Robert Loraine was a magnificent man in a flying machine. I first encountered his story in an Anglesey meadow where he had two of his many crashes. Soon afterwards I chanced on a biography of him in a second-hand bookshop. Robert Loraine, Soldier, Actor, Airman was as wrecked as one of his flimsy aircraft. A restorer made it shelfworthy so that from time to time I can marvel at Loraine’s reckless courage. As a distinguished actor he had played d’Artagnan on the London stage and he seemed to stay in character when he swapped sword for joystick. ‘He had the soul of a poet,’ Jules Védrines, his French mechanic, observed, ‘and a poet does not make a reliable pilot.’
George Bernard Shaw considered Loraine ideal for Shavian roles. He admired the vitality of his acting and also his action-man relish for adventure: Loraine had once quit the stage to fight in the Boer War. Shaw and Loraine shared a balloon basket in a flight over Wandsworth in 1906. During a Fabian summer school at Harlech two years later they swam together every day and one morning came very close to drowning.
By then Loraine was caught up in the new romance of flight. In July 1909 he was at Sangatte, near Calais, with Louis Blériot. The French pilot had burned his feet in an accident and hobbled to his plane on crutches, handing these to Loraine before lurching into the air and becoming the first to fly the Channel.
Loraine financed his own dream of flying through his earnings in Shaw’s Man and Superman and in 1910 went to France for lessons at Blériot’s school. He broke the rules by attempting a take-off too early and crashed. ‘It was not surprising that the Blériot school declined to provide me with another machine,’ Loraine admitted. He bought a Farman Racer biplane from Henry Farman at Mourmelon and learnt to fly it the hard way. Jules Védrines recalled: ‘After he crashes, and he crashes every day, he walks back humming a tune.’
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