The quiet village of Croix d’Hins, a district of Marcheprime that lies mid-way between Bordeaux and Arcachon, is a succession of resident...

Croix d’Hins (1/2): Léon Delagrange and a short chapter in the history of aviation

The quiet village of Croix d’Hins, a district of Marcheprime that lies mid-way between Bordeaux and Arcachon, is a succession of residential streets broken up solely by the occasional small industrial plant. This image is far-removed from its status as one of the birthplaces of aviation (and later large-scale radio transmission). For the full story, let’s travel back in time to 1903!

For it was around this time that the flat expanses of land in Croix d’Hins were deemed to be an ideal setting for an airfield by the pioneering pilots and aircraft builders Louis Blériot and Gabriel Voisin. Space was cleared on a stretch alongside the railway line and these early aviators found themselves with 7,400 acres (3,000 hectares) to play with, making Croix d’Hins one of the biggest airfields in the world at the time! Blériot made good use of the installations, trialling a number of his creations there.

The so-called Blériot hangar at Croix d'Hins. Source: press photo archived by Bibliothèque nationale de France.
A grand ceremony was scheduled to officially inaugurate the long-since operational airfield on December 1st 1909 but was cancelled due to poor weather conditions. Then, just five weeks later, the Croix d’Hins venture was to come to an abrupt end along with that of the renowned aviator (and sculptor!) Léon Delagrange.

Léon Delagrange, source:
Delagrange was born in Orléans in 1872 and was the third person in France to be allocated a pilot’s licence (the first two were Blériot and the American Glenn Curtiss). Born to a wealthy family, Delagrange studied in Paris and soon earned plaudits for his sculptures. As an artist he became a respected member of society in the French capital and developed a passion for aviation, even conceiving his own aircraft designs.

His first aircraft, a Voisin 1907 biplane, was manufactured by Gabriel Voisin and his brother Charles (who together traded as Voisin Frères) and Delagrange made rapid headway as a pilot. He went on to make 260 flights, travelling 1,300 kilometres and setting six world records (in the categories of speed, distance and duration). In Turin in July 1908, Delagrange was accompanied on board his plane by his partner Thérèse Peltier, believed by many to have been the first ever woman passenger on an aircraft (although it is also thought rival flying ace Henri Farman may have achieved this earlier still with one Miss Van Pottelsberghe). Delagrange was evangelical about what aviation could achieve, declaring “I believe that the aeroplane is destined to become the bicycle of the airs in tomorrow’s world”. (“L'aéroplane est destiné, selon moi, à devenir la bicyclette volante de la future atmosphère.”)

And so it was that Delagrange was in Croix d’Hins on January 4th 1910 for what should have been a routine flight display on a Blériot XI aircraft, the type used by Louis Blériot the previous year to make the first flight across the English Channel. The plane, which had previously been equipped with an 18-horsepower Anzani engine, was this time powered by a mighty 40-horsepower Gnome engine. In all likelihood this mismatch overstressed the airframe. Delagrange took off in strong winds and quickly lost control of his aircraft, the wings of which suddenly broke up. The aircraft and the 37-year-old pilot plummeted to the ground.

The fatal flight as featured on old postcards retrieved from various sources (Wikipedia,,
The airfield was never to recover from this highly-publicised setback. A competing airfield took shape in the Beaudésert district of Mérignac, within much easier reach of Bordeaux. Beau-Désert then welcomed a massive week-long air show in September 1910, cementing its rapidly-acquired status as the premier aviation hub in the region. The story of how Beaudésert evolved to become today’s Bordeaux-Mérignac airport will be told soon on the blog!

Back in Croix d’Hins, a single aviation meeting was held in 1910 and in 1914 it was chosen as one of the stop-overs on the first Monaco Airplane Rally. But its chapter in the history of aviation proved to be painfully short and in 1920 the airfield was closed for good. It made way for the huge pylons and buildings of the Lafayette radio transmission station which, as you may have guessed, is the subject of the next Invisible Bordeaux article.

As for the airfield itself, today the only acknowledgement of its past existence is a column erected during centenary commemorations held on January 10th 2010, and positioned near to the spot where Delagrange fell to his death.

Other than that permanent memorial, it now takes a lot of imagination to picture the plains of Croix d’Hins forming the backdrop to those magnificent aviation pioneers and their flying machines!

The site of the airfield today, including an area where an ArcelorMittal plant can be seen.

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