilot benefited from a positive public image at the end of the war but this image was slightly altered in the context of peace and Fonck’s return to civilian life.

2. The “député-aviateur”: an expert rather than a dandy (1919-1924)

2.1. The Resetting of the ace’s image in peacetime

As “Guynemer’s avenger” René Fonck benefited from a great popularity in the first years of peace50. Indeed, in a quiz called “A qui le million?” (Who should win a million francs?) organized by La Vie aérienne illustrée51 in autumn 1919 readers were invited to decide what amount in prize money they would give to each pilot if a fictional endowment of a million francs were to be given to French aviation. The deceased Georges Guynemer received the most votes (66,767); Commandant Vuillemin was placed second (66,524) and Captain Fonck came third with 66,497 votes52. Though his late arrival on the battlefront meant that Fonck was not the reader’s favourite, his likeability meant that his score was respectable and that his popularity held firm among the ranks of politicians and journalists. Indeed, due to his being probably the most decorated French soldier and seen as an example for his fellow citizens to follow, Fonck was given the role of holding aloft the aviators flag during the Victory parade on France’s National Day on July 14, 191953. Another example of his popularity was his taking centre stage in a photo of surviving aces which was published in Le Monde illustré in late December 191954. Fonck also benefited from the ongoing censorship as journalists Berger and Allard reported that they had received instructions to “put an end to any story which would compromise Fonck[‘s integrity]” during peace negotiations55. Thanks to this, Fonck’s positive image as a knight of the sky was perpetuated in peacetime by civilian newspapers. The Potins de Paris depicted the young man as:

Hiding himself and a row of decorations under his black raincoat Fonck told of his horror of those who would tame flying aces into becoming stunt pilots, and of his lack of enthusiasm towards young men in small bars who styled themselves as aviators56.

Showing only his merits and refusing undeserved compliments from unwise “ace tamers”, Fonck’s appearance fully reflected what he thought about fighter aces. His beliefs had an impact on the way he behaved and he acted in accordance with the standards he had developed and put into action during the war57. He rejected the dandyism and the thoughtlessness often attributed to airmen of the time, and rejected the adventurous character of the airman that was considered a tool of seduction. Despite this, newspapers wrote regularly about the young man’s successes. Even the extreme right-wing Action française noted during a diplomatic mission in Brazil in 1922 that “the crowd’s favorite has been René Fonck. One never ceases to acclaim him in the street. [...] Women set down flowers in front of [his] portrait.”58 It should be noted, however, that there was a change of tone in the way aviators were depicted: descriptions now focused less on the military exploits of aces during the war and more on the pre-war image of the civilian sportsman59. In this respect, as early as October 1919, Raymond Saladin reminded us that Fonck and other fighter pilots “were men before they had become aces and that they had been sportmen in the full sense of the term”60. For this reason Lecture pour tous chose to present Fonck as one of the French athletes that were going to take part to the celebrations of the 1920 Antwerp Olympics61. Although he was never presented directly as a soldier on these occasions, pictures of the pilot wearing his uniform and his decorations – as with the publication of his war memories – inevitably reminded people his (prestigious) past as a soldier62.

2.2. Fonck, “député-aviateur”

Placed second on the list of the Gauche Républicaine Démocratique in the Vosges Department (thanks to Georges Clemenceau taking him under his wing) Fonck was elected as a member of the French Parliament in 1919 without having to give a single speech63. The military prestige from which he benefited gave him access to the “Bleu Horizon” Chamber which was composed mainly of politicians that had fought as soldiers in the war64. The press often questioned the ability of such a young man – Fonck was 25 years old – to face these responsibilities but this type of concern was softened by the guarantees that his past offered. The virtues Fonck had showed on the front provided the promise of success. Claude Doret expressed reservations as to Fonck’s election as early as September 1919. He was “highly doubtful that Fonck would find pleasure in taking part in political lobbying and that he would offer his prestigious support to the thousands of schemes that were the principal preoccupation of current-day parliamentarians.”65 This quote highlights the common distrust by the common people in the Parliament after the First World War.66

In addition to his parliamentary role, in July 1921 Fonck was elected President of the Ligue aéronautique de France (L.Aé.F.). This was a lobby which promoted aviation and which was affiliated to the very high-brow and upper-class Aéro-Club de France. In spite of this, in the eyes of the press Fonck remained a flying ace and Le Petit Journal was very keen to point out that “Captain Fonck [was indeed] MP for the Vosges, President of the Ligue aéronautique de France and – even better – ace of aces of the war”67. Le Journal des débats also explained after a (rare) speech given by the ace in the Chambre des députés that Fonck “was applauded as flying ace as much as he was as a speaker”68.

The image the press gave of René Fonck was therefore only very partially reconstructed after his election. Stiil, Fonck tried to change it in a more technical way. He attempted to associate his past in the Groupe de combatLes Cigognes” with his new civilian functions – posing for instance in a nice suit in his Parisian office handling a statuette of the stork that was his totem69. Though this picture from the archives of the Meurisse agency was perhaps never published, it still illustrates the way Fonck attempted to turn his military past into something more likable by associating it with his new functions and using the press to do so. This was only partly successful as everything written about the MP was contained a reminder of his past. Significantly, Guy Mounereau in the Écho de Paris on July 1922 described Captain Fonck “as being as much at ease with administrative files that clutter his desk as with he had been with the aircraft of the Boches in the old days…”70 (fig. 4). Not only did the press shape the heroic figure of René Fonck, it also became a relay for his thoughts, a tribune with which aviation could be promoted, and the means of fighting off the fears of Germans that had become an obsession for Georges Clemenceau’s center right-wing partisans.

The position that Fonck obtained in the Ligue Aéronautique de France (L.Aé.F.) – combined with his activities in the Chamber of Deputies – enabled him to organize a conference at the Société de Géographie on February 22, 1924. Here, he outlined his vision of a futuristic flight that would take the Parisian between Paris and New York in less than eight hours. This exercise in style – one which fully matched the positive attitudes towards aviation held at the time – was relayed partly, or in full, by several specialized or regional newspapers such as L’Aérophile, the Revue hebdomadaire (twice) or Le Bien Public from Dijon71. Fonck was very active at the beginning of the 1920s and his thoughts about the necessity of creating a Ministry of the Air and, also, to organize aviation in French colonies were published regularly in specialized newspapers72. The general press and newspapers intended for veterans were more interested in his thoughts that warned of the danger of Germany and, in addition to a wider lobbying in favor of aviation73, the necessity of putting in place an effective aerial defense74. The prestigious and high-brow Revue des Deux Mondes even asked Fonck to write an article in 1924. This demonstrated how Fonck’s reputation as an expert in aeronautical matters had grown even though he had only been a mechanic ten years earlier75. For this reason, Fonck benefited from the interest of the press and literature when it came to the question of aviation76.

