CHAPTER XLIII. The First Airman to Fly Upside Down

Visitors to Brooklands aerodrome on 25th September, 1913, saw one of the greatest sensations in this or any other century, for on that date a daring French aviator, M. Pegoud, performed the hazardous feat of flying upside down.

Before we describe the marvellous somersaults which Pegoud made, two or three thousand feet above the earth, it would be well to see what was the practical use of it all. If this amazing airman had been performing some circus trick in the air simply for the sake of attracting large crowds of people to witness it, and therefore being the means of bringing great monetary gain both to him and his patrons, then this chapter would never have been written. Indeed, such a risk to one's life, if there had been nothing to learn from it, would have been foolish.

No; Pegoud's thrilling performance must be looked at from an entirely different standpoint to such feats of daring as the placing of one's head in the jaws of a lion, the traversing of Niagara Falls by means of a tight-rope stretched across them, and other similar senseless acts, which are utterly useless to mankind.

Let us see what such a celebrated airman as Mr. Gustav Hamel said of the pioneer of upside-down flying.

"His looping the loop, his upside-down flights, his general acrobatic feats in the air are all of the utmost value to pilots throughout the world. We shall have proof of this, I am sure, in the near future. Pegoud has shown us what it is possible to do with a modern machine. In his first attempt to fly upside down he courted death. Like all pioneers, he was taking liberties with the unknown elements. No man before him had attempted the feat. It is true that men have been upside down in the air; but they were turned over by sudden gusts of wind, and in most cases were killed. Pegoud is all the time rehearsing accidents and showing how easy it is for a pilot to recover equilibrium providing he remains perfectly calm and clear-headed. Any one of his extraordinary positions might be brought about by adverse elements. It is quite conceivable that a sudden gust of wind might turn the machine completely over. Hitherto any pilot in such circumstances would give himself up for lost. Pegoud has taught us what to do in such a case. . . . his flights have given us all a new confidence.

"In a gale the machine might be upset at many different angles. Pegoud has shown us that it is easily possible to recover from such predicaments. He has dealt with nearly every kind of awkward position into which one might be driven in a gale of wind, or in a flight over mountains where air-currents prevail.

"He has thus gained evidence which will be of the utmost value to present and future pilots, and prove a factor of signal importance in the preservation of life in the air."

Such words as these, coming from a man of Mr. Hamel's reputation as an aviator, clearly show us that M. Pegoud has a life-saving mission for airmen throughout the world.

Let us stand, in imagination, with the enormous crowd of spectators who invaded the Surrey aerodrome on 25th September, and the two following days, in 1913.

What an enormous crowd it was! A line of motor-cars bordered the track for half a mile, and many of the spectators were busy city men who had taken a hasty lunch and rushed off down to Weybridge to see a little French airman risk his life in the air. Thousands of foot passengers toiled along the dusty road from the paddock to the hangars, and thousands more, who did not care to pay the shilling entrance fee, stood closely packed on the high ground outside the aerodrome.

Biplanes and monoplanes came driving through the air from Hendon, and airmen of world-wide fame, such as Sopwith, Hamel, Verrier, and Hucks, had gathered together as disciples of the great life-saving missionary. Stern critics these! Men who would ruthlessly expose any "faked" performance if need were!

And where is the little airman while all this crowd is gathering? Is he very excited? He has never before been in England. We wonder if his amazing coolness and admirable control over his nerves will desert him among strange surroundings.

Probably Pegoud was the coolest man in all that vast crowd. He seemed to want to hide himself from public gaze. Most of his time, was taken up in signing post-cards for people who had been fortunate enough to discover him in a little restaurant near which his shed was situated.

At last his Bleriot monoplane was wheeled out, and he was strapped, or harnessed, into his seat. "Was the machine a 'freak' monoplane?" we wondered.

We were soon assured that such was not the case. Indeed, as Pegoud himself says: "I have used a standard type of monoplane on purpose. Almost every aeroplane, if it is properly balanced, has just as good a chance as mine, and I lay particular stress on the fact that there is nothing extraordinary about my machine, so that no one can say my achievements are in any way faked."

During the preliminary operations his patron, M. Bleriot, stood beside the machine, and chatted affably with the aviator. At last the signal was given for his ascent, and in a few moments Pegoud was climbing with the nose of his machine tilted high in the air. For about a quarter of an hour he flew round in ever-widening circles, rising very quietly and steadily until he had reached an altitude of about 4000 feet. A deep silence seemed to have settled on the vast crowd nearly a mile below, and the musical droning of his engine could be plainly heard.

Then his movements began to be eccentric. First, he gave a wonderful exhibition of banking at right angles. Then, after about ten minutes, he shut off his engine, pitched downwards and gracefully righted himself again.

At last the amazing feat began. His left wing was raised, his right wing dipped, and the nose of the machine dived steeply, and turned right round with the airman hanging head downwards, and the wheels of the monoplane uppermost. In this way he travelled for about a hundred yards, and then slowly righted the machine, until it assumed its normal position, with the engine again running. Twice more the performance was repeated, so that he travelled from one side of the aerodrome to the other - a distance of about a mile and a half.

Next he descended from 4000 feet to about 1200 feet in four gigantic loops, and, as one writer said: "He was doing exactly what the clown in the pantomime does when he climbs to the top of a staircase and rolls deliberately over and over until he reaches the ground. But this funny man stopped before he reached the ground, and took his last flight as gracefully as a Columbine with outspread skirts."

Time after time Pegoud made a series of S-shaped dives, somersaults, and spiral descents, until, after an exhibition which thrilled quite 50,000 people, he planed gently to Earth.

Hitherto Pegoud's somersaults have been made by turning over from front to back, but the daring aviator, and others who followed him, afterwards turned over from right to left or from left to right. Pegoud claimed to have demonstrated that the aeroplane is uncapsizeable, and that if a parachute be attached to the fuselage, which is the equivalent of a life boat on board a ship, then every pilot should feel as safe in a heavier-than-air machine as in a motor-car.