Nathan Paulin

A tower that inspires amazing feats!

Thursday 7 May 2020

Modified the 11/05/20

Given its height and media presence, the Eiffel Tower has spurred a number of athletic exploits, performances, and challenges, sometimes with tragic results. By Bertrand Lemoine.

Balloons and airplanes

Early aviators saw the Tower as a challenge at their level! It’s worth mentioning that Gustave Eiffel contributed to the new aviation science through aerodynamic experiments that initially consisted of dropping various shapes from the 2nd floor of the Tower, and then studying them in a wind tunnel.

In 1900, a prize of 100,000 francs was offered to the first airship pilot who could take off from Saint-Cloud, fly around the Tower, and return in under 30 minutes. Santos Dumont was the first to succeed, on his third try, on 19 October 1901, but he almost crashed in the attempt. The Lebaudy-I dirigible - nicknamed "Yellow" because of its color - was financed by the sugar-manufacturing brothers Pierre and Paul Lebaudy and built from 1901-1903 in Moisson, 70 kilometers west of Paris, by engineer Henri Julliot. On 27 November 1903, it took off from its base, flew past the Tower, and landed on the Champ de Mars, sparking great joy and curiosity among Parisians.

Santos Dumont survolant la Tour en dirigeable
© D.R, Santos Dumont flies over the Eiffel Tower in an airship

The first flyover was made six years later, on 18 October 1909, by aviation pioneer Count Charles de Lambert. He took off from Juvisy, flew over the Tower and returned to his starting point 49 minutes later. Lieutenant Léon Collot flew under the arches of the Tower in 1926. But, he also snagged the radio antenna cables hanging from the summit and crashed to the ground. He wouldn’t live to tell about it.

In 1944, American fighter pilot William Overstreet allegedly passed under the Tower in his P-51 Mustang to chase down a German fighter plane. A few have attempted to recreate this “feat” without authorization: an American Vietnam war veteran named Robert Moriarty in 1984 - whose flight was filmed - followed by others including Gérard Dance in 1986, in a ULM, and an unknown stunt-plane pilot on a Sunday at dawn in 1991, who also flew under the Arc de Triomphe.

Charles de Lambert survolant la tour Eiffel en avion
© D.R, Count Charles de Lambert flies over the Eiffel Tower in an airplane

 

Parachutes and tragedy

The Tower’s elevated platform has also motivated a number of individuals, though sometimes catastrophically. After a first successful parachute jump in 1911 by Gaston Herviaux, a tailor named Franz Reichelt wanted to test a parachute-suit of his own design. His attempt on 12 February 1912 was filmed. The intrepid tailor can be seen hesitating for a few moments before leaping from the 1st floor, to his death 58 meters below.

Similarly, in 1928, Marcel Gayet tested the design of his new parachute and was killed by his jump from the 1st floor. In 1987, New Zealander AJ Hackett pulled off an unauthorized bungee jump.

Franz Reichelt avec son costume
© Sirot/Angel, Franz Reichelt and his parachute-suit

 

Mounting challenges

Various races up the 729 stairs that separate the Tower’s second floor from the ground have been organized since 1905, forerunners of what is now referred to as “The Vertical race.” The first winner was named Forestier and made the climb in 3 minutes and 12 seconds.

Others have climbed the stairs on stilts - a baker from Landes, Sylvain Doinon, in 1891 - on their knees, their hands, hopping on one leg, on a motorcycle in 1983, in 50 minutes on a mountain bike in 1987, and even on a unicycle in 2006! A one-legged, 39-year-old man named Gilbert Dutrieux made the ascent in one hour in 1959.

La Verticale 2017
© Christophe Guiard, Suzy Walsham during La Verticale 2017

Breathtaking performances 

Though exploits like these are becoming rare due to obvious reasons of means and security, the Tower continues to host some breathtaking performances for the media. To commemorate its 100th anniversary in 1989, tightrope walker Philippe Petit traveled across a wire strung from the Tower to the Palais de Chaillot in the Trocadero area.

In May 2010, a ramp was set up next to the Eiffel Tower and, on roller-skates, Taïg Khris attempted and succeeded a jump reaching nearly as high as the first floor, approximately 40 meters!

Very exceptionally (in 2017 and 2019), a zipline over 100 m above the Champ de Mars was set up for a few lucky thrill seekers during a competition.

The latest feat was performed by slackliner Nathan Paulin in October 2019. During a France 2 broadcast for the 130th anniversary of the Tower, he crossed a line extending between the two pillars of the Tower connecting the 1st and 2nd floors!

 

Philippe Petit
© Marc Verhille/Mairie de Paris, ​​​Philippe Petit walking on a string from the Palais de Chaillot to the Eiffel Tower

 

Bertrand Lemoine is an architect, engineer and historian. He was a research director at the CNRS and general manager of the Atelier International du Grand Paris. He is an internationally recognized specialist in the history and current events of architecture, construction, the city and heritage in the 19th and 20th centuries, particularly in Paris, Greater Paris and the Eiffel Tower. He is the author of forty-three books and several hundred articles on these subjects. He is currently a consultant on architectural, urban, digital and energy issues.

Bertrand Lemoine

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