It was in Valencia that, for the first time in Spain, a man flew in a motorised aircraft, even if it was only a for a few metres. That place was Paterna and at the controls of the aeroplane was Juan Olivert Serra, an aviation pioneer…
It may seem comical, this short journey, seen from a modern perspective of long-haul international air travel. But if we go back more than a century, to 1909, perhaps what Olivert did cannot be seen in any other way than as a small feat and an act of courage that helped to usher in the age of air travel.
Juan Olivert was the first to fly in Spain.
Juan Olivert was born in Cullera in 1888 and from a very young age he was attracted to flying, however it happened, and later to aviation, which at that time was something completely new. His parents did not look very favourably on his dreams, and it is even said that in his home town he was called voladoret because of his determination to leave the ground and fly, according to Escapada Rural Mag.
Attracted by the world of machines, he studied industrial engineering in Barcelona. Together with one of his professors, Gaspar Brunet Vadera, he set out to build an aeroplane. In 1908, an association formed in Barcelona for the dissemination of the incipient aeronautics and Brunet was one of the founders, being also a pioneer in the world of the academy on aeroplanes and how to fly in the best possible way. United by that dream, the two collaborated to create an aircraft. Brunet had thought long and hard about how to do it, and Olivert raised the necessary funding to get the project off the ground. Part of the funding even came from a lottery prize.
Thus, in the Industry Pavilion of the 1909 Valencia Regional Exhibition, Olivert and Brunet’s apparatus was a real eye-catcher, even though it did not yet have an engine installed. Shortly afterwards, the Valencia City Council paid for the engine, apparently after King Alfonso XIII intervened to finance it.
But of course, an aeroplane is not just for display, it is actually something designed to fly. It would have been magnificent if the aeroplane had flown from its place of manufacture in Barcelona to Valencia. Unfortunately Olivert and Brunet were still a long way from that and the aircraft travelled by train. It did not even have an engine yet. But it would fly, as its creators were determined to fit one. And that finally happened on 5 September 1909.
The first Spanish aerodrome was at Paterna
On land owned by the Spanish Army in Paterna there was a runway sufficiently smooth and clear to serve as an aerodrome. On the afternoon of that September day, some 4,000 people gathered to witness the first powered flight in Spain. It was an event, with Olivert at the controls, that was not in the script.
Olivert had invited some personalities to visit him at that place in Paterna, where he had planned to do a taxiing test and show the aeroplane to those few personalities. But the press reported the event, quoted the place and assured that the plane was going to fly. All this forced Olivert to go a step further than he had planned, driven by the fevered expectation. Neither the pilot, nor the designer, nor in all likelihood any of those gathered in Paterna had ever seen a plane fly, not even in pictures, so all this excitement was only natural.
The first thing Olivert did was to test the engine and go around the runway with no intention of flying. Everything was perfect. Then came the critical moment and the event that made Olivert and Paterna enter the history of aviation. He gave the engine power again and it was not long before the aircraft raised its rear end, rolling only on its front wheels. Then he revved up the throttle again and the plane left the ground. It flew. History had been made: here we had the first ever powered flight in Spain.
Olivert turned off the engine in a panic as soon as it left the ground
When Olivert realised that the plane was taking off from the ground, the first thing he did was to turn off the engine, perhaps thinking that it might not really take off and then have to return to the ground abruptly. The chronicles also say that the people who were milling around the runway in front of such a prodigy did not give the pilot much peace of mind either, and he weighed up the possibility of a misfortune occurring as he was unable to avoid the people, and so he ended up switching off the engine, as we said. In any case, one way or the other, Olivert acted prudently, an appropriate virtue for pilots.
Despite the shortness of the adventure, he flew between 30 and 50 meters for about 30 seconds. The first flight by the Wright brothers, in 1003 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, was 37 meters and lasted 12 seconds,it was a comparable outcome. Back on the ground after its short inaugural flight, the aeroplane rolled along the runway until its right wheel got into a hole in the ground and spun it around, putting an end to the test and the exhibition.
This achievement is no small feat, because for that to happen there had to be a pilot, Olivert, and a design, Brunet, and an engine that worked and gave enough power, and controls that responded well, and a solid structure… In fact, those pioneers did not continue in the field of aviation and in the few subsequent attempts to fly it seems that things did not go well. It was not easy to fly a motor-powered aircraft. In the Museo de las Artes y las Ciencias in Valencia and in the Museo del Aire in Madrid you can see replicas of that aeroplane. And seeing these replicas makes you double your admiration for Olivert for climbing into what to our eyes seems a flimsy contraption and actually fly. The sense of fragility is really considerable.
Thanks to this milestone event, there is a spectacular Mirage F1 aircraft at the roundabout with access to the Daoiz y Velarde barracks in Paterna, which still belongs to the Spanish Army.
• The Daoiz y Velarde barracks in Paterna, not far from Manises, can be reached on Metro Line 2 from the nearby station Les Carolines/Fira Walk