Roland Garros (1888-1918)

Roland Garros never became a flying ace – that required at least five victories. Yet he was undoubtedly the world’s first true fighter pilot.


Issue: 04-2015By Joseph Noronha

Asa young student Garros did indeed play tennis regularly but the celebrated Le Stade Roland Garros in Paris where the French Open is held every year, got its name long after his death. He had become famous much earlier, first as a pioneer aviator who firmly established the technological viability of the peculiar new machine in the popular imagination and later as the world’s first fighter pilot.

Eugène Adrien Roland Georges Garros was born on October 6, 1888, in Saint-Denis, Réunion, France. As he grew to maturity his ambition was to be a concert pianist, but a visit to the Reims airshow changed all that. He decided to make a career for himself in aviation. His first lessons were on a Demoiselle monoplane. Made by the Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont, the Demoiselle had a wire-braced wing mounted above an open-framework bamboo fuselage. The pilot’s seat was under the wing, between the main wheels of the undercarriage. With an empty weight of 110 kg and maximum speed of 90 kmph the monoplane was suitable only for a small lightweight pilot. Some believe Santos-Dumont himself taught Garros to fly. And Garros did not let him down, quickly becoming one of the best aviators in France.

Those were exciting days for French aviation because Paris was recognised as the centre of global aviation. Louis Blériot became the first pilot to fly across the English Channel in July 1909. And in August 1909, the world’s first Air Meet was held at Reims in the Champagne-Ardenne region, where Garros had been hooked on aviation. Garros was awarded Aéro-Club de France licence number 147 in July 1910.

The next four years passed quickly as Garros became deeply involved in exhibition and stunt flying. But to make a mark, he needed a heavier aircraft so he began flying Blériot monoplanes. He entered a number of air races in Europe and set numerous records. In September 1911, he set a new world altitude record of 5,610 metres. In 1912 he won the important Circuit de Anjou flying race. In 1913 he again converted to the swifter Morane-Saulnier monoplane. On September 23, 1913, he flew from Fréjus in the south of France to Bizerte in Tunisia, becoming the first person to fly across the Mediterranean. He covered the distance of about 800 km in less than eight hours.

In August 1914 World War I broke out. Roland Garros happened to be in Germany giving exhibition flights and teaching military aviation. Since Germany was now at war with France, Garros being an ‘enemy’ would most likely have been arrested. However, he managed to make a dramatic airborne escape that very night without being detected by the German ground crew (hardly anyone had flown in darkness till then). He soon joined the French army as an aviator. A short while later, he was sent to serve with the French air service, L’Aviation Militaire. He became a reconnaissance pilot with the Escadrille 26MS squadron, then equipped with Morane-Saulnier Type L aircraft.

In December 1914 Garros visited the Morane-Saulnier manufacturing works keen to see if they could make a forwardfiring machine gun. Till then military aircraft were either defenceless or carried only simple hand-held weapons. It was no easy task for a pilot to fire a pistol at an enemy aircraft while airborne. Neither could guns be fitted in the nose of the plane because of the danger that the rounds might hit the propeller. However, Garros calculated that on the average only about seven per cent of the rounds would have a trajectory that might hit the whirring propeller. So along with Raymond Saulnier he designed steel wedge-shaped deflectors that would be attached to the edge of each propeller blade to deflect the rounds harmlessly. A workable installation was fitted to his aircraft and it enabled him to approach the enemy head-on in the air, thus giving him a vast advantage. On April 1, 1915, Garros shot down a German Albatross unarmed reconnaissance aircraft. It was the first ever shooting-down of an aircraft by a fighter firing through a propeller. During the next two weeks he accounted for another two German planes.

However, his luck ran out on April 18, 1915. Either his fuel line clogged or his aircraft may have been hit by ground fire. In the event he had to force-land his damaged machine behind German lines. Although he tried to destroy his machine before being taken prisoner, the gun and armoured propeller remained intact. After examining the plane, German aircraft engineers, led by Anthony Fokker, designed an improved system. The German Fokker E.I was fitted with machine guns, deflectors and an interrupter gear that synchronised the rate of fire of the gun with the rotation of the propeller, so that the propeller would be safe. From mid-1915 until mid-1916, the German Air Force was supreme, shooting down over 1,000 Allied aircraft. The British press dubbed this the Fokker Scourge.

Garros had to cool his heels for almost three years in a German POW camp. He finally managed to escape on February 14, 1918, after several vain attempts. He immediately re-joined the French Escadrille 26 squadron to pilot a SPAD S.XIII biplane. On October 2, 1918, he downed his fourth German victim. However, in the intervening three years air combat tactics had changed dramatically and he could not beat his more nimble opponents. On October 5, 1918, he was shot down and killed near Vouziers, Ardennes. It was just five weeks before the end of the war and a day before his 30th birthday.

Roland Garros never became a flying ace – that required at least five victories. Yet he was undoubtedly the world’s first true fighter pilot.