The mysterious death of Jan Kaspar
On the last day of February 1927, Jan Kašpar would not come home. After one last attempt to sell the sawmill to pay off his debts, he closes himself in his office. He spills petrol on the floor and drenches his scarf in it, which he then wraps around his head. In the morning he is found unconscious and taken to hospital, where he dies a few days later at the age of 43. The doctor determines the cause of death to be pneumonia.
Most of us know Jan Kašpar as the first Czech pilot to take to the air in an aeroplane. It happened on 16 April 1910 in Pardubice, where he reached a height of over 20 metres in a French blériot plane and flew a distance of about two kilometres. It is the first historically documented take-off by a Czech pilot, although there are question marks surrounding it. His cousin, Evžen Čihák, with whom Jan Kašpar made his first flight experiments, would later claim that he took off in his own plane before he did, but unfortunately for him, he had no witnesses.
However, Kašpar made his mark in the history of Czech aviation thanks to his famous flight from his native Pardubice to Velké Chuchle, where he flew to his friend’s wedding on 13 May 1911. He covered the distance of 121 kilometres in 92 minutes at an altitude of 800 metres. The famous French pilot and designer Louis Blériot congratulated Kaspar on his flight.
His next famous flight was the first long-distance flight with a passenger in Bohemia on the route Mělník – Chuchle, which he covered in 41 minutes and 55 seconds. His passenger was Jaroslav Kalva, editor of the newspaper Národní politika. At that time Kašpar was at the peak of his fame, but at the same time at the end of it. His dazzling aeronautical career lasted only two years – in the period from 1910 to 1912, then the modest, almost exaggerated „father of Czech aviation“ was accompanied by setbacks and failures.
The turning point came when his father, to whom he was strongly emotionally attached, died in May 1913. The war was approaching and the times of „wonderful men on flying machines“ began to fade away. Shortly after the declaration of World War I, the Austrian authorities confiscated seven of his planes. He applied to join the Air Corps, but the military administration did not accept him, among other reasons, because he had failed his pilot’s test according to international rules and thus did not have an international pilot’s license. After the war he had no chance to sit in the cockpit, as he had not flown for many years. Kašpar donated his aircraft to a museum and retired to seclusion. He lived a solitary life and perhaps no woman passed through his life.
He became a clerk for a time, then tried his hand at the timber trade. His attempts to manage the family fortune ended in failure, a failed stock market trade made him a debtor. Eventually he lived with his sister, reportedly suffered from mental illness, and solved his problems with alcohol, as some memoirs recalled. He died under strange circumstances on 2 March 1927.
If he committed suicide, as is often reported, he chose a rather unusual method. And he didn’t even leave a suicide note. It is therefore possible that the death was more likely to have been accidental, and more likely to have been the result of intoxication. Kašpar may have sought an escape from his problems not only in alcohol but also in sniffing intoxicants such as petrol. At that time, inhalation of toxic fumes was not as common among addicts as it would become later, so this possibility did not occur to anyone in determining the cause of death. The doctor wrote „pneumonia“ on his death certificate. Kašpar may indeed have suffered from this disease and may have been trying to relieve the sharp pain in his chest by inhaling petrol. Exactly what caused his death in the end, we may never know.
If we accept the suicide hypothesis, he was not the only aviator to take his own life. „Henri Giffard, the inventor of the first airship, died in the same way, Alberto Santos-Dumont, the designer of the first successful aircraft in Europe, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the father of the Little Prince, died by suicide… and so the list goes on. Men who were intimate with death on their way up have learned not to fear it,“