(Fig. 4)

René Fonck on November 24, 1920, press photo from the Meurisse agency.

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(Bibliothèque nationale de France, Meurisse, 85167;

2.3. Were personal failures hidden by the press?

In the 1920s, the narration of heroic actions carried out by the aces contributed to the making of the permanent myth surrounding the knights of the sky77. The recurrence of aerial metaphors was part of a wider aerial imagination of this time and they were used to present pilots as being able to fly above mere mortals, as being the link between gods and humans as well as earth and the sky in a society which was becoming more and more air minded78. This partly explained why journalists focused on Fonck’s flying as well as the generalized use of aerial lexicon particularly fertile in their wordplay. After his election in 1919, for instance, Les Potins de Paris singularly supported Fonck who “vient de monter au Parlement sur l’échelle de ses palmes innombrables. N’ayez aucune crainte qu’il capote. Il ne connait pas le vertige.”79 Playing on the dual meaning of “vertige”, this quote shows how people saw the victorious airman: neither gravity nor Parliament could ever stop him.

This focus on Fonck’s career as an aviator seemed to omit any consideration of the pilot’s failures in his personal and civilian life. De facto, only brief mentions of his being thrown out of the L.Aé.F at the end of May 1925were made in the press80. Similarly, the loss he suffered in polls in 1924 and the striking commercial failure of Fonck’s vehicles – a venture that he started in 1920 –did not appeared in a single paragraph81.

It seems that journalists had their heads in the clouds, pointing to horizons that would always be further away and more glorious. They seemed only interested in maintaining the image of the fighter pilot: the one who had formed part the aerial imagination. This overshadowed the human aspect which was kept out of the field of representations. It is only when the failure popped up in the realization of the myth – when the horizon of aspirations could not be extended anymore – that the idealized figure of Fonck in the air broke down.

3. The failed advent of the adventurer of the sky (1925-1926)

3.1. The possibility for Fonck to be part of a new myth: the modern-day adventurer of the sky

On March 26, 1926, René Fonck announced plans to fly over the Atlantic from New York to Paris and to pave the way to a regular transatlantic airline82 and something which had never been attempted. In June 1919, pioneers John Alcock and Athur W. Brown had flown “only” from Newfoundland to Connemara over a shorter distance. Nonetheless, their flight was a paradigmatic shift as, for the first time, it had been shown that it was possible to fly over an ocean. The $25.000 Orteig prize – offered from May 1919 by the great hotel owner Raymond Orteig to the first pilot who would fly non-stop from New York to Paris – stimulated the race for the Atlantic. Because Fonck ran for this prize, his image merged with that of the adventurer of the sky. He would overreach nature thanks to continuous and unstoppable progress, which was a powerful republican myth when associated with science83. Le National dreamt of a world where people would wonder if the Atlantic Ocean ever existed because it would be so easy to fly over84. Edmond Blanc in Le Petit Provençal and Le Républicain du Gard confirmed the feeling that nothing could ever slow down modernity in progress: flying across the Atlantic “is no longer an exceptional deed. […] Fonck can do it. If it is not him, it will be someone else.”85

For the Dépêche de Constantine, it was the whole of humanity that was progressing through Fonck’s venture: “Certainly no one can foresee what will come but everything leads us to believe that […] space will be once more defeated by human effort and genius.”86 One can thus understand the romantic image connected to this modern adventurer: Fonck’s success appeared uncertain in facing the dangers and immensity of space but there was no doubt that humanity would eventually succeed. Yet the press reported the common people’s fascination to see Fonck’s eleven-ton Sikorski S-35 flying. The plane was regularly compared to a “mastodonte” or named “avion géant87. This project showed the magic of science in progress which fascinated the public. Vivid descriptions from reporters insisted on the sophistication of the aircraft and the completion of every detail as technical proof. Thus, L’Écho de la Loire noted that “the aircraft is a biplane, looking almost like a monoplane because its lower wing flattens itself against the upper one and its light body is covered with a paper pulp which is almost fully waterproof”88. La Dépêche Iséroise and La Libre Belgique went as far as inventorying in their columns the technical details of the aircraft such as its wingspan, its weight per square meter, its weight per horsepower, the volume of fuel on board and its approximate speed (“roughly 200 kilometers per hour”)89. La Dépêche de Brest and Le Progrès du Nord explained – how marvelously technical – that Captain Fonck and his staff benefited from a “new tool collecting enough water from the air to quench the thirst of the bold airmen.”90 While Fonck was still remembered as the “ace of aces”, the press associated him with the new imagination of long distance flights and modern aerial venture. In those days, wireless telegraphy was a useful tool as well as a powerful symbol of modernity. Thus the pilot was photographed in military uniform, wearing his decorations and holding a receiver. His heroic past – also recalled by the stork painted on his plane – was associated with the pursuit of progress over the Atlantic that this receiver symbolized. The trichromatic print which had been preferred to the black one added to the liveliness and the modernity of the picture (fig. 5).

(Fig. 5)

“Captain Fonck who will fly non-stop from New York to Paris”, Le Pèlerin, August 22, 1926. (“Le capitaine Fonck qui va voler de New York à Paris sans escale”)

Image 100000000000025A0000027E192708C7E8E20A9F.jpg

(source: coll. Mémoire de René Fonck)

Fonck’s aircraft – his ride – was always considered by the journalists as an extension of Fonck himself. They were fascinated by the plane as much as the sportsman who would take its stick. Thus, the cult of performance appeared all over articles about Fonck which described him as a champion who was going to break altogether “plusieurs records du monde de durée et d’altitude avec charge utile91 to write “une fois de plus [his name] au palmarès de l’aéronautique mondiale.”92

The modernity of this adventurer fascinated both reporters and readers and this justified the intense media coverage given to this never attempted flight. L’Intransigeant explained that Fonck’s departure from Le Havre on late April 1926 took place in front of a huge crowd massed on the pier93. Every single thing became a matter of discussion during the preparation of the air raid. For instance, Le Progrès de Lyon and other newspapers announced that the pilot would bring along a dinner which had been prepared by one of New York’s best chefs. It would be eaten on his arrival in Paris94. This is a story which was published in most French newspapers, and was one which annoyed Georges Brighton in L’Aérauto in which he took offence at “a hot meal” being a joke played by an “inventive and clumsy informant.”95 Even the communist newspaper L’Humanité – one not supposedly very enthusiastic about a capitalistic competition involving money – talked about the pilot’s “sensational crossing”96. These are some of the examples that illustrate how much attention was being given by the French press to the modern adventure Fonck was planning. This was generally the case for any attempt to fly across the Atlantic at the time and it reveals the ongoing the popularity of aerial culture on a global scale97.

