Aerobatics & Spinning

'Looping the Loop and Defying the Ground'
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The First Aerobatics

Almost as soon as early aviators had mastered the feat of staying aloft in straight and level flight, they wanted to experience manoeuvring in all three dimensions and to explore the unique freedom allowed by flight. The crowds who flocked to the first air shows were also eager to see daring exhibitions of flying. It was these twin incentives of curiosity and crowd-pleasing spurred pilots forward to experiment with ever more difficult manoeuvres. 

Probably the first 'aerobatic' pilot was Eugène Lefebvre (1878-1909) who thrilled the crowds in his Wright Flyer at the world's first aviation meeting, at Rheims in 1909. Lefebvre had only learnt to fly that summer. When he brought his new Type A Flyer to Rheims in August he quickly found to his disappointment that it was no match for the Antoinette, Blériot or Curtiss types in terms of speed. He was out of the running for most of the performance prizes. However, the Wright's supreme virtue was its manoeuvrability. Due to the Wright brothers' concern for control rather than inherent stability, the Flyer could be handled with great precision and Lefebvre showed that off to full advantage. At this stage in flight's development aerobatics consisted of no more than steep banked turns and swooping dives, but to an audience that had never set eyes on an aeroplane before this was thrilling enough. Eugène Lefebvre's untimely death the following month in a flying accident undoubtedly only added to the aura of daring surrounding aerobatic pilots. He was the first pilot to be killed in the era of powered flight.

Eugene Lefebvre at Rheims
Lefebvre rounds the pylon at Rheims with his port wingtip 4-5 feet off the ground

Adolphe PegoudThe art of aerobatics did not develop much beyond swooping and diving in the next few years - perhaps because air racing became more popular. But in 1913 a young French pilot named Adolphe Pégoud (1889-1915) suddenly brought it very much to the world's attention. Despite having only got his pilots licence on 8 February, on 19 August 1913 Pégoud made the world's second parachute jump from an aeroplane. (The first had been made by an American, Berry, in March 1912.) Because it was thought at the time that the change in balance as a man jumped out would make a plane uncontrollable, Pégoud chose to jump from a single-seater Blériot XI piloted by himself. Whatever else happened the experiment would be expensive! With his rudimentary parachute packed on the fuselage behind him, Pégoud climbed to about 2,000 feet (700 m.) over Buc, near Versailles, and then left the aeroplane. The parachute opened perfectly but Pégoud remained at some considerable risk as the pilotless Blériot spectacularly reared and somersaulted its way down to earth nearby. The Frenchman landed safely in a tree not far from the wreckage of his plane.

Adolphe Pegoud's parachute jump
Three stages of Pégoud's parachute jump: (1) the pilot jumps and his canopy deploys; (2) the pilotless Blériot  twists and somersaults down beside him; (3) Pégoud and his aeroplane reach the ground simultaneously.
Pegoud turning over to inverted flight at BucThe feat brought Adolphe Pégoud to the notice of Louis Blériot, who decided that such a daring young aviator was just the man he needed to demonstrate the aerobatic qualities of his Blériot XI design. Blériot was keen to demonstrate that his aeroplanes were safer than his competitors' because they could be recovered to level flight from almost any attitude however extreme. Pégoud was employed as a sort of test pilot and on 1 September 1913 he made a series of experiments at Juvisy, near Paris, on a somewhat modified 50 h.p. machine which included 90 degree banked turns. The exhibition culminated with the world's first inverted flight, which confounded critics who said that an aeroplane could not possibly fly upside down. Pégoud was held in by a strong shoulder harness. On the ground, he told how it had not been an entirely pleasant experience as petrol had started to drizzle out of the air hole in the 'top' of his petrol tank while he was upside down and blow back over him in the air stream. 

