In the digital archives of the Oren Dunn Municipal Museum is a photo of a small, dark-eyed man standing next to a 50-horse Bléroit in a field in Tupelo. The caption below the photo indicates that the pilot, John Moisant, nicknamed the crimson painted plane “The Red Dragon”. The photograph was taken on December 19, 1910.
What the legend does not tell us: John Moisant was nicknamed the “king of the aviators”. The Tupelo Field was the Main Street Exhibition Center, now known as the Fairpark, home to various Tupelo businesses, residences, and town hall.
That day, Moisant and his group of airmen, including René Simon and René Barrier, had arrived from Memphis with their plane worth $ 100,000 by special train. This particular trip to Tupelo – the only place in Mississippi to welcome pilots – cost $ 5,000 guaranteed by the city for two days of aeronautical prowess.
Moisant had already broken records. In Memphis, he pushed his monoplane up to 8,000 feet and land safely – newspaper reports called the feat “unbelievable.” It was not the first time that the pilot, who had only accumulated four lessons in France in a Bléroit plane, broke a record.
On August 17, 1910, barely four months before Moisant arrived in Tupelo, the American descendant of French-Canadian parents boarded the first passenger on a plane across the Channel. The duo landed in an oat field about six miles inland. It was the sixth time that Moisant had flown an airplane.
News of this feat has spread around the world. The Wright brothers called the stunt “silly.” Still, Cortlandt Field Bishop, president of the Aero Club of America, invited Moisant to represent the United States at the International Aviation Cup at Belmont Park in New York. The air show was set for October 22, 1910.
Moisant competed in the event but could not win, going against other planes that developed 100 horsepower in the 20-lap race. Yet a side competition won him $ 10,000. The event saw three pilots agree to fly from Belmont Park to the Statue of Liberty and return as soon as possible. If the pilots did not fly over the city, the route would total 66 miles. A trip over the city, including Brooklyn, was about 33 miles.
Moisant won. With the prize money, he formed Moisant International Aviators and toured the United States, sparking interest in aviation. This is how he arrived in Tupelo.
On December 20, 1910, after braving high winds, freezing temperatures and snow showers to organize an exhibition on the city of Tupelo, Moisant and his team traveled to New Orleans for several shows.
On December 31, 1910, he embarked on a cross-country flight sponsored by Michelin. His monoplane fell to the ground. And as Biloxi’s Sun Herald reported, “The brave little man was thrown from his machine and hit the earth on his head… Day after day he played with death, seeming to take great pleasure in it. risk his life to the brink of death. annihilation then tearing itself, so to speak, from the abyss, deceiving the black angel of its prey. Once too many he laughed at death and in the blink of an eye it was all over.
Ironically, the reason he learned to fly was not to perform stunts in front of crowds. Moisant was convinced that he could avenge the arrest of his family in El Salvador by its president Fernando Figueroa, a corrupt despot. It seems Figueroa believed that the eight Moisant siblings, who owned a coffee plantation in El Salvador, wanted to overthrow the president.
The US State Department did nothing to help in 1909, despite calls from John Moisant to prevent the execution of his brothers, who refused to pay bribes in Figueroa. So Moisant went to Nicaragua, procured two gunboats and 300 soldiers, and engaged in a failed coup. This attracted the attention of the American press and forced President Teddy Roosevelt to put pressure on Figueroa.
John Moisant wanted revenge. He believed he could eliminate Figueroa with planes intended for the military.
Ahead of its time, even the newspapers scoffed at the idea. Motor planes were first used in war in 1911 by the Italians against the Turks near Tripoli, but it was not until the Great War of 1914-18 that their use became widespread.