3.2. A Shock Between Aerial Imaginations?

As the myth of the adventurer of the sky met the myth of the knight of the air, conflicts between their related mythemes appeared. Because he pursued the $25,000 Orteig prize, Fonck did not appear much chivalrous, whereas abnegation and selflessness should remain his leitmotif. These considerations put the professionalization of pilots in question and demonstrated the latent tension during the 1920s between aviation’s origins as a sport, its modernity as a weapon and its commercial perspectives. Serge Veber put this question to the readers of La Patrie and asked if “in the aerial game, Sadi Lecointe, Fonck and Pelletier d’Oisy would be highly prized stars.”98 In the left-wing La Voix du Peuple, trade unionists of the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) gave mixed feelings which lay somewhere between a rejection of the monetization of sport and admiration for the pilot.

There is no doubt that Captain Fonck is not just seeking glory. This fantastic long-distance flight must be providing him with something else. But do you believe that in undertaking such a mad venture that he will earn as much as some boxers or, even, as much as Miss Lenglen, the tennis champion? Despite his not doing so, René Fonck will risk his life to maintain French supremacy in the air99.

Therefore, the risk taken for French interests justified gains other than the sole honors. The patriotic dimension of the conquest of the air was particularly present in Fonck’s speeches sometimes showing the clash between what was seen as chivalrous and what was seen as adventurous. Whereas the adventurer does not know any frontier because he flies over them, the knight only lives to defend the borders of his country. Not without exercising a certain degree of chauvinism, most French newspapers therefore saw this venture as a mostly French performance that was kindly supported by the United States – the funding and the plane came from this country. La Dépêche de Toulouse recognized this partnership between the two sides of the Atlantic but described it as a great French achievement among others.

Thus, this is not only a French undertaking […] but a veritable record attempt which underlines both the energy and the tenacity of a Frenchman and an American. The plane will bear the colors of both countries […]. There is no doubt that Fonck will take off and add a new exploit to the innumerable French aerial performances100.

In the Conservative French press, L’Intransigeant also spoke of the patriotic spirit of Fonck who had “left our country to testify in front of attentive peoples [...] that audacity is a quality which is above all French, and that only a Frenchman can make the purest gestures of bravery.”101 On the contrary, not surprisingly, Le Soir of Brussels and L’Action française are way more critical of the pilot writing of a “very improbable success”.

The French would be unpleasantly embarrassed at seeing he who held the flag of French aviation at the end of the war fly an aircraft built in the United States by a Russian engineer, equipped with English motors (French license), and accompanied by an officer and a navigator who are American102.

For the ultra-Conservatives, the French hero should not be involving himself in an international venture – especially in a foreign plane. This reminds us how powerful the association was between a pilot and his aircraft in the popular imagination. In late August 1926, while French pilots Tarascon and Coli also announced their intention to fly over the Atlantic – soon followed by the twice speed record-breaker Arrachart – French newspapers generally took the side of the pilots who remained French and showed national preference in the choice of plane103.

Still certain of his success, Fonck demonstrated his self-belief to the press, something which contrasted sharply with the humbleness he had shown in newspaper articles since 1917. Speaking colloquially and being comforted by the certainties that science provided Fonck claimed that: “I am telling you we will make it. It will be as if I was sat in an armchair.”104 Fonck’s self-assurance was actively relayed by the French press. This was closer to the image of the dauntless adventurer, sure of his strength and his coming success, than to the myth of the modest knight of the air. This declaration was also a way of calming the growing impatience of observers as the preparations were getting longer and rumors circulated that the flight would be cancelled105. Whereas a (very optimistic) departure date had been given by some newspapers as July 1926, the attempt was only to take place on September 21 of that year106. Therefore, there was a tension between aerial imagination – filled with record-breaking speeds – and the reality of a thorough preparation, with its many tests and adjustments of prototypes. Because he overtook space, the airman – who flew between gods and men – had to overtake time too. He had to go fast and to act. Citius, altius, fortius as says the Olympic motto… In the Journal des Débats, the Member of Parliament Guy de Montjou later castigated impatient journalists to defend his friend Fonck who was the “victime du bruit fait autour de son projet” while “l’opinion publique a été surexcitée par l’attente fébrile d’une tentative sportive hardie.”107

3.3.Blatant failure: the broken-down absolute

Finally starting off on the morning of September 21, 1926, René Fonck failed to take-off. On Roosevelt Field, Long Island, the axle of the plane’s right wheel broke. Then, toppling over, the aircraft burnt to ashes before the eyes of numerous reporters and news cameras which had come to immortalize the event. While René Fonck and his co-pilot Lt. Lawrence Curtin managed to get out of the aircraft, the radio operator Charles Clavier and the navigator Jacob Islamoff were trapped inside and were burnt alive. Filled with fuel, the aircraft’s tanks fed the fire. The press was divided when it came to deciding who was responsible for this drama. American newspapers suggested Fonck’s misjudgment was to blame whereas the French press highlighted both the speed of the preparation of the American aircraft and the influence of New York and its media108. Le Petit Journal presented a good example of the defence of the French pilot concluding in an interview with Fonck’s mother that “a sneaky fate jealous of the audacity of the knight of the air was to deprive a heroic mother of her expectation. Nothing was lost, however, as his honor is assured.”109 Like Icarus who flew too close to the sun, Fonck fell down to the ground. Because the journal evokes the safe honor of the airman, the reader understands the setback to the myth of the knight of the sky. Only the communist L’Humanité and the satiric Canard enchaîné set themselves apart from the others as they mocked the pilot110. Le Miroir des Sports left its readers to draw their own conclusions with a photo of the burning aircraft (fig. 6)111. Printing a similar photo, Le Sport universel illustré added a second one showing firemen in the ashes of the plane a few hours later. This enhanced how dramatic the situation had been (fig. 7)112.

(Fig. 6)

Le Miroir des Sports, 5 octobre 1926, p. 272.

Image 10000000000003B20000028676E48C0C40CB86FA.jpg

(Bibliothèque nationale de France,

(Fig. 7)

Le Sport universel illustré, 8 octobre 1926, p.671.

Image 1000000000000211000002B2572B6D205AF804F9.jpg

(École Nationale d’Équitation, 2013-97801;

The images of flames consuming the crashed aircraft and dark smoke had a strong visual impact. Their violence broke Fonck’s image through its symbolic extension, that is the plane on fire. On the airfield – a sacred ground between the earth and heaven – Fonck missed his attempt to link humans, who expected unlimited progress, and the horizon that had to be overcome. Showing himself to be fallible, the heroic figure of the airman was no longer reliable. If, in contrast to the New York Times, French newspapers reported that the pilot asked for news of his partners immediately after the crash, readers could see that Fonck had burst into tears whereas, before, he had managed to keep his composure113. As he survived this failure, Fonck left no room for mystery or fantasy which surrounded a brutal but heroic and tragic death. He only appeared weak and fragile – that is, mortal. No longer did he fit the image of the invincible airman that soared above common people.

