Postcard of Adolphe Pégoud (via icollector.com)
It’s easy to forget that it was only a little over a decade after the Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903 that pilots were entering into airplane combat in World War I. It was there that a Frenchman named Adolphe Pégoud made history as the first ace pilot, taking down six German planes, before he himself was shot down in 1915 by one of the early aviator’s own students.
Adolphe Pégoud with eight bombs on his plane in 1914 (via Wikimedia)
Pégoud, quoted in Tom D. Crouch’s Wings: A History of Aviation from Kites to the Space Age, said this of the early war in the skies where the instability of your new airplane could be just as terrifying as the bullets from the enemy: “About every sixth shot hits the propeller and bounces back at me. […] Often I hear it whistle past my ear. Sometimes I fear I am more apt to shoot myself down than I am to shoot down my intended victim.”
Postcard of Pégoud’s looping flight (via Wikimedia)
Yet Pégoud wasn’t just any pilot. After joining the French army in 1907, he later became a test pilot for Louis Blériot, where he flew in what was believed to be the first upside down loop. He’d actually been beaten by a Russian pilot by just 12 days, but the press celebrated Pégoud like a victor all the same, and the dashing mustachioed pilot became a beloved public figure. He also took on the role of flight instructor for students from around Europe, where he would unintentionally give his flying savvy to the German pilot he would later meet in fatal combat.
He also was the first person to jump out of a plane in a parachute, a feat which had only been previously done from anchored balloons. Well, he was really more pulled out of his seat when he released the parachute, but he left his plane all the same before floating down to the trees.
Adolphe Pégoud in Le Miroir (via Wikimedia)
Article on Pégoud’s death (via Auckland Council Heritage Images)
After World War I started, he shot down the first of six German airplanes in February of 1915, earning accolades all over, but the “roi du ciel,” or “king of the sky,” met his match on August 31 of that year, shot down from a reported 6,000 feet.
Grave of Adolphe Pégoud in Montparnasse Cemetery (photograph by the author)
The German crew that shot him down would drop a funeral bough in respect at the French frontline, and a monument was set up at his crash site in 1917, which was moved to the nearby village of Petit-Croix in 1982. For his tomb in Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris, he was sculpted in a uniform adorned with his medals above a soaring eagle.
Pégoud’s penguin in the Musée de l’Armée (via Musée de l’Armée)
The most touching small memorial to Pégoud may be in the Musée de l’Armée in Paris, where his lucky mascot, a stuffed penguin, is preserved alongside his uniform. It was found in the wreckage of the crash. Pégoud was only 26-years-old when he died, and it’s tempting to think of how far he would have gone if his career had stretched further into the innovations of flight, but what he did in such a short time when aviation was only for the most intrepid is a staggering. Here’s the charismatic Pégoud making the loop in his airplane:
GRAVE OF THE FIRST ACE PILOT: MONTPARNASSE CEMETERY, Paris, France