He unearthed a treasure accessible to all but no one seems to realize it. A thousand pages of surveys, three times as many photos and 600 videos gathered on one site, Pionnair-GE.com. Articles on the astonishing beginnings of aeronautics in Geneva, all resulting from meticulous excavations in the canton’s archives, newspapers, descendants of airmen or their relatives, from Salève to Reunion Island.
We find there the story by Verniolan Alexandre Liwentaal, the first Swiss to have flown in a plane, organized an airshow (in his town) and built an aircraft. That of Robert stierlin, a helicopter manufacturer in Meyrin. The adventures of Francois Durafour, a Genevan who landed on Mont-Blanc in 1921.
Behind these riches, a retiree with blue eyes and a Lacoste sweater, self-taught and mustachioed. Jean-Claude Cailliez, 74, is a man of passions. In his first life, he was a guitarist (Alain Morisod was part of his rock group) and he swore by mollusks, before moving on to aeronautics and its history in Geneva.
“For the past fifteen years, thanks to Pionnair, I have been happy to wake up every day,” he says. I only took a week’s vacation, to go to Rome to an aviation museum. ” He devotes his time to archives, sifting through microfilm, sometimes ten hours a day, and interviewing people. He writes an average of three articles per month.
“Fad for mollusks”
Nothing predestined the native of Haute-Savoie, the son of a lawyer and a stay-at-home mother, from a large family to aviation. From his childhood, he cites the comics he devoured and his vacation at the beach collecting seashells. He studied at the Technicum in Geneva, performed his military service at the Ministry of Air in Paris, where he had to face the clashes of May 1968, before landing a job as an IT specialist in a bank in the canton of Geneva then at the Chancellery. . He gets married, divorces. He adopted Swiss nationality and moved. “From Ferney, where I lived in rue de Meyrin, in Geneva, in Meyrin, I’m a local guy.”
His “fondness for molluscs” is refined, he founded an international conchology society (study of shells) and travels in this context from Kenya to Polynesia. Then he estimated that he had “taken the tour” and at the end of the century donated 10,000 marine specimens to the Geneva Natural History Museum.
His 7-year-old nephew discovered a passion for aviation. Together, they set about making model aircraft, subscribing to magazines, and attending airshows around the world. Robin Moret has worked for Airbus for twenty years, far from his uncle.
“When he left, I found myself alone, remembers Jean-Claude Cailliez. I decided to write about aeronautics in Geneva, almost nothing had been collected on this rich history. ” In Geneva, one of the most industrialized cities in Europe before the First World War, the first hot air balloons in Switzerland were tinkered with, and Cointrin developed well before Kloten. An aeronautical center is still illustrated at the end of the lake today.
The historian publishes in particular in The Flying Leaf, the journal of the Aéroclub de Genève. He is retiring early for this purpose. A former colleague, Stéphane Boos, advises him to launch a site. “I was not very hot but I quickly found it brilliant.” Pionnair publishes its first survey in 2005. Fifteen years of fun, searching for photos and stories, followed from Geneva to the Zeppelin Museum in Friedrichshafen, on Lake Constance. “I start with bread crumbs and I reconstitute a slice of jam”, says the one who published five books on the Geneva pioneers of aeronautics and had two streets named after them in Meyrin: that of RA Stierlin and the street A Liwentaal.
The Meyrinois is all the more exploring since 2009 coincides with the centenary of aviation in Switzerland, the first Swiss meeting (in Vernier) is 100 years old that year and that in 2020 the airport is celebrating its hundredth birthday.
“I wanted to leave something”
“I salute his diligence, he synthesized the rich history of aeronautics in the canton and its heroes, according to Serge-Etienne Cruchet, the former boss of the Aviation Library in Geneva. He was able to convince people to share their collections, to untie their tongues. ”
“I associate it with my best report, adds David Charrier, the former producer of the show. Formerly Geneva of the Léman blue chain. The one on Robert Stierlin and his helicopters in Meyrin. Jean-Claude subsequently found the helicopter in question, he rehabilitated it and since then he has been at the Transport Museum in Lucerne. He is someone who searches and searches. My fear is that this material will one day be lost. ”
“I have no children, I wanted to leave something”, indicates the retiree. He would like his work to remain accessible and for his collection of documents to find a buyer.
His best memory? Perhaps when he received in the mail the manuscript of François Durafour’s memoirs, written around 1960. It was resting in an attic in Reunion, where a nephew of the aviation figure had established himself. When he died, his descendants contacted the author of Pionnair and sent him the precious writing. Jean-Claude Cailliez dedicated to him a book.
1946 Born in Haute-Savoie. He spent his childhood in the Pays de Gex.
1969 First job, as an IT specialist in a Geneva bank.
1990 President of the Association des Amis du Muséum, he donates his collection of shells and molluscs.
2005 Creation of Pionnair-GE.com, a site dedicated to the history of aeronautics in Geneva.
2020 The Covid-19 prevents Cointrin from celebrating its centenary. But his story is widely told on Pionnair.