René Fonck had great potential to become a myth himself. He, however, missed the blessing the French press was willing to offer to pioneers (Blériot, Lindbergh) and romantic daredevils killed in flight (Guynemer, Nungesser, Mermoz)114. Such a success or death would have led to a myth which was fully autonomous from Fonck’s original character115. Because he failed to link the earth and the sky, he revealed his human condition. The disenchanted French press therefore relayed the end of an absolute dream116.

4. Conclusion

Fonck first entered a system of preexisting images that helped the public to imagine fighter aces through the recurrent use of symbols shaping a knight of the sky. The latter was an invincible gentleman of the air who fought elegant aerial duels. Journalists then wrote about a pilot with specific features that distinguished him from other pilots while associating him with the aerial imagination: he was invincible, never shot but yet victorious, an “ace of aces” and the avenger of his comrades. His case is therefore a perfect example of the way the French press shaped a few heroes from a sample of preexisting representations. The latter were partly reconstructed using the context and certain events in which these new champions were protagonists. The horizons of aspirations, which were endlessly overcome, made the aces almost divine. As Fonck showed himself to be fallible, it appeared as though he had become a mere mortal. He disappointed the public because he failed his attempt and survived to his failure.

Fonck missed his transition to the myth of the adventurer of the air and therefore lost the support of the French press. The latter then considered the pilot as merely a glory from the old days, but no longer a fascinating hero. This subtle difference between the future and the past underlines how dependent the aerial imagination was to airmen’s successful transcendence beyond time and space. René Fonck would never recover his mythical presence and spent the rest of his life near airfields trying to pass himself off as specialist in aeronautics and in military affairs. Heading several studies on aerial defense and pilot training in the 1930s, he eventually joined Philippe Pétain in Vichy France before dying quite anonymously. This highlights how a flyer without wings was no longer of interest in a country henceforth fully airminded.


1 I would like to thank Stephen Rookes for his important editorial work on this article. Yusi Liu and the two anonymous reviewers also deserve my gratitude for their relevant comments. Return to text

2 Alfred Heurtaux (1893-1985), WW1 ace with 21 confirmed enemy airplanes shot down, was elected the same year for the Parti Républicain de Gauche, affiliated to the Alliance démocratique. Return to text

3 R. Koselleck, Vergangene Zukunft. Zur Semantik geschichtlicher Zeiten (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1979). Return to text

4 R. Wohl, A Passion for Wings: Aviation and the Western Imagination, 1908-1918 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994). Return to text

5 Newspapers collections of the Bibliothèque nationale de France – partly accessible online through – is the main resource of our study. Alongside, the René Fonck file of the Centre Image Lorraine offers many French and foreign articles published between 1922 and 1928 that the Havas agency collected for the pilot. The association “Mémoire de René Fonck” located in his home-village of Saulcy-sur-Meurthe (Vosges) owns a way bigger collection of articles from the period 1922-1927. The Archives départementales des Vosges in Épinal eventually provides a minor insight on Fonck’s electoral campaigns and local newspapers tackling this issue. Return to text

6 M. Vovelle, Idéologies et mentalités (Paris : La Découverte, 1985), 49. Return to text

7 S. Tison, ‘Du sportsman au combattant, archéologie de la figure de l’as’, in L. Robène (ed.), Le Sport et la Guerre. xixe et xxe siècles (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2012), 349. Return to text

8 B. Wilkin, ‘Aviation and propaganda in France during the First World War’, French History, 28:1 (2014), 60. Return to text

9 T. Le Roy, ‘Aviation et Grande Guerre, 1916-1919. La fin des sportifs?’, in L. Robène (ed.), Le Sport et la Guerre, op. cit., 357-358; É. Mahieu, ‘L’affirmation de la 5e arme (1914-1918)’, in J.-M. Olivier Histoire de l’armée de l’air et des forces aériennes françaises du xviiie siècle à nos jours (Toulouse: Privat, 2014), 49‑148. Return to text

10 B. Wilkin, ‘Aviation and propaganda …’, op. cit., 63. Return to text

11 Every pilot credited with five certified successes on enemy planes was granted the honorific title of ‘ace’. These successes had to be confirmed by witnesses to be registered as an official win after a procedure of homologation. Fonck got these five victories after he spent over 21 months in an observation squadron and eventually got to joined a fighter squadron on April 1917. Return to text

12 L. Kennett, La première guerre aérienne, 1914-1918 (Paris: Economica, 2005), 168-171; B. Wilkin, ‘Aviation and propaganda…’, op. cit., 51-52. Return to text

13 P. Dietschy, ‘La guerre ou le “grand match” : le sport, entre représentation de la violence et expérience combattante’, in R. Cazals, E. Picard and D. Rolland (éd.), La Grande Guerre. Pratiques et expériences (Toulouse: Privat, 2005), 45-54; M.-H. Orthous, ‘Propagande sportive et morale de la nation : le traitement du sport dans la presse française pendant la Première Guerre mondiale’, in L. Robène (ed.), Le Sport et la Guerre, op. cit., 149-157. Return to text

14 L. Robène, ‘Les sports aériens : de la compétition sportive à la violence de guerre’, Guerres mondiales et conflits contemporains, 251:3 (2013), 27. Return to text

15 C. Kehrt, ‘“A Horribly Beautiful Picture”. Aesthetic Dimensions of Aerial Warfare’, in R. Heil et al. (eds.), Tensions and Convergences: Technological and Aesthetic Transformations of Society (Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2007), 337-350. Return to text

16 P. Fritzsche, A Nation of Fliers. German Aviation and the Popular Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), 76-78. It is actually true for most of the belligerents. Return to text

17 Bernard Wilkin even spoke of a “popular dependence” in B. Wilkin, ‘Aviation and propaganda…’, op. cit., 64-65; C. Delporte, ‘Journalistes et correspondants de guerre’ in J.-J. Becker and S. Audoin-Rouzeau (eds.), Encyclopédie de la Grande Guerre: 1914-1918 (Paris: Gallimard, 2004), 720. Return to text

18 J.-P. Dournel, ‘L’image de l’aviateur français en 1914-1918. Une étude du milieu des aviateurs d’après la revue : “La guerre aérienne illustrée”’, Revue Historique des Armées, 121:4 (1975), 60. Return to text

19 Guynemer, un mythe, une histoire (Vincennes: Service Historique de l’Armée de l’Air, 1997). Return to text

20 A mytheme is a sequence or a small semantic unit which contains a belief. By recurrence and in association with other mythemes, it contributes to a mythical discourse – a narrative – with characters, situations and settings. Therefore, Céline Bryon-Portet identified the fighter pilot as a myth observable through several mythemes. C. Bryon-Portet, ‘La construction et l’utilisation de l’image du pilote de chasse’, Recherches en communication, 28 (2007), 148; G. Durand, L’imagination symbolique (Paris: PUF, 2015), 56-58. Return to text

