Adolphe PégoudText by Divan MullerLet us take a closer look at one of the true trailblazers of aviation. For a few years during the early 1900s, he was seen as the best pilot in the world.Adolphe Célestin Pégoud was born on 13 June 1889 in a French village called Montferrat. He was the son of a farmer who had served with the French infantry during the Franco-Prussian War about twenty years earlier. At a young age, Young Adolphe followed in his father’s footsteps by joining the French Army. He served in Africa for six years and saw combat on several occasions, mostly whilst fighting insurgents in Algeria.

By 1913 the global aviation industry was only ten years old, but Pégoud was fascinated by aircraft and had set his mind on becoming a pilot. He left the army and returned to his home, where he began private flight training and earned his pilot’s licence in less than a fortnight. Three weeks later, aviation pioneer Louis Blériot gave him a job as a technician and test pilot. For the most part, Pégoud test-flew Blériot XI monoplanes after they had been assembled by the factory. At the time, monoplanes were considered less safe and less capable than biplanes, but Pégoud convinced his employer that the Blériot XI was much more capable than generally believed and that he could prove it. Pégoud began to push the known limits of the Blériot XI, effectively creating the concept of ‘stunt flying’ or aerobatics. He flew corkscrew patterns and became the second pilot in the world to complete a loop and the first to fly inverted. Soon enough, Pégoud’s aerial exhibitions became extremely popular and turned him into a celebrity. Naturally, Louis Blériot was ecstatic, as sales of his aircraft were increasing dramatically, due to the tremendous interest Pégoud was generating.

1913 was indeed an eventful year for the young Frenchman. He had gone from serving with an artillery division of the army to a celebrity test pilot. He had also become a sought-after flying instructor, giving flying lessons all over Europe. Still, his adventures did not end there. Later that year, he was asked to test a parachute. For that exercise, he used an older Blériot aircraft, which could be written off during the flight. He climbed to a height of about 400 feet above ground level, stood up in the cockpit and deployed the parachute, which instantly pulled him out of the cockpit. A few seconds later, Pégoud landed safely in a tree. Incredibly, his now unmanned aircraft managed to glide back to earth and land undamaged. Pégoud had become the first person in Europe to parachute from an aircraft.

In July 1914, World War I erupted in Europe. Pégoud immediately volunteered to serve with the Service Aéronautique, a forerunner of the Armée de l’Air (French Air Force) as an observation pilot. He flew many dangerous reconnaissance missions, with his observer lobbing grenades, steel darts or bombs at targets of opportunity. Occasionally, Pégoud would also be tasked to transport spies at night to areas behind enemy lines. In February 1915, Pégoud was awarded the Médaille Militaire (Military Medal) for ‘acts of bravery in action against an enemy force.’ According to his award citation: “he attacked a German ‘scout’ aircraft from a short distance causing it to crash. Immediately afterwards, he attacked two two-seaters causing the first to crash and forcing the second to land.” In April that year he destroyed two more enemy aircraft, whilst flying a Maurane Saulnier Type N. Pégoud was then given a more modern Nieuport 10 fighter and claimed his sixth aerial victory in July 1915.

On 31 August 1915, a bullet struck Pégoud in the neck during an air-to-air duel with a German pilot, who happened to be one of his pre-war students. Pégoud managed to fly to French territory, where he made a forced landing, but his wound proved to be fatal. When Walter Kandulski, the pilot responsible for shooting down France’s top fighter pilot, learned whom he had killed, he flew over the French airbase and dropped a wreath. A message attached to the wreath read, “To Pégoud, who died like a hero. From his adversary.”

The 26-year old Pégoud, a member of the Ordre national de la Légion d'honneur (National Order of the Legion of Honour), was known for his excellent flying skills and extreme bravery. In addition to being a true pioneer of aviation, he made his mark in history as the world’s first fighter ace.