French pilot and aviation pioneer who was the first person to fly an airplane across the Mediterranean and is credited with being the first fighter pilot.
Roland Garros was born in 1888 and was an avid sportsman who developed a passion for aviation. He entered air races, placing second in the 1911 Paris-to-Rome competition and in April, 1913, winning the International Air Rally of Monaco. He also set several world altitude records, and on September 23, 1913, made history by being the first person to fly cross the Mediterranean. With the outbreak of war in 1914, he joined the French Air Corps as a lieutenant.
At the beginning of World War I, military planes mainly flew observation missions. Then pilots began to use rifles or revolvers to fire at enemy aircraft and ground troops. When a machine gun was mounted to the plane, a second man was needed and he could fire the gun only from the rear, so that the bullets would not hit the blades of the moving propeller. Pilots and aircraft designers alike quickly realized the urgent need to develop a forward-firing machine gun that enabled the pilot to aim his aircraft and gun in the same direction. Frenchman Raymond Saulnier, of the Morane-Saulnier aircraft company, had designed steel plates that would fit on the propeller blade to deflect most of the mounted gun’s bullets. Garros calculated, however, that 7 percent of the bullets could still hit the propeller. Determined to make the deflector shields more effective, Garros worked to improve on Saulnier’s invention by adding small steel wedges to the propeller blades. Garros then had his plane fitted with the new deflection plates and with a Hotchkiss machine gun with its trigger connected by a wire to the cockpit. On April 1, 1915, Garros was ready to test the new device in combat. He encountered a German reconnaissance plane, aimed his machine gun and shot down the Albatros B-II. During the next two weeks, Garros shot down four more German planes.
The Germans were unable to explain how Garros managed to fire his machine gun successfully through the propeller blades until April 18, 1915, when Garros was forced to land his aircraft behind German lines. The established practice of the time was that a downed pilot would burn his aircraft as quickly as possible to prevent its falling into enemy hands. Garros’s plane, however, was too damp and did not burn. After they captured Garros’s plane, the Germans studied it carefully and soon determined the specific workings of the propeller deflectors. Under the direction of Dutch aircraft designer Anthony Fokker, the Germans fitted their planes with similar yet slightly improved devices and thus launched the era of aerial combat.
The Germans treated Garros respectfully and placed him in an elite prisoners’ camp. He remained a prisoner of war until 1918, when he managed to escape to Holland. He then traveled back to France and returned to aerial combat. Garros was shot down and killed on October 5, 1918, at Vouziers in the Ardennes region, where he was buried. The French commemorated the aviation pioneer in 1928 by naming their new international tennis stadium in Paris the Roland Garros Stadium.
Bowen, Robert Sidney. They Flew to Glory: The Story of the Lafayette Flying Corps. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1965. The story of the American pilots who volunteered to fly for the French Air Corps in World War I; the first chapter summarizes the development of the airplane’s role in combat. Clark, Alan. Aces High. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1973. A detailed study of the aircraft and ace pilots of World War I, with excellent period photographs. Franks, Norman L. R., and Frank W. Bailey. Over the Front. London: Grub Street, 1992. A complete listing of the ace pilots of the U.S. and French air services during World War I. Robertson, Bruce, ed. Air Aces of the 1914-1918 War. Letchworth, England: Harleyford, 1959. Discusses the important aces from Britain, America, Italy, Belgium, France, Germany, Russia, and Austro-Hungary, with numerous detailed appendices.
World War I