One of aviation’s pioneers was a Riviera native. A current exhibit in his birth town of Villefranche honours his 125th birthday.
How many commercial and private pilots are there in the world today? Hundreds of thousands? How many pilots have held a license since aviation entered the scene in the late 1800s? Millions maybe? Well, if you were license holder no. 695, you certainly were an early adopter of a discipline which at the time was labeled complete madness and a sport only for some crazy daredevils. Auguste Maïcon was that person. A beautifully curated exhibit at the Citadelle de Villefranche, a stone’s throw from Nice, honours the life and legacy of the man who wore the proud nickname of Azurean Lindbergh.
Born in Villefranche-sur-Mer in 1891, he had a passion for flying from earliest childhood, piloting his first aircraft in 1911. A graduate of the famous Caudron school of aviation, which trained pilots for commercial and military missions, he refused to actively participate in World War I combat but rather chose to fly missions such as firefighting or spraying crops. He also proved his competitive mettle early on when in 1915 he participated in the race for the world’s first Transatlantic flight … an effort which helas! would have to be postponed until the end of WWI. While waiting to complete his ambitious goal, Auguste Maïcon collaborated with local aviation businesses to secure an early air passenger service on the French Riviera.
His star rose as he became known for stunt flying, including his numerous shows of undercrossing a bridge in Nice which then still spanned the Var River, and which was only two meters taller and six meters wider than the airplane itself.
When he was not crisscrossing the lofty skies, Auguste Maïcon put his expertise to good use by creating aviation related movie props. As early as 1930, Metro Goldwyn Mayer came knocking on his door in Villefranche, asking him to build a plane for use in one of their movies. Soon he became the go-to authority for filmmakers from all over the globe, advising them on all things aviation for their next Hollywood blockbusters. In fact, before the Niçois Victorine Film Studios became famous in their own right, they were formally known as Studio de Maïcon, named for the first Special Effects maker in the history of cinema and his work.
He flew commercially for the better part of his life and later was also called to participate in World War II. Unable to pull out of that assignment, he still preferred to simply bombard infrastructure such as bridges stopping the enemy to advance rather than destroy human life. As aircrafts developed and cockpits became awash with colourfully blinking lamps, Auguste Maïcon’s colorblindness got in the way and he eventually retired, but not without continuing to instruct young aviators.
From 1951 to 1961, he went back and forth between his home in Gillette, a small community just outside Nice, and living on a boat which he had built all by himself and which anchored just off the Port of Nice. He passed away in relative obscurity in 1974, having chosen to keep a low profile and simply remain a positive and inspiring influence in his community. His Gillette home has since been converted into a private museum featuring a large number of artifacts related to the aviator and is lovingly maintained by a personal friend of his, Pierre-Guy Martelly.
The current Maïcon exhibit at the Citadelle in Villefranche, the aviator’s birth town, presents some of those objects on loan, along with a narrative of his career. An exhibit as discreet – and as unique – as its title hero, which is still open through 16th October.
Rue de la Citadelle
Tel: + 33 4 93 76 33 33
All images courtesy Mairie de Villefranche-sur-Mer; lead and final images © Mairie de Villefranche-sur-Mer