A copy of a postcard shows flight trials at the Mondorf Air Show hosted in 1910. Postcard generously shared by the Musée de l'Aviation in Mondorf-les-Bains
Luxembourg air travel has experienced unparalleled growth, with over 4 million passengers passing through Findel in 2018. But, its origins did not begin there.
To mark the centenary of the first international passenger flight (from London to Paris) on 25 August, Delano looks back each week at a different chapter in the country’s aviation history.
This initial instalment takes readers to Mondorf-les-Bains, in the southeast of Luxembourg, where aviation first made its mark on the country in 1910, just eight years after the Wright brothers’ first flight. This was an exciting new era of travel, as French engineer and inventor Clément Ader said at the time “he who is master of the skies, will be master of the universe.” Luxembourgers were as enthralled by the possibilities of flight as anyone and, inspired by the great week of aviation organised in Reims, France, in June 1910 the The Aéro Club of the Grand Duchy organised its own air show.
Writing in his book “L’Aviation Luxembourgeoise”, former government aviation chief Pierre Hamer recorded that newspapers at the time estimated half of Luxembourg’s population descended on Mondorf for the inaugural event to which the best pilots in Europe had been invited.
Of the six competitors, the only Luxembourger in the running was Jacques Wiesenbach, a motor mechanic in the capital. Just two months earlier he made Luxembourg history by becoming the first Luxembourger to take off and land in the country during a test flight at the site. The glory was short-lived, however. During the week of the race, Wiesenbach and his biplane “Voisin” never made it in the air and he was subsequently fired.
The account recorded at the aviation museum in Mondorf-les-Bains suggest he bottled out. It was perhaps understandable given the show was hampered by poor weather and, according to the museum, even the first pilot to take off, Belgium’s first aviator Baron Pierre de Caters, had to make a forced landing in Lorraine.
Early 1900s photograph shows the Wiesenbach brothers, with Vincent on the left. Photo: Musée de l'Aviation Mondorf-les-Bains
Wiesenbach wasn’t the only family member to enter the record books. His older brother, Vincent, was the first Luxembourger to obtain a pilot’s licence, in 1910. He was a skillful pilot who flew a Wright biplane for the rich industrialist Baron Robert von Lieben and was appointed instructor of the newly created Austrian airforce. He built his own plane, the Weisenbach, in which he crashed and died at the Wien-Neustadt meeting in 1911, according to the museum.
Following the success of the first meeting, further air events were held in the following years in other locations, including Merl, Strassen, Cents and Hesperange. And, while the Great War interrupted the country’s aviation activities, the strategic importance of the skies for the military prompted mass investment in aircraft R&D and training of pilots.
Among the pioneers of Luxembourg aviation was Louis Hemmer, shown above in his Belgian army uniform. Photo: Musée de l'Aviation Mondorf-les-Bains
To become pilots, Luxembourgers joined the Belgian army and one of the first to do so was Emile Karier. He obtained his licence in 1921 and, in 1923, became the first Luxembourg commercial pilot, flying for Sabena.
Another master of the skies at the time was Louis Hemmer (pictured above), who, after joining the Belgian army in 1923, returned to Luxembourg in 1928. Considered by flight fanatics as “a real entrepreneur in the new world of aviation”, Hemmer prepared a basic airfield and aviation school in Helmsange.
His plane, the “Prince Jean”, was even inaugurated by Grand Duchess Charlotte, after whose son it was named.
Joseph Nicolas Beck, meanwhile, occupies a place in the early history of Luxembourg’s aviation for his epic flight from Fiji to Luxembourg in 25 stages. The son of an entrepreneur, he had lived in Saigon and then Indonesia before deciding to return, setting out on 1 October 1936, with his son, in his De Havilland Gipsy Moth. He arrived in Hesperange on 7 January 1937 after travelling an incredible 17,350 kilometres.
If not everyone was piloting a plane, there were opportunities to have a taster flight over Luxembourg and its surroundings, for just 150 francs, as original adverts from the time reproduced in Hamer's book show.
The Luxembourg Listener, pictured, was an eight-seater De Havilland Dragon which flew to Croydon, in the UK, twice a week. Photo: Musée de l'Aviation Mondorf-les-Bains
First commercial flight
As flight became more common and even accessible, aviation clubs mushroomed all over the country. An aerodrome was developed in Esch-Lallange, following an event organised there by Lou Hemmer in 1929. But it wasn’t ideal. According to Hamer, during a meeting in 1935, a French pilot struck a high-tension cable close to the airfield, killing both himself and passenger.
The airfield was moved and the club disbanded to be replaced by the Aéro Club du Bassin Minier. It rented the Laangholzer-Bech for a symbolic euro.
Officially inaugurated in 1937, it was here in 1936 that the first commercial flights to and from Luxembourg took place. The “Luxembourg Listener”, was an eight-seater De Havilland Dragon, which flew twice a week between Croydon in the UK and Esch, carrying recordings for Radio Luxembourg. One of the world’s first commercial stations broadcasting to the UK, people first tuned into the radio station in 1933.
It quickly gained a following because it was able to circumvent broadcasting regulations and break the UK monopoly of the BBC.
Aerial view of the Esch aerodrome. Photo: Musée de l'Aviation Mondorf-les-Bains
One airfield for the country
Esch became a popular spot for aviation enthusiasts, who gathered to watch in the summer, and used the runway as an ice rink in winter. Despite this, when it came to choosing a permanent airfield, the aerodrome in the south did not make the government’s shortlist. Today nothing remains of the site, which is now given over to housing. Indeed the only nod to its past is the name “rue de l’Aérodrome”.