Looping our way through history

If you’ve lived in the Delta for any length of time, you’ve likely watched daring pilots fly their crop dusters across the area’s farm fields. Often flying at speeds that seem impossibly slow and making steep turns that appear equally improbable, it’s hard to imagine the physics that permits such feats.

Even so, these dare-devil low passes over rows of cotton are so common, they bear little mention. Such airborne acrobatics were anything but common a century ago. In fact, it was 100 years ago today that a French pilot, Célestin Adolphe Pégoud, managed to pull off the very first “loop the loop” aerial maneuver. He performed the stunt using a Blériot monoplane powered by a 50-horsepower Gnome engine. A little more than two weeks later (on September 21) Pégoud would duplicate the feat in front of film crews.

Impressive as Pégoud’s looping flight was, such aerobatics were only the tip of the aviator’s airborne accomplishments.

Pégoud was the first person to become an ace in World War I. On February 5, 1915, Pégoud and his gunner shot down two enemy aircraft, forcing a third to land behind French lines.

Sadly, Pégoud would die just a few months later, on August 31, 1915, after fierce combat with an armored German airplane. After learning the identity of their opponent, the two German pilots paid Pégoud a great tribute by dropping a funeral wreath over the area where the Frenchman was shot down. Attached to the wreath was a short but poignant message, “To Pégoud, who died a hero’s death for his homeland. (from) His foes.”

Of course Pégoud’s loop was only one among many aviation firsts during 1913. On September 23, fellow Frenchman, Roland Garros, made the first flight across the Mediterranean, using a Morane Saulnier type H monoplane powered by a 60-horsepower Gnome Sigma engine — this coming just four years after the first flight across the English Channel, by Louis Blériot. It took Garros 7 hours and 40 minutes to make the 760-kilometer flight.

On December 27, yet another Frenchman, Georges Legagneux, set the world altitude record in a Nieuport airplane powered by an 80-horsepower Gnome engine. During the flight he reached an altitude of more than 20,000 feet above Saint-Raphaël. What makes this especially notable is the absence of a pressurized cockpit.

While these records now seem little more than quaint milestones along the path of aviation history, it bears noting that they precede so many other “it can’t be done” achievements. Chuck Yeager’s sound barrier-busting flight in the Bell X-1 rocket plane comes to mind.

On the same day 65 years later (October 14, 2012) an Austrian skydiver, Felix Baumgartner, made his own place in the history books when he jumped out of a capsule at nearly 130,000 feet — breaking the speed of sound on his descent. As Baumgartner fell to Earth, Yeager, having just turned 90, reprised his first supersonic flight in a borrowed F-15 fighter over Edwards Air Force Base outside Las Vegas.

Since the time of Icarus and Daedalus, humans have looked to the sky, fully aware of that which cannot be done. Some have flown too close to the sun — and paid that price. Others like Pégoud and Yeager have defied gravity, the odds and common sense to do what no one before them had done.

Whether we aspire to a simple loop or stunning sonic boom, each of us should take note of their example. Within our own spheres of competence, we should summon the courage, take the risk, and dare to soar with eagles.