The First Fighter Pilot, Roland Garros: Life and Times of the Playboy Who Invented Air Combat

  • Published

The First Fighter Pilot, Roland Garros: Life and Times of the Playboy Who Invented Air Combat by Ed Cobleigh. Check Six Books, 2019, 327 pp.

Aviation enthusiasts remember the name of Roland Garros and his activities in World War I. As the book’s title declares, he was the first fighter pilot.

Aircraft were barely a decade old when the Great War broke out; yet, they immediately had a major impact. During the initial German onslaught in 1914, the invading armies became separated, and the gap between them was noticed by a French reconnaissance aircraft. Allied commanders realized the gap’s significance and moved troops into the vacant space. This frightened the Germans—no army likes to have an enemy force on its flank—and after a climactic battle at the Marne River the Germans fell back. The war then settled into a trench stalemate that lasted four years.

Air reconnaissance was recognized as crucial. Surprise had become virtually impossible because aircraft could see the enemy’s movements, and trenches could be photographed and weak/strong points assessed. Both sides realized the need to stop enemy reconnaissance, but how to do this was problematic. Ground fire was inadequate. Some two-seat aircraft employed a gunner in the rear cockpit, but these planes were slow and not very maneuverable. Clearly, the solution was to mount a machine gun on the front of an aircraft, which then flew directly at its target and opened fire—but the propeller was in the way.

Both sides worked to develop a mechanism that allowed the machine gun to fire intermittently between the whirring propeller blades. This problem turned out to be more difficult than expected. Roland Garros, a French pilot with a mechanical bent, worked with engineers at the Morane-Saulnier aviation company, but when these efforts proved fruitless, he returned to his squadron and devised a blunt force idea. He bolted triangular-shaped pieces of steel onto the back of his propeller blades. It was estimated that the majority of bullets would pass through the spinning blades, but those few that hit the prop would be deflected away by the metal and thus save the prop.

On April 1, 1915, Garros took the new contraption airborne, and over the next three weeks he would down three enemy aircraft. This was a huge shock to the Germans. Fortunately for them, the occasional bullets hitting the deflector eventually may have caused the engine to dislodge from its moorings and the plane crashed, either from mechanical failure or ground fire—the record is not clear. Garros was captured and his engine was sent to Berlin for analysis. There, an engineer named Anthony Fokker studied Garros’ crude solution and devised something far better. Although he, too, had been working on a suitable “interrupter gear,” he had been unsuccessful. The deflector idea gave the problem immediacy. Fokker’s solution was soon delivered—a successful mechanism that allowed machine guns to shoot through the turning propeller without causing damage.

The result was “the Fokker Scourge”—the period from August 1915 to early 1916, when German Fokker Eindecker aircraft began downing helpless Allied aircraft. When one of these German aircraft landed by mistake at an Allied airfield, the secret was out. All aircraft now had the critical device, and the age of the fighter plane was born.

Author Ed Cobleigh, himself a former combat fighter pilot and intelligence officer, is an excellent writer who explains the unique flying difficulties of early aircraft. For example, the Wright brothers had solved a fundamental flight problem—control. They devised a system called “wing warping,” where pulleys and wires controlled by the pilot actually bent the shape and camber of the wing, causing an aircraft to turn. In truth, this was a barely adequate system that was inefficient and dangerous. Wing warping would soon be replaced by the aileron—still used today.

Garros, born on Réunion Island off the coast of Africa and raised in Indochina, moved to France for an education as a teenager and quickly became engaged in riding bicycles and automobiles, but airplanes fascinated him. He taught himself how to fly—there were few flight schools in 1910—and after trial and error, became a credible pilot. He flew various Blériot models—which still used the wing-warping method—and participated in air races and demonstrations all over Europe, the United States, and South America. He set altitude records and was the first to fly across the Mediterranean Sea—spanning two continents.

Cobleigh is outstanding at describing early flight, its dangers, and eccentricities. It must be realized that at the dawn of flight, neither pilots nor engineers yet knew the correct answers to most aeronautical questions—they simply tried, failed, and tried something else until it worked. Crashes were frequent, and Garros survived at least a dozen. He was lucky.

When the war erupted, Garros, now famous, joined the French air service and was posted to a squadron near Nancy. There he took on the task of devising a method of shooting down the enemy as described above.

Garros spent three years as a prisoner of war before escaping in early 1918. He insisted on returning to combat, but after three years he was not the same man—he was weaker, older, and needed glasses. Moreover, aircraft had improved dramatically in speed and capability. Nonetheless, Garros insisted. Now flying a Spad XIII, he shot down another German and was then shot down himself on October 5, 1918. This time he did not survive the crash.

This is a terrific read. Cobleigh does an excellent job of describing flight, its allure, mysteries, and mechanical aspects and difficulties. Overall, this is a very readable account of an important airman who revolutionized air warfare. He should be remembered.

Dr. Phillip S. Meilinger, Colonel, USAF, Retired

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."