Death Was Their Co-Pilot by Michael Dorflinger by Michael Dorflinger - Read Online

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Death Was Their Co-Pilot - Michael Dorflinger

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The First Aces

‘I have got a wonderful little toy. It is a Bristol Scout which can do 130 kilometres per hour and has a rate of climb of from 150 to 200 metres per minute. I am having a machine gun fitted.’

(Lanoe Hawker, first British flying ace, in a letter, 1915.)

French Stunt Pilots

Before the First World War, men who volunteered for military aviation in Germany were given a funny look. ‘He’s gone to be a flier, and his parents are such respectable people!’ To be an aviator was held in much the same regard as debt collecting, living a dissolute life, trying to find an easy way to put an end to oneself. It was a long road before a pilot would become the idol of a whole generation.

In France it was different. The public attended flying displays, admired the courage of pilots. Men who held flying records reaped renown and often large cash prizes. Three names are prominent at the beginning of the era of fighter pilots: Adolphe Pégoud, Roland Garros and Jean Navarre.

Before the war in France, Adolphe Pégoud had been a famous aviation pioneer. As the ‘inventor’ of stunt flying he had not only been the first man to fly an aircraft upside down, but also the first to bale out using a parachute. Although the Russian Piotr Nesterov was the first to do it, looping the loop was what made Pégoud famous. His name was also known in Germany where postcards were sold bearing his portrait.

Born on 13 June 1889 in the French département of Isère, in 1907 Pégoud became a soldier with the Chasseurs d’Afrique in North Africa. At the beginning of 1913 he obtained his licence to fly and was employed as a test pilot by Blériot. At the outbreak of war he volunteered at once as a pilot. His reconnaissance flights provided the Army with valuable information, and he was mentioned in Army despatches. On 5 February 1915 he became an Immortal when, with his observer Le Rendu, he was the first man to shoot down three enemy aircraft. Using acrobatic aerial manoeuvre he put his partner into an ideal shooting position. A Taube and two Aviatik-C aircraft went down.

Otto Parschau was the first pilot to fly the Fokker monoplane. With this aircraft he shot down eight enemy planes and was then appointed commanding officer of Kampfgeschwader (Fighter Squadron) I. Nevertheless he continued to fly missions in single-seater fighters until one sealed his fate.

Two months later, just after six one morning, a Morane-Saulnier of Escadrille MS.12 took off. On board were 2nd Lt. Robert and his pilot, the impetuous Jean Navarre. The latter was born on 8 August 1895, the son of a paper manufacturer. The highly individual Jean never stayed long at any school. At the outbreak of war he falsified his application to get himself accepted as a pilot with the military. At the beginning of 1915 he was attached to Escadrille MS.12. He was undisciplined but bold. He gave proof of that on 1 April 1915 when he encountered a German Aviatik two-seater. He outmanoeuvred his opponent and enabled his observer to shoot. The German biplane made a forced landing on the French side of the Front where the crew were made prisoner. It was a triumph which won for Navarre the military medal and promotion.

That 1 April 1915 was a revolutionary day for French military flying. Roland Garros of Escadrille MS.26 was a national hero. In 1910 he bought from the aviation pioneer Santos-Dumont a ‘Demoiselle’, a monoplane of light construction with an 18 hp engine. He took part in many competitions flying this machine, most of which he won, and even flew it over New York. He wrote history on 23 September 1913 in a Morane-Saulnier, being the first man to fly across the Mediterranean. He also held a world altitude record.

Roland Garros was born on 6 October 1888 on the French island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean. He became a flying enthusiast while studying music. In 1910 he bought an aircraft and took part in many competitions. In 1913 he was the first man to fly across the Mediterranean. In the First World War this famous stunt flier was the first pilot to score a kill using an machine gun in a fixed mounting to fire forward. Very soon after he was made a PoW by the Germans. After escaping and spending a long period of convalescence he returned to active flying service. He was killed in aerial combat on 5 October 1918. His name is still known today in connection with the Paris Open. This tennis tournament is named after the stadium ‘Roland Garros’.

As a pre-war flier the Frenchman Roland Garros already enjoyed high renown. The public thirsted for more news about him, and he fulfilled their desires by being the world’s first fighter pilot. A rifle round sealed his fate.

This national hero naturally joined the French Air Corps. He had a vision of aerial combat and realized that pilots would not be firing rifles at each other for long. In December 1914 he visited the Morane-Saulnier factory where they had had the idea of mounting in an aircraft an machine gun which could fire dead ahead – and through the propellor. That, as was correctly inferred, was the ideal solution, for it meant that the pilot could aim the whole aircraft at the target. The accuracy would be greatly increased and above all it would no longer be necessary to have an observer/gunner aboard, thus making the aircraft much lighter in weight.

Saulnier succeeded in making a design which interrupted the fire of an machine gun when the propellor entered the field of fire, but in practice it did not work well. For this reason the propellor had been redesigned and fitted with metal deflectors which redirected to safety the bullets which happened to strike the propellor. On 1 April 1915 things were ready. Roland Garros took off and it worked. Garros got an Albatros biplane in his sights, hit it – and the aircraft fell to the ground in flames. The French had done it. They thought they had become the unchallengeable lords of the skies. About fifty machines were now armed in this manner, but the interruptor mechanism often failed so that the pilots fired into their own propellor.

Garros knocked down two more German aircraft and was hot on the heels of Adolphe Pégoud who now had five kills and was celebrated throughout France as an ‘ace’. The tally of three brought Garros no luck. The same day he took off once more to bomb the railway station at Courtrai. What happened then was never fully clarified. This much is certain: he came under rifle fire from the ground. It appears that a Bavarian Home Guard man named Schlenstedt fired the round which cut the fuel line and forced the French aerial pioneer to make an emergency landing. Garros was made a prisoner. He was unable to set fire to his aircraft and the Saulnier interruptor mechanism was confiscated intact. It provided the motivation for the Germans to invent a similar but better device.

Roland Garros was left with just three kills. Worse, the Saulnier invention was now known to the Germans, who drew the necessary conclusion from the incident and prohibited their own pilots who had the device fitted from leaving German-held territory. The generals hoped to keep the secret of their own development from the Allies in this manner.

The French record-holding flier was put into a PoW camp. After countless bold attempts he finally escaped. It would have been better for him had he conserved his energies for ahead lay death. Garros returned to the Front and to his old unit, now equipped with the SPAD XIII. He obtained his fourth aerial victory, but instead of being able to confirm the fifth, which would have made him an ace officially, he was shot down in flames by a Fokker D.VII. That was on 5 October 1918. The war had only five weeks to run. The victorious German pilot was probably the young Hermann Habich who had become an ace himself only a few days before.

Célestin Adolphe Pégoud was born on 3 June 1889 at Monferrat. He was long identified as the first man to loop the loop, but the honour should have gone to the Russian Nesterov, whose earlier achievement passed largely unnoticed. Pégoud joined the French forces and served in French Morocco with the Chasseurs d’Afrique. Later he learned to fly and became a test pilot for Blériot. He was the first man to bale out from an aircraft using a parachute. In the First World War the renowed stunt flier became a pilot. He became the first fighter ace in history after claiming his fifth aerial kill. He died on 31 August 1915 when shot down in aerial