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19 August 1913: Adolphe Pégoud takes the leap

What happened this week in the History of Industry? It is to answer this question that Global Industrie invites you to rediscover, every week, a key event which occurred around this time… in another age. Let’s look back more than a century to the human (and industrial) feat accomplished by a somewhat forgotten pioneer of aviation who, on the 19th of August 1913, became the first man to parachute out of a plane… which he was flying.



Although people often wrongly attribute the invention of the parachute to Leonardo da Vinci – its origins data back to Antiquity – and although, at the end of the 18th century, the French balloonist André-Jacques Garnerin made several successful jumps from a hot-air balloon, it was not until 1912, on the 1st of March to be precise, that a man successfully jumped out of a plane. On that day the American Albert Berry jumped above Saint Louis, Missouri. One year later, on the 21st of June 1913, the feat was repeated in Los Angeles by another American, this time a woman called Tiny Broadwick. However, both jumped from an aircraft flown by an experienced pilot who subsequently brought the plane back down safely. This is of little benefit in the case of an in-flight failure which obliges the people on board, particularly the person flying the plane, to suddenly abandon ship. It was this safety concern which drove Adolphe Pégoud to accomplish his feat on the 19th of August 1913, at the age of just 24.

Born on the 13th of June 1889 into a family of farmers in Isère, the young man, who dreamed of adventure, left his family at 14 to try his luck in the capital. At 18, he joined the army as… a cavalryman, riding across Algeria and Morocco before returning to France. He then met an officer with passion for flying, Captain Louis Carlin, in 1910. The two friends were posted to Satory, near Versailles, where Adolphe flew in a plane for the first time in October 1911. This was only a year and a half before his historic exploit…



This event was a real revelation. Freed from his military obligations in February 1913, he learned how to fly and obtained his pilot’s license on the 1st of March. He was immediately hired as a pilot by Louis Blériot himself! And it was in one of this aviation legend’s aircraft that he took off alone from Châteaufort aerodrome in Yvelines on the 19th of August, aiming to demonstrate that a parachute can save the life of airmen in difficulty. He teamed up for the occasion with the inventor Frédéric Bonnet who had developed a system attached on the fuselage to allow him to extract himself easily. However, with his head somewhat in the clouds, he reached an altitude of 300 meters and jumped… after forgetting to switch off the engine! Left to its own devices, the old plane, sacrificed for the occasion, span round, nosedived, overturned, soared up again and passed close to him, nearly dragging him along in its crazy twists and turns… before finally crashing in a field, thereby allowing the daring young man to land safe and sound on solid ground.

Far from being deterred by the big fright he had just given himself, Alphonse Pégoud was convinced by this incident that a simple aircraft was capable of making maneuvers which had previously been inconceivable. Thus it was that only two weeks later, on the 1st of September, he made the first “upside down” flight in history in Louis Blériot’s presence … before, on the 21st of the same month, performing a whole series of aerobatics finishing with one of the first loop-the-loops ever made.

These exploits earned him an international reputation, his name only being enough to attract large crowds to the air shows in which he performed. 



Unfortunately, the life of this brilliant and eager young man was tragically cut short. Called up to fight in World War I, in 1915, after several victories and brilliant feats, he became the first "ace" of this conflict. He was awarded the Legion of Honor and the Military Cross… but did not have time to hear about it. On the 31st of August of the same year, the plane in which he was flying alone came face to face with that of a German corporal, Otto Kandulski, who was none other than one of his former pupils, and his gunner. The latter shot him down over Belfort. He was just 26 years old. In homage to his illustrious master, the German pilot returned to the scene a week later to throw a laurel wreath marked "To Pégoud, who died as a hero for his Country". A few months later, he was himself shot down, but survived. The man who shot him down, Roger Ronserail, nonetheless earned the nickname "Pégoud’s avenger".

Having received the honor of being ceremonially carried to Notre Dame in October 1920, Adolphe Pégoud’s body now lies in Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris. His onboard parachute, meanwhile, after a few additional improvements, became an essential element of all trips by air and made its manufacturers very rich!


"Culture is like a parachute: when you don’t have it, you crash" – Pierre Desproges


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