Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Remembering a Veteran: Roland Garros — The Man Who Put Wings on War

By Stephen Miller

Prewar Photo of Garros

Just about 100 years ago, on 1 April 1915, French aviator Roland Garros shot down his first German airplane. The importance of the event is the manner in which he did it — firing a machine gun through the propeller arc. Garros used a wedge-shaped device mounted on each of the two propeller blades. The sides of the wedge included a grooved channel to catch the bullet tip and deflect it along the groove to miss the blade.

Full Propeller Assembly 
The device might best be described as crude but effective. Aside from requiring balancing the propeller blades to prevent vibration, the width of the propeller blade had been reduced to accommodate the mechanism, thereby reducing its aerodynamic efficiency.  Accounts of the percentage of bullets deflected by the wedges differ. I have read as many as 1 in 4. Whatever the number, I suspect the off-center hammering of the bullets against the deflector must have caused some strain on the engine crankshaft. [Note: French bullets were copper, so comparatively soft and therefore less damaging to the propeller; when Fokker and his team inspected this mechanism it became clear that their harder, chrome-tipped bullets would not work with Garros's system. So Fokker returned to the "synchronizer" concept and perfected it to great success. ~ KW]

The Garros method was replaced by a synchronizer or interrupter which achieved significant efficiency, interrupting the machine gun's fire when bullets could damage the propeller blades. Some of these mechanisms would not see widespread service until 1916. Garros had achieved fame as a prewar tennis player, a racing pilot, and as the first aviator to fly across the Mediterranean (France to Tunisia, 1913).

Garros downed three German airplanes before either combat damage or a mechanical difficulty caused him to force-land behind German lines on 18 April 1915. After several unsuccessful attempts, he escaped captivity on 14 February 1918. Rejoining the French Air Service, he was shot down and killed on 5 October 1918, one day before his 30th birthday.
Detail of a Deflector

Garros is  buried in Vouziers, France. A sign in the town square bearing his name directs you to the cemetery, and a similar sign is on the main gate.  Garros's name lives on in the French Open Tennis Tournament.

Burial Site Northeast of Reims

Marker at Vouziers Cemetery

His efforts to escape prisoner-of-war status are commemorated on his tombstone.

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