Figures of the aviator as a sportsman, the example of Henri Farman

Figures of the aviator as a sportsman, the example of Henri Farman

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Title: Henri Farman.

Creation date : 1908

Date shown: 1908

Dimensions: Height 18 - Width 13

Technique and other indications: Prints and Photography Department, BnF

Storage place: National Library of France (Paris) website

Contact copyright: © Photo National Library of France

Picture reference: Rol, 312 bis

© Photo National Library of France

Publication date: March 2016

Historical context

If the pioneers of the conquest of the air were above all engineers and genius tinkerers, like the Wright brothers or Blériot, the flights of "heavier than air" quickly took on a sporty turn. The sporting character of aviation thus becomes predominant, taking precedence over the technical aspect, while the pilot's image changes accordingly.

A dangerous activity requiring excellent physical condition, aviation quickly attracts sportsmen, especially those keen on mechanical disciplines, who find new ground in which to exercise their courage, their taste for risk and their skill. The piloting of the first planes, because of their low power and their rudimentary controls, required a significant physical commitment on the part of the aviators: they had to accompany and compensate for the movements of the aircraft with their own body. While competitions and cups are being set up, sports newspapers are enthusiastic about the new invention, recording the results and the various records (height, speed, distance covered, flight time, etc.) controlled by independent authorities.

Image Analysis

Henri Farman is emblematic of this new figure of the aviator as a sportsman. After distinguishing himself as a racing cyclist and automobile racer, he turned to aviation and, on 13 January 1908, won the prize put out to competition by Henry Deutsch de la Meurthe and Ernest Archdeacon for the first kilometer covered in a loop. Thanks to this feat, he became a celebrity in the nascent aviation community, extending to this new discipline the sporting fame he had already acquired in car and bicycle racing.

He is pictured here at the joysticks of his plane according to a rhetoric similar to that of the pictures taken during sports competitions. Exactly as he poses behind the wheel of his automobile or on his bicycle, Henri Farman is immortalized with his machine in an attitude which indicates his mastery of the apparatus: sitting upright, firmly holding the steering stick, he rides and dominates his airplane in the same way as his automobile or his bicycle. Emblematic of the sportsman of the time, his outfit - cap, tweed jacket and cropped pants tight to the calves - also testifies to the assimilation of aviation to a sport.


It is precisely Henri Farman's sporty approach to aviation, staged in this photograph, which allows him to innovate in take-off maneuvers: he invents the gesture of lowering and then raising the elevator in order to to reject the air under the device which is then lifted by the resistance of this mass.

The sporting turn taken by aviation from 1908 had consequences for the media coverage of the conquest of the air. To obtain greater visibility, inventors are forced to take control of their machines and take part in competitions. The assimilation of air navigation to a sport, however, would only last for a while: the rapid improvement in aircraft performance provided opportunities for this invention which had until then been useless. In other words, if aviation was initially regarded as a sport, it is because its still rudimentary technology limited its practical applications.

  • aviation
  • sport
  • feat
  • Third Republic


CHADEAU, Emmanuel: The dream and the power.The plane and its century, Paris, Fayard, 1996.CORBIN Alain (ed.): The advent of leisure 1850-1960, Paris, Rome, Éditions Aubier, Laterza, 1995. The Epic of Aviation, History of a Century, 1843-1944, coll. "Les grandes dossiers de L’Illustration", Bagneux, Le Livre de Paris, 1987. KALIFA Dominique: La culture de masse en France, 1.1860-1930, Paris, La Découverte / Syros, 2001.

To cite this article

Claire LE THOMAS, "Figures of the aviator as a sportsman, the example of Henri Farman"

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