21 S. Goebel, The Great War and Medieval Memory: War, Remembrance and Medievalism in Britain and Germany, 1914-1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); P. Vennesson, Les Chevaliers de l’Air. Aviation et conflits au xxe siècle (Paris: Presse de Sciences Po and Association pour les Études de la Défense, 1997); G.L. Mosse, ‘The Knight of the Sky and the Myth of the War Experience’, in R.A. Hinde and H.E. Watson (eds.), War: a cruel necessity? The bases of institutionalized violence (London: Tauris, 1995), 132-142. Return to text

22 “[Fonck est resté] toujours le même. Ses 45 victoires, ses multiples décorations, sa célébrité n’ont modifié en rien ni sa modestie ni sa simplicité. Il porte les rubans de ses récompenses aussi petits que possible, et celui de la croix de guerre ne peut tenir que quelques-unes de ses palmes.” in Le Petit Parisien, May 25, 1918. Return to text

23 “Fonck était loin d’être insensible aux récompenses qui satisfaisaient son instinct de justice et son légitime désir de gloire.” Jean d’Harcourt quoted in O. Mazel, René Fonck (1894-1953), du ciel aux abîmes (MA Dissertation, Metz: Université Paul Verlaine, 2006), 90. Return to text

24 S. Audoin-Rouzeau, ‘Avions et chars’, in J.-J. Becker Jean-Jacques and S. Audoin-Rouzeau (éd.), Encyclopédie de la Grande Guerre…, op. cit., 268. Return to text

25 ‘Fonck après une de ses récentes victoires’, Le Miroir, September 15, 1918, 15. At that time, Le Miroir printed between four hundred thousand and one million copies per issue despite its fairly high cost (30 centimes). C. Delporte, C. Blandin and F. Robinet, Histoire de la presse en France: xxe-xxie siècles (Paris: Armand Colin, 2016), 76‑79. Return to text

26 T. Le Roy, ‘Aviation et Grande Guerre…’, op. cit., 350. Return to text

27 J.H. Morrow Jr., ‘Les airs’, in J. Winter and A. Becker (éd.), La Première Guerre mondiale, vol. 1: ‘Combats’ (Paris: Fayard, 2014), 383-414. Return to text

28 É. Mahieu, ‘La figure de l’aviateur’,, 2015 [online], accessed 21 Feb. 2017; T. Le Roy, « Aviation et Grande Guerre… », op. cit., 360; L. Robène, ‘Les sports aériens…’, op. cit., 36-38. Return to text

29 J. Laffray, Pilote de chasse aux Cigognes (Paris: Fayard, 1968), 69. Return to text

30 See for ex. J. Mortane, ‘L’as des as au combat. Souvenirs sur Guynemer’, La Guerre aérienne illustrée, June 6, 1918. Return to text

31 R. Fonck, Mes combats (Paris: Flammarion, 1920), 128. Return to text

32 L. Kennett, La première guerre aérienne…, op. cit., 170. Return to text

33 “[Une] véritable aristocratie parmi les glorieux combattants de la cinquième arme.” in Le Figaro, September 1, 1918. The aces indeed obtained 50 per cents of confirmed successes whereas they were only 4 per cents of the total strength. L. Kennett, La première guerre aérienne…, op. cit., 175. About air force elitism, see: M. Paris, ‘The Rise of the Airmen: the Origins of Air Force Elitism, c. 1890-1918’, Journal of Contemporary History, 28 (1993), 123-141. Return to text

34 “La chasse est […] une élite glorieuse, universellement vantée, officiellement très appréciée. En faire partie, c’est recevoir un brevet de distinction, c’est la consécration de qualités exceptionnelles. […] Les noms sont jetés à l’admiration des foules : la presse compte et commente les victoires.” La Guerre aérienne illustrée, December 6, 1917. Return to text

35 L. Robène, ’Les sports aériens…’, op. cit., 27. Return to text

36 S. Tison, ‘Du sportsman au combattant, archéologie de la figure de l’as’, in L. Robène (ed.), Le Sport et la Guerre…, op. cit., 350-352. Return to text

37 “Quels matchs terrifiants, angoissants, glorieux que ceux qui nous captivent aujourd’hui.” in La Guerre aérienne illustrée, January 18, 1917. Return to text

38 “Rival du sous-lieutenant Madon avec lequel il a engagé un match glorieux pour la descente des Boches. in La Guerre aérienne illustrée, January 24, 1918. Return to text

39 See for ex. L’Excelsior, May 11, 1918; L’Illustration, May 18, 1918; Le Monde illustré, May 18, 1918 Return to text

40 La Guerre aérienne illustrée, June 13, 1918. Return to text

41 According to Max Weber, the ideal type is a model that permits to materialize a social type without pretending to systematically find all the features in the reality. In his PhD thesis, Christian Kehrt applied this concept to German pilots echoing the mythemes of Bryon-Portet. The ideal type therefore permits to better understand the flying ace as a socio-cultural reference whereas the myth refers more to the semiological level and the making of symbolic imagery through mythemes. M. Weber, Essai sur la théorie de la science (Paris: Plon, 1965); C. Kehrt, Moderne Krieger, die Technikerfahrungen deutscher Militärpiloten 1910-1945 (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2010), 91; C. Bryon-Portet, ‘La Construction et l’utilisation…’, op. cit., 148. Return to text

42 Corinne Micelli and Bernard Palmieri, René Fonck. L’as des as, l’homme (Paris : Economica, 2007). Return to text

43 “Fonck est un homme de stature moyenne, aux épaules carrées, qui se tient très droit, fait peu de gestes, paraît trapu et mince tout ensemble. L’expression sérieuse de sa figure contraste avec la jeunesse de ses traits. Il a vingt-deux ans, parle d’une voix égale, s’exprime par phrases brèves, met entre elles le temps qu’il faut pour les penser d’abord. La simplicité de son costume militaire, sa sobriété d’attitude, l’empire sur lui-même qui respire de sa personne, indiquent seuls qu’il est quelqu’un.” In L’Illustration quoted by P. Facon, ‘René Fonck, le seigneur de la chasse’, 14-18 le magazine de la Grande Guerre, 47 (2009), 42. Return to text

44  “Le regard est très particulier : les yeux, derrière les paupières qui se plissent, sont d’une rare mobilité. Quand ils vous fixent, ils luisent comme le bleu de l’acier. On s’imagine ce que peut être l’aigle quand il fonce sur l’adversaire.” in J. Mortane, ‘56 victoires en dix mois’, La Guerre aérienne illustrée, December 19, 1918. Return to text

45 Les Escadrilles de l’aéronautique militaire française. Symbolique et histoire, 1912-1920 (Vincennes: Service Historique de l’armée de l’Air, 2004), 25; L. Turetti, Quand la France pleurait l’Alsace-Lorraine. Les ‘provinces perdues’ aux sources du patriotisme républicain, 1870-1914 (Strasbourg: La Nuée Bleue, 2008), 107-112. Return to text

