Pégoud the Celebrity
and the achievements of audacity.
It is a Frenchman again who has startled the world by a new audacity. It was the shout of "Vive la France!" which was the loudest greeting to Adolphe Pégoud when at Brooklands he made his upside-down flights and exhibited his miracle of pluck three thousand feet above the earth.
For the past fifteen years or so France has given the lie to those who accused her of national decadence. Her sons were the pioneers of the motor-car industry, the makers of the most beautiful and delicate engines, and, in the races which demonstrated their speed and power, the most daring and reckless drivers. A few years ago, when would-be aviators in England were hopping about the grass like lame geese, Frenchmen were already soaring aloft. It was pitiful to English pride to watch the victories of Frenchmen in those early aviation meetings, and to see prize after prize captured by our friends and rivals over English ground. We have picked up in an amazing way of late, and our flying squadrons are steadily winging their way to the front; but in the history of flight the Frenchmen will be remembered as the heroes of the greatest audacities - the first to cross the Channel, the first to cross the Alps [sic: Georges Chavez was actually a Peruvian citizen although he resided in France], first to cross the Mediterranean, first to climb the dizziest altitudes, first to fly round England itself. Now Adolphe Pégoud comes with his topsy-turvy trick to make us gasp by his carelessness of death.
Like many other people, I suppose, who journeyed down to Brooklands to see this new sensation, I was prejudiced against the man and his methods. Here is an acrobat, I said -- a money-grasping fellow who for a thousand pounds or so will risk his life in an aerial somersault, to pander to the desires of a decadent crowd, eager to see a man fly upside down, or die upside down. He is like one of those poor wretches who hold their lives so cheap that they will tempt Providence to break their necks for a music hall fee. But Pégoud, in his machine and out of it, converted my prejudice to admiration. The man was not drunk with the desire for publicity and gold, at all costs. He was no acrobat, but an artist of the air, who was so much the master of his machine, who knew so well every throb of his engine, who had such a skill in the science of flight, that he could outfly the birds and disport himself in the air like Mercury with his winged hat and sandals above the heads of mortal men, joyously, as in his native element.
It was a magic thing to see him climb into the blue vault, above the white wisps of cloud, beyond the reach of the sun's golden shafts, into the stillness and unruffled beauty of the upper air, and then, poised for a moment on restful wings, swoop downwards, with his engine pointed like a hawk's beak to the earth, down, and still down, in one long plunge, and then curve inwards, and upwards, with his long white tail swinging round, in a wide circle as clearly drawn as though by Giotto's magic pencil -- then dropping again, and circling again, so that before taking the last flight to earth he had made four perfect loops on a flashing chain of glittering metal and snow-white canvas.
He did not give me one thrill of horror. In spite of descriptive accounts in the newspapers next day, I am certain that few people among the multitudes who watched him had any sense of nervous dread. To see the man wheeling in the air so that again and again his monoplane revolved on an invisible axis, to see him cut a long and sweeping S against the blue curtain of the sky, to see him turn over and over, very gently and smoothly, like a swimmer in the air, practising a breast-stroke with his wings, to see him spiral swiftly down a fairy staircase with his tail above his head, was an ecstatic thing, not shocking to the imagination, but lovely in its grace and certain skill. No, the man was no acrobatic trickster risking his neck on a fool's chance, but a man who by superb audacity had discovered new laws of flight beyond the imagination of all his predecessors.
I spoke to him afterwards in "The Blue Bird" Restaurant on the aviation ground, and the simplicity and modesty of the man were splendid after such achievements of audacity. A French mechanic, with laughing eyes, with a touch of the ideal d'Artagnan in his frank face with up-twisted moustaches, he was abashed by the adulation of the great crowds. "It is nothing!" he said, again and again. "It wants a little nerve. That is all. It is the engine that does everything. I know my engine, m'sieur. I listen to its voice. It speaks to me." He believes firmly that by learning to fly upside down, and by obtaining such command of his machine that a man may recover himself from any angle, that the toll of death may be lessened, and thus flying may be robbed of nearly all its peril. "Of course," he said, as if that were the beginning and end of his secret, "I am not nervous. I have no nerves."
He has no nerves!
I suppose that is the real secret of the topsy-turvy man, after all. And
that, perhaps, is the great miracle -- that in this age of nerves, when
the roar and rush of life are producing new nervous maladies and neurotic
races, in a country were the temperament of modern civilisation is most
highly strung a class of men like Pégoud is being produced. I believe
that there are ten thousand Pégouds in France. I believe him when
he says that in a little while hundreds of French airmen will be flying
topsy-turvy. For there is some magic in the spirit of France just now which
is emerging from a period of decadent morality, and sweeping its sons forward
to new achievements of audacity. The spirit seems to thrill in the air
of France, a keen, fresh, exultant spirit, calling to the heart of young
manhood. I did not feel the the thrill of such a spirit in the crowds of
well-dressed people at Brooklands.
· Airships · Zeppelins
· Santos-Dumont · Farman
· Wrights in France · The
Channel · Rheims · London