The Paris Convention of 1910: The path to internationalism


Well before the beginning of the 20th century, aeronautical authorities had begun to meet internationally. In 1880, the Institut de Droit International, a private association of eminent jurists from many countries, included aviation on the agenda of its convention held in Oxford, England.


Called by a decree of the French Government and in association with the Universal Exhibition in 1889, the first international aerial congress met in Paris with delegates from Brazil, France, Great Britain, Mexico, Russia and the United States; this was the first of five of such congresses to take place in a period of 12 years. One of these was the first multilateral diplomatic conference convened in 1903 to consider international aspects of flight and the need for uniformity of air navigation regulations across state boundaries. Internationalism was in the winds.


The date of 17 December 1903 marked not only the first flight of the Wright brothers, but also the birth of international civil aviation, as we know it today. Already in the early years of aviation, people with foresight had realized that the advent of the airplane added a new dimension to transport, which could no longer be contained within strictly national confines. Not only was international flight of heavier-than-air vehicles rapidly emerging, but balloons and dirigibles also begun crossing sovereign domestic borders with increasing frequency.


Figure 1

In 1908, at least ten German balloons were alleged to have crossed the Franco-German border and landed on French soil carrying more than 26 aviators, the majority of those were German officers. Wishing to avoid international confrontation, the French government proposed that an international conference be convened with the purpose of devising regulatory procedures relating to flights into and over foreign territory. As a result, on the invitation of France, the first important conference on an international air law code was convened in Paris in 1910 (Conférence internationale de navigation aérienne, held from 18 May to 29 June at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs).


Twenty European States attended this conference; nations from other continents were not invited, given the distances involved, the prospect of their aircraft operating in Europe was considered unrealistic. A number of basic principles governing aviation were laid down.


Commissions were held on the four following subjects: law of nation; administrative and technical; customs; regulation of the aerial navigation. The draft international convention relating to the aerial navigation comprised three annexes: marks of nationality and registration; characteristics of the aircraft; rules of the air traffic.


But, the issue of equal treatment of all civil aircraft, whether national or foreign, within usable airspace was to become the obstacle beyond which the conference was unable to progress. Therefore, this large diplomatic conference finished on an acknowledgement of failure, since no government took action on the ratification of the convention.


In 1911, the British Parliament passed the Aerial Navigation Act, giving Britain the power to close British airspace, including parts of the English Channel, to all foreign aircraft. Clearly at that time, Europe was preparing for war and many European countries passed similar legislation. However, one must look beyond this draft convention with some uncompleted articles; in comparing its style and substance with the subsequently successful 1919 Paris Air Navigation Convention, the remarkable similarities in content, substance, and also in the precise wording of the articles and annexes stand out forcefully.


Figure 2

The label at figure 1 was issued for the philatelic meeting held in Firenze, Italy, from 19 to 21 April 1947, in commemoration of the 37th anniversary of the 1910 Paris Air Conference. It shows a reproduction of the 5-lira Italy Scott #C105 stamp (See figure 2 - Deep green, Leonardo da Vinci, issued on 28 October 1938 for the 2nd anniversary of the Proclamation of the Italian Empire). Leonardo da Vinci was born in 1452 in a small village not far from Firenze. He left important designs for an ornithopter with fixed as well as flapping wings, and his hand-held pyramid-type parachute. The 5-lire stamp shown at figure 2 depicts Leonardo da Vinci taken directly from the self-portrait that he executed in red chalk around 1515; the original portrait is conserved at the National Library in Turin, Italy.