46 “Des nues où elles se tenaient invisibles, les Cigognes plongèrent et, dans un vol d’une puissance, d’une beauté magnifique (sic), elles foncèrent sur les oiseaux noirs, surpris et affolés. Le long bec des oiseaux vengeurs eut tôt fait d’atteindre le cœur des rapides éperviers ou des énormes vautours.” J. Mortane, ‘L’as des as au combat. Souvenirs sur Guynemer’, La Guerre aérienne illustrée, June 6, 1918. Return to text

47 Fonck would have shot down Oberleutnant Kurt Wissemann aircraft, i.e. the pilot who took pride to be the killer of Guynemer and was glorified as such in German newspapers. Fonck as he was investigating the rests of the Wissemann’s plane took his machine gun as a trophy. Newspapers like La Guerre aérienne illustrée quickly took for granted that Fonck “avenged” Guynemer. Recent studies however doubted it – establishing that Wissemann had rather been shot down by a pilot of 56 squadron of the Royal Flying Corps and not by the Frenchman as propagandists had found convenient to believe. N.L.R. Franks, F.W. Bailey and R. Guest, Above the lines (London: Grub Street, 1996), 232; J. Daçay, ‘Un as : R. Fonck’, La Guerre aérienne illustrée, January 17, 1918; ‘Un as : René Fonck (deuxième partie)’, La Guerre aérienne illustrée, January 31, 1918; J. Mortane, ‘Le vengeur’, L’Intransigeant, October 8, 1918. Return to text

48 J. Mortane, ‘Nos morts : Paul Hatin’, La Guerre aérienne illustrée, June 14, 1917, 493. Return to text

49 “Surnommé “l’Invincible” [Fonck] a la notion d’être supérieur à l’ennemi, à chaque ennemi, et d’être obligé de le vaincre […] et que rien, sinon le coup de hasard (sic), la balle perdue d’un ennemi affolé, ne peut l’en empêcher. [Il est] un pur-sang […] le phénomène, l’exception dans une spécialité humaine”. J. Daçay, ‘Un as : R. Fonck’, La Guerre aérienne illustrée, January 17, 1918. Return to text

50 Le Monde illustrée reminded for instance this title of “Guynemer’s avenger” when the pilot born in the Nord entered the Panthéon. Le Monde illustré, May 6, 1922. Return to text

51 This edition followed La Guerre aérienne illustré. Return to text

52 ‘À qui le million ?’, La Vie aérienne illustrée, November 20, 1919, 742. Return to text

53 By the end of the First World War, Fonck was decorated of the Médaille militaire, the Croix de guerre with 28 palms, got 27 mentions and a star, the Légion d’Honneur (made Knight in 1917, Officer in 1918), the Military Cross, the Military Medal, the Belgian War Cross, the Serbian White Eagle, the Portuguese and the Spanish War Crosses – only to mention the main ones. Return to text

54 Le Monde illustré, December 20, 1919. Return to text

55 M. Berger and P. Allard, « Dans les coulisses de la Paix », Marianne, December 28, 1932. Return to text

56 “Timide, sous l’ample pardessus noir cachant ses multiples décorations, il nous dit son horreur de la réclame tapageuse qu’ont voulu lui faire subir certains ‘montreurs d’as’, et son peu d’enthousiasme pour le ‘genre aviateur’, tel que le conçoivent certains petits jeunes gens, pour petits bars à petites femmes”, in « L’as des as !… », Les Potins de Paris, December 5, 1918. Return to text

57 This idea is confirmed by Pierre Laborie’s idea that “men live their history through their idea of it. Systems of mental representations determined their vision of events. […] These representations form a network of dialectical links between the experienced reality and references taken in an imagination they contribute afterwards to fuel. They guide minds’ evolution and weigh on attitudes. ” in P. Laborie, Les Français des années troubles: De la guerre d’Espagne à la Libération (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 2001), 237. Return to text

58 « La France à l’exposition de Rio-de-Janeiro », Action Française, September 7, 1922. Return to text

59 As shown by L. Robène, L’Homme à la conquête de l’air. Des aristocrates éclairés aux sportifs bourgeois (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1998). Return to text

60 R. Saladin, « Des hommes d’abord ! Des soldats ensuite ! », La Voix du combattant, October 26, 1919. Return to text

61 « Nos champions aux Jeux Olympiques », Lectures pour tous, August 1920. Return to text

62 R. Fonck, Mes combats (Paris: Flammarion, 1920), 252. Return to text

63 The Gauche Républicaine Démocratique was a republican and liberal center-right party. Following Georges Clemenceau, it was the second largest group in the Parliament and was included in the wider Alliance Démocratique. D. Accoulon, René Fonck, « As des as » et pilote de la Grande Guerre, Privat, Toulouse, 2018 ; SHD AI 8 Z 498: interview of Mrs. René Fonck (Irène Brillant), July 8, 1987. Return to text

64 250 Members of Parliament on this legislature received the Croix de guerre. N. Roussellier, Le Parlement de l’éloquence. La souveraineté de la délibération au lendemain de la Grande Guerre (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 1997), 46. Return to text

65 « Je doute fort qu’il se complaise aux intrigues de couloirs et prête l’appui de son prestige aux mille combinaisons qui, jusqu’à ce jour, composèrent le fort des occupations de nos parlementaires ». C. Doret, « Fonck candidat », La vie aérienne illustrée, September 25, 1919, 610. Return to text

66 N. Roussellier, « Le Parlement français et la Première Guerre mondiale », Parlement[s], Revue d’histoire politique, 10:2 (2008), 29. Return to text

67 « Le capitaine René Fonck [est bien] député des Vosges, président de la Ligue aéronautique de France et, ce qui est encore mieux, as des as de la guerre », in Le Petit Journal, May 14, 1922. Return to text

68 « [Fonck] s’est fait applaudir autant comme as de l’aviation que comme orateur », in Journal des débats politiques et littéraires, November 30, 1922. Return to text

69 BNF MEU 85166 to 85171, [consulté le 12/02/2019]. Return to text

70 « Le capitaine Fonck […] aussi à l’aise au milieu des dossiers administratifs qui encombrent son bureau, qu’autrefois au milieu des avions boches… », in G. Mounereau, « Le capitaine Fonck va en mission au Brésil », L’Écho de Paris, July 26, 1922; Bourse égyptienne, August 7, 1922. Return to text

71 R. Fonck, « L’Avenir de l’Aéronautique française », Revue hebdomadaire, February 22, 1924, 131-156; L’Aérophile, March 1-15, 1924, 83-86; Revue hebdomadaire, March 8, 1924; « Paris-New-York en 7 h. 45 par le Transaérien », Le Bien Public, May 10, 1924; « L’aviation et la femme », Les Sportives, 1924, 5; « Les voyageurs pour New-York en avion », Revue aéronautique de France, 7-8, July-August 1924, 167-168. Return to text

