The first pilots who did the loop-the-loop were visionaries and perhaps a little crazy
In the annals of aerobatic history, the first men to do the “loop the loop” deserve recognition for being imaginative enough to think that it could be done and the courage to do it, damn the consequences.
It is perhaps the most recognisable manoeuvre in aerobatic flight: The aircraft dives to gain speed, then the nose rises – and keeps rising – until the aircraft is poised inverted – before the aircraft dives back into level flight. But can you imagine being the first-ever pilot to try to “loop the loop”, in the underpowered and fragile aircraft of more than a century ago?
The man most feted for those early looping manoeuvres was the Frenchman Adolph Pégoud, who was recorded as completing the manoeuvre in a suitably reinforced Bleriot monoplane on 21 September 1913. Completing his preparations for inverted flight was a stout rope, tying him to his wickerwork seat.
However, less well recorded in history is the man who actually beat Pégoud to the feat. Russian military pilot Pyotr Nikolayevich Nesterov had actually “looped the loop” 12 days earlier, at Syretzk Aerodrome near Kiev. However instead of the fame attached to Pégoud, his endeavour landed him in jail.
The Russian daredevil
Born in 1887, the son of a military academy instructor, Nesterov was a career Army officer who gained a passion for flying. His first experiences came in 1909 when he was posted to a balloon observation regiment as an observer, then in 1911 joined the Gatchina aviation school near St. Petersburg. After qualifying as a military pilot he was posted to the Ukraine, where in May 1913 he became leader of an aviation detachment in Kiev.
Unlike the cautious approach taken to flying by many of his contemporaries, who even regarded a banked turn as dangerous “stunting”, Nesterov encouraged his pilots to push to the limits of their skills and their aircraft’s capabilities. He clearly led by example; he was one of the first pilots to embark on night flights and on 9 September 1913, he climbed aboard his Nieuport IV monoplane to demonstrate to observers that, according to his theory, an aeroplane could fly upside down.
After climbing to a safe altitude, itself a lengthy process in the aircraft of the day, Nesterov pushed the nose down and allowed the airspeed to build. One can only imagine the whistle of the wind in the exposed flying wires as he pulled up, past the vertical, over the top. At this point he stopped the engine, to stop the aircraft over-speeding and becoming over-stressed in the final dive. He thus became the first pilot to fly what he called a “dead loop”.
On his return to earth, however, Nestrov’s celebrations were short-lived. He was summarily arrested and hauled before his superiors to be charged with “risking government property” and sentenced to 10 days of close arrest. However, when the public celebration of Pégoud’s subsequent achievement was seen, his superiors changed their mind; the punishment was annulled, he was promoted to staff captain and later awarded the first Russian gold medal for airmanship.
After his feat, Nestrov continued as a military pilot and during the Great War, on 25 August 1914, was one of the first pilots to attempt to bring down an enemy aircraft – an Albatros B.II reconnaissance biplane of the Austrian Imperial Air Arm. Despite both aircraft being unarmed, Nesterov believed that he could fulfil the feat by ramming the other aircraft in a strategic position. In this he was only partially correct. Both the crew of the Albatross and Nesterov in his MoraneSaulnier monoplane, fell together.
The French ace
Adolphe Pégoud was apparently unaware of Nestrov’s feat, and had arrived at “looping the loop” in a very different manner.
He was a freelance test pilot for Blériot and others, and using a worn-out flying school aircraft, jumped from it to test a parachute invented by a Monsieur Bonnet.
Pégoud took off and climbed to about 120 metres before standing up in the cockpit and pulling the ripcord. The parachute snapped open, caught the air and yanked him out of the cockpit. He landed unharmed in a tree and was particularly interested to note that the unmanned aeroplane did not dive down and crash but, instead, tumbled through the air in a series of loops and turns before crash landing with apparently, little damage.
This convinced Pégoud that an aircraft could be flown aerobatically and he persuaded Louis Blériot to loan him an aircraft with which to try. He undertook a series of test flights exploring the limits of his Blériot model XI monoplane (the same type that Blériot himself used to fly the English Channel in 1909) and after modifying and strengthening its structure, made the first-ever inverted flight on 1 September 1913. Three weeks later, on 21 September, he flew his first loop.
The attendant publicity and fame led to his being invited to demonstrate the manoeuvre across Europe, including ironically in Moscow in front of the Russian Tsar. Pégoud’s displays also had a commercial motive, establishing himself as an instructor and Blériot aircraft for pilot training across Europe. Among the fledgling pilots he trained were many members of the Imperial German Army.
At the start of World War I, Pégoud was immediately accepted as an observation pilot for the French Armée d’Air. Although the accolade wasn’t created at the time he is generally thought to have become the first “ace”, and in 1915 was awarded the Croix de Guerre, having apparently forced down “at least six” enemy aircraft.
Pégoud was just 26 years old when he himself became a victim of aerial combat. On 31 August 1915, he was shot down while attacking a German reconnaissance aircraft. Unbeknown to him, its pilot, Unteroffizier Walter Kandulski, had been one of his pre-war students.
OPPOSITE PAGE: Adolph Pégoud prepping for a flight.LEFT: An inverted Tiger bi-plane in the midst of a loop
RIGHT: Aerobatics pilot Neil William in a ZlinABOVE: A biplane goes on a dive
Honouring one of the earliest flying aces