Then on 21 September he went up again and attempted 'flick turns', tail slides, a vertical figure 'S' and finally a brand new trick. Over the past few weeks he had experimented with a different way of getting back to normal flight. Instead of rolling over, he would put the Blériot's nose down to vertical and then continue to pull back on the control stick until he came out of his dive flying in the opposite direction. Pégoud had realised he could improve on this trick by making a full circle in the air rather than just a half-circle. On 21 September, starting right way up and in a moderate dive to gain speed, he pulled back on the stick to bring the nose up to vertical and then kept the stick back into his stomach until he was inverted. The horizon appeared upside down. Pégoud held his nerve and kept the stick back until the ground was below again and he was back in level flight. He had looped the loop. 

Pégoud was credited with having achieved the first loop in the world, but in fact it emerged later that he had been beaten to it by a matter of days. On 9 September Lt. Petr Nikolaevich Nesterov had looped his Russian Army 70 h.p. Nieuport monoplane at Kiev in the Ukraine. At the time he was placed under arrest by his commanding officer for risking army property, but when it emerged that he was a hero he was promoted to Captain!

Pégoud's flights at Brooklands described by:
1. The London Times
2. William Claxton

Click for full size image
Hucks Postcards


Between 25-27 September, Pégoud demonstrated his skills to amazed English crowds at Brooklands and before the year was out a number of English pilots had learnt the loop themselves. The first British pilot to loop was B. C. Hucks, at Buc in France on 15 November, and the first to loop in Britain was George Lee Temple, at Hendon on 24 November. Temple was popularly known as the "Baby Airman" because he was only 21 years old. In order to prepare themselves for inverted flight, both pilots bizarrely took to hanging upside down from chairs suspended from beams in their hangers like bats! 

In the brief 1914 flying season before the First World War, aerobatics and especially the loop became enormously popular at airshows. On 13 March, for example, Hucks and Gustav Hamel gave a looping and inverted flight display together at Hendon. As well as flying inverted, Hamel in his 70 h.p. Morane-Saulnier monoplane demonstrated what was described as "a pirouette on the tip of a wing" which was probably a stall-turn, while Hucks in a 50 h.p. Blériot performed a tail slide, looped at 800 ft. (250 m.) and then executed eight consecutive loops from 2,000 ft. (600 m.). None of these manoeuvres would be out of place at a modern airshow. The French continued to lead the way though, with a pilot named Chanteloup pulling off some particularly impressive new 'stunts'. On Christmas Day 1913, he demonstrated to pilots and the press a "cartwheel loop", in which the wings remain vertical throughout, in a Caudron biplane at Hendon. Then on 27 December, he went up and performed an outside loop, steep "side-dives" (side slips) from 800 ft. (250 m.), an inverted dive from 4,000 ft. (1200 m.), and finally a "tourbillon dive" in which his machine cork-screwed around its axis whilst diving headlong for the ground. The pilot recovered at the last minute and landed to riotous applause.

The 'Tail Spin'

Chanteloup's last manoeuvre may in fact have been one of the first successful recoveries from a deliberate spin. A spin occurs when one wing of an aeoplane stalls while the other is still producing lift. This creates unequal pressure across the wings and causes the aeroplane to rotate (or 'spin') about its axis. Since less lift is being produced the machine also descends quickly. A spin can be vertical or 'flat'. The danger of a spin is that it is a stable state from which the machine will not recover unless the correct recovery action is taken by the pilot. To make matters worse, if the pilot instinctively tries to pull the nose up or roll the aircraft level the spin will actually worsen. For this reason, the 'tail spin' was very dangerous to early aviators while it remained little understood.

A spin can be entered by raising the nose of an aeroplane while performing a turn at low airspeed. Some accounts of Chanteloup's Caudron say that the wing-warping was linked to the elevator, rather than to the rudder which was more usual. If this was the case, Chanteloup could easily have entered a spin while turning with insufficient engine power on. 

Within just a few years, fighter pilots would be using aerobatic manoeuvres daily over the trenches in the swarming dogfights of the First World War. Sadly, that war also accounted for the brilliant father of aerobatics, Adolphe Pégoud. After becoming France's first fighter 'ace' he was shot down and killed in 1915 at the age of just 26.


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