72 See for instance articles from L’Aéronautique, October 1920; L’Aéronautique, October 1921, 395-396; L’Air, January 5, 1921; L’Air, April 5, 1921. Return to text

73 See for ex. R. Fonck, « L’effort de l’Aviation allemande », L’Écho de Paris, June 4, 1921; « La guerre de 193 »’, La Voix du combattant, December 3, 1922; Le Génie civil, December 9, 1922, 542; « Les efforts de l’Allemagne pour la guerre aérienne », Le Journal, June 14, 1923; « L’Aviation et son rôle pacifique », Le Radical, October 21, 1923; « L’aviation rifaine », Le Temps, July 23, 1925. Return to text

74 Particularly in regard of his activities as President of the Ligue Aéronautique de France; see for ex. « L’aviation et le corps enseignant », Le Radical, March 27, 1922. Return to text

75 R. Fonck, « Le Danger aérien allemand », Revue des Deux Mondes, May 1924, 37-54. Return to text

76 M. Simard-Houde, « La plume et l’aile. L’épopée aéronautique française, entre presse et édition (1908-1945) », Mémoires du Livre/Studies in Book Culture, 8:2 (2017), 1-33; R. Wohl, « Par la voie des airs: l’entrée de l’aviation dans le monde des lettres françaises, 1909-1939 », Le Mouvement social, 145 (1988), 41-64. Return to text

77 B. Wilkin, “Aviation and…”, op. cit., 43. Return to text

78 L. Edmonds, “How Australians Were Made Airminded”, Continuum, 7:1 (1993), 183-206; P. Frizsche, “‘Airmindedness’ – der Luftfahrtkultur der Deutschen in der Weimarer Republik und dem Dritten Reich”, in H. Trischler and K.-U. Schrogl (eds.), Ein Jahrhundert im Flug. Luft und Raumfahrtforschung in Deutschland 1907-2007 (Frankfurt/Main, New-York: Campus Verlag, 2007), 88-103; G. Pirie, “British air shows in South Africa, 1932/3: ‘airmindedness’, ambition and anxiety”, Kronos, 35:1 (2009), 48-70; R. Wohl, A Passion for Wings…, op. cit. Return to text

79 « La Politique », Les Potins de Paris, November 20, 1919. Return to text

80 We only found comments in Le Siècle, June 14, 1926, Paris-Soir, June 30, 1926 and Le Courrier du Centre, August 21, 1926. He has probably been expelled because of financial issues, as the L.Aé.F. was losing money. Some evidence suggest that Pierre-Etienne Flandin, the President of the Aéro-Club, might also have plot against him. Anyways, his eviction had been planned and suffered irregularities in polls. BNF NAF 28201 (23,5): Letter from Ernest Archdeacon to Pierre-Etienne Flandin, June 30, 1926. Return to text

81 This kind of failure actually was not so rare at the time for aces, like Nungesser’s flying school in Orly which did not last long. D. Accoulon, René Fonck…, op. cit. Return to text

82 “Fonck Plans New York-Paris Flight in May; French Ace Will Compete for $25,000 Prize”, New York Times, March 25, 1926. Return to text

83 A. Rasmussen, « Science et progrès, des mythes pour la République ? », in M. Fontaine, F. Monier and C. Prochasson (eds.), Une contre-histoire de la IIIe République (Paris: La Découverte, 2013), 258-271. Return to text

84 « Y a-t-il encore un Atlantique ? », Le National, August 29, 1926. Return to text

85 « L’étape de mille lieues n’est pas un fait d’exception. […] Fonck peut réussir. Si ce n’est pas lui, ce sera un autre », in « Pour franchir l’Océan », Le Petit Provençal, August 17, 1926; « Pour franchir l’Océan », Républicain du Gard, August 18, 1926. Return to text

86 « Certes nul n’en peut prévoir l’issue, mais tout porte à croire que […] l’espace sera une fois de plus vaincu par l’effort et le génie de l’homme », in Sylla, « Propos d’après-guerre. Les Ailes géantes », Dépêche de Constantine, August 26, 1926. Return to text

87 See for ex. « Le Mastodonte a enfin volé », La Presse, August 23, 1926; « Fonck a expérimenté son avion géant », L’Alsace, August 24, 1926. Return to text

88 « L’appareil est un biplan, ressemble presque à un monoplan tant l’aile inférieure est contreplaquée (sic) et la légère carrosserie est revêtue d’une pulpe de papier qui assure une étanchéité presque complète », in « La traversée de l’Atlantique en avion », L’Écho de la Loire, August 19, 1926. Return to text

89 « Fonck plein de confiance, prépare New-York-Paris », Dépêche Iséroise, August 15, 1926; « L’aviateur Fonck va tenter la traversée de l’Atlantique. 5760 kilomètres d’un seul coup d’aile », Libre Belgique, August 15, 1926. Return to text

90 « Un nouvel appareil permettant de recueillir dans l’air une quantité d’eau suffisante pour calmer la soif des hardis aviateurs », in « La traversée aérienne de l’Atlantique », Dépêche de Brest, August 13, 1926; « Fonck s’assure contre la soif », Le Progrès du Nord, August 14, 1926; etc. Return to text

91 « La Traversée de l’Atlantique », Tarn Républicain, August 28, 1926. Return to text

92 R. Saladin, « M. Jackson attend le capitaine René Fonck », Sports, August 23, 1926. Return to text

93 « Fonck est parti pour l’Amérique », L’Intransigeant, April 22, 1926. Return to text

94 « De New York à Paris d’un seul bond », Progrès de Lyon, August 17, 1926; « Avant la traversée de l’Océan Atlantique, Fonck va effectuer un vol d’essai », L’Express de l’Est, August 18, 1926; « Fonck tenterait la traversée de l’Atlantique lundi prochain », Ouest-Éclair, August 18, 1926; « Fonck partira lundi prochain pour traverser l’Atlantique », L’Est républicain, August 18, 1926. Return to text

95 « Le coup du repas chaud, […] une fumisterie d’informateur inventif et maladroit » in G. Brighton, « Bobards… à l’Américaine. Le coup du repas chaud », L’Aérauto, August 22, 1926. Return to text

96 « New York-Paris serait pour le 23 août », L’Humanité, August 19, 1926. Return to text

97 R. Wohl, The Spectacle of Flight: Aviation and the Western Imagination, 1920-1950 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005). Return to text

98 « Dans le domaine de l’aviation, Sadi Lecointe, Fonck et Pelletier d’Oisy seraient certainement des vedettes recherchées », in S. Veber, « En marge des Sports. Si… », La Patrie, August 25, 1926. Return to text

