Birth of a vocation
Born on October 6, 1888 in Saint-Denis de la Réunion (his airport also bears his name), this boy who had Toulouse origins on his father’s side and Breton origins on his mother’s side, distinguished himself in his youth, on football and rugby pitches, but also on the little queen. Cycling notably allowed him to recover respiratory capacities, weakened by pneumonia contracted at the age of 12 in metropolitan France, in Paris where his parents had to send him to continue his studies.
It was in August 1909, at the age of 21, that he fell madly in love with flying wings, after attending his first air meeting, in Champagne where he spent his summer holidays. There ” Great Aviation Week in Champagne from August 22 to 29, is a revelation for him: he will be an aviator. The profits from his car business enabled him to immediately order the least expensive discovery of flying machines at the time, at the Salon de l’ocomotion aerienne at the Palais, a Demoiselle Santos-Dumont, which he learned to pilot on his own, before pass his patent.
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An aviation star
“The Eternal Second”
Back in France in May 1911, after a tour of aerial exhibitions across the United States, he took part in the three major events of the year, the Paris-Madrid air race, the Paris-Rome and the European Circuit. . Despite his undeniable qualities as a pilot, he always got his hair cut at the post and journalists nicknamed him “the Eternal Second”.
The feat of flying over the Mediterranean
Two years later, here he is taking his revenge and already beating a first altitude record, September 6, 1911, with 3,910 meters, after taking off from Houlgate beach. Then the races and air meetings follow one another. Audacious and inventive, Roland Garros quickly became a star in the discipline. Hundreds of thousands flock to Europe and South America to watch its aerial evolutions. But what he wants is to fly over the seas. He set himself a new challenge: to cross the Mediterranean, a first at the time.
On September 23, 1913, he linked Saint-Raphaël to Bizerte, Tunisia, on his Morane-Saulnier monoplane, after having traveled some 780 kilometers. An epic of almost eight hours, carried out at an average speed of 101 kilometers per hour and marked by two breakdowns, which this mechanical genius quickly solved. This feat made him a hero of his time and one of the darlings of Tout-Paris. Jean Cocteau, among others, becomes his friend. The poet and filmmaker, whom Garros sometimes steals, even dedicated a text to him, “Le Cap de Bonne Espérance”.
Aviation pioneer and hero of the Great War
When the First World War broke out, Roland Garros got involved immediately. He will fight in the air, of course. At the time, military aviation was in its infancy and had virtually no armament. This precursor will develop the first single-seat fighter equipped with a machine gun firing through the propeller. A revolution. He returned to the front equipped with his new firing device and recorded, at the beginning of April 1915, three consecutive victories in a fortnight, before being hit by the German flak over Belgium. Forced to land, he was taken prisoner before he could set the plane on fire. Falling into the hands of the enemy, his invention will inspire the Germans.
After having succeeded in escaping after three years, Lieutenant Garros returned to combat, despite a state of health degraded by his captivity. His latent myopia, which has become very embarrassing, forces him to go secretly to have glasses made in order to be able to continue driving. On October 2, 1918, Roland Garros won its fourth and final victory. On the eve of his 30th birthday, on October 5, five weeks before the Armistice, after a fight against Fokker D.VIIs, his SPAD exploded in the air before crashing on the territory of the commune of Saint-Morel, in the Ardennes, not far from Vouziers where he is buried. The aviation pioneer became a hero of the Great War.