99 « Sans doute le capitaine Fonck ne doit pas travailler uniquement pour la gloire. Ce raid fantastique doit lui rapporter autre chose. Mais croyez-vous qu’à entreprendre pareille folie il gagnera autant que certains boxeurs, que les impresarii se disputent, ou, même, que Mlle Lenglen, champion[ne] de tennis ? Et, pourtant, René Fonck risque sa vie pour conserver, à la France, la suprématie dans les airs », in MCRS, « En raccourci… », Voix du Peuple, August 21, 1926. Return to text

100 « Ce n’est donc pas uniquement une entreprise française […] mais un véritable record qui mettra en valeur à la fois l’énergie et la ténacité d’un Français et d’un Américain. L’avion portera les couleurs des deux pays […]. Nul doute que Fonck ne décolle et n’ajoute un exploit nouveau aux innombrables performances aériennes françaises », in « À travers les journaux : La préparation du raid Paris-New York », Dépêche de Toulouse, August 15, 1926. Return to text

101 « Fonck a quitté notre pays pour témoigner devant les peuples attentifs – de plus en plus entreprenants sur notre seul exemple – que l’audace est une qualité, française avant tout, et que le plus pur geste de bravoure un Français seul peut le faire », in « Fonck ! Un symbole. Avant le bond vers l’inconnu », L’Intransigeant, c. April 1926 [coll. C.I.L.]. Return to text

102 « Tous les Français auront éprouvé une gêne désagréable à voir celui qui fut à la fin de la guerre le porte-drapeau de l’aviation française voler sur une machine construite aux États-Unis par un ingénieur russe avec des moteurs anglais (licence française) et accompagné par un officier et un navigateur américains », in Water-Polo, « Autour d’un raid transatlantique », Le Soir, August 28, 1926. The engineer, Igor Sikorsky, was a Russian emigrant in the United States. The three engines were in fact Gnome-et-Rhône Jupiter 9A radial engines made in Lyon. Return to text

103 « La traversée de l’Atlantique », Union républicaine, August 22, 1926; « New York-Paris en une seule étape », La Victoire, August 22, 1926; « Le vol transatlantique », Courrier du Centre, August 28, 1926; « New York-Paris en avion », Populaire, August 28, 1926; « Le raid de Fonck », La Gazette vosgienne, August 28, 1926; and so on. Return to text

104 « On arrivera, je te dis et dans un fauteuil », in « Les Projets de Fonck », Express du Midi, August 15, 1926; « L’Aviateur Fonck a pleinement confiance dans la réussite de son projet », Le Radical, August 15, 1926; « Fonck est plein de confiance dans la réussite de ce raid », Réveil du Nord, August 15, 1926; « Le capitaine Fonck est confiant », Le Petit méridional, August 15, 1926; « Malgré les difficultés, Fonck compte arriver… dans un fauteuil », Lyon Républicain, August 15, 1926; « Fonck espère arriver ‘dans un fauteuil’ », Le Petit Var, August 15, 1926; and so on. Return to text

105 See for ex. « Le raid de Fonck encore une fois remis », L’Œuvre, August 30, 1926; « La traversée Paris-New York compromise bien que », L’Auto, August 30, 1926; « Le capitaine Fonck ne traversera pas l’Atlantique », La Volonté, August 30, 1926. Return to text

106 Although Fonck announced he would take off on September as early as his departure from Le Havre – as one can read in L’Intransigeant – the New York Tribune explained this would happen before July 1st. « Fonck est parti pour l’Amérique », L’Intransigeant, April 22, 1926; “Fonck inspects plane for his Europe flight”, New York Tribune, April 29, 1926. Return to text

107 « L’opinion publique a été surexcitée par l’attente fébrile d’une tentative sportive hardie » in G. de Montjou, « L’accident de Fonck », Journal des débats, September 25, 1926. Return to text

108 See for ex. « Les véritables raisons de l’insuccès du capitaine Fonck », La Patrie, September 23, 1926; L. Marsolleau, « Petite remise au point », L’Avenir, September 24, 1926; « La Morale d’un Drame », L’Éclaireur, September 25, 1926; « Après l’échec. La théorie du bouc émissaire et la contingence des lois scientifiques », Sports, September 25, 1926. Return to text

109 « Un destin sournois, jaloux de l’audace des chevaliers de l’air, devait tromper l’attente de la mère héroïque. Mais rien n’est perdu, puisque l’honneur est sauf », in Le Petit Journal, September 22, 1926. Return to text

110 « L’Avion de Fonck capote au départ et prend feu », L’Humanité, September 22, 1926; « Sur l’Album de la Marquise », Le Canard enchaîné, September 22, 1926. Return to text

111 « L’avion du raid transatlantique New York-Paris, de René Fonck, en flammes sur la piste de depart », Le Miroir des Sports, October 5, 1926, 272. Return to text

112 Le Sport universel illustré, October 8, 1926, 671. Return to text

113 “Fonck Plane Burns, 2 Die At Start Of Paris Flight”, New York Times, September 22, 1926. See also for example: Le Matin, September 22, 1926; Le Petit Journal, September 22, 1926; Le Temps, September 23, 1926. Return to text

114 For the sole case of Georges Guynemer and his posthumous remembrance, see: Guynemer, un mythe, une histoire, op. cit. For significant interwar literature on that matter, one should see particularly: M. Nadaud, Guynemer, « l’as des as » (Paris: Albin Michel, 1918); H. Bordeaux, Le chevalier de l’air, vie héroïque de Guynemer (Paris: Plon, 1920); R. de Chavagnes, De Guynemer à Fonck: le groupe des Cigognes, l’aviation de chasse (Paris: Chiron, 1920); M. Rostand, L’archange: drame héroïque en 3 actes (Paris: Petite Illustration, 1925); J. Mortane, Deux archanges de l’air, Georges Guynemer, Jean Mermoz (Paris: Baudinière, 1937); J. Mortane, Jean Mermoz (Paris: Plon, 1937); J. Kessel, Mermoz (Paris: NRF, 1938). Return to text

115 Raoul Girardet saw a progressive empowerment of the myth from its original model to form “a coherent and comprehensive system of beliefs. In those conditions, it does not claim any other legitimacy than the one of its simple affirmation, any other logic than the one of its free development.” in R. Girardet, Mythes et mythologies politiques (Paris: Seuil, 1986), 12. Return to text

116 C. Bryon-Portet, « La Construction et l’utilisation… », op. cit., 148. Return to text


Electronic reference

Damien Accoulon, « The Construction of an Image in Aviation: the Case of René Fonck and the French Press (1917-1926) », Nacelles [Online], 5 | 2018, Online since 01 décembre 2018, connection on 24 juillet 2024. URL :


Damien Accoulon

PhD candidate, “agrégé” in history

Université Paris Nanterre and Technische Universität Braunschweig

By this author