Anyone who follows tennis has heard the name Roland Garros – it's the name of the stadium where the French Open is held each year. Most fans probably assume that Garros was a tennis champion from days of yore.
The truth is that while Garros was known to wield a racket, his real skill was flying. In fact, he set a milestone in early flight 100 years ago today. Find out more in our list of facts about this World War I fighter pilot.
1. Roland Garros was one of the earliest aviators, learning to fly after he visited an air show at Reims in 1909. It was quite a change from the occupation he originally intended to pursue. When he discovered his fascination with flight, Garros was studying to become a concert pianist.
2. Garros learned quickly and by 1911 was setting altitude records as he practiced exhibition and stunt flying.
3. On Sept. 23, 1913 – 100 years ago today – Garros completed the first nonstop flight across the Mediterranean from Fréjus, France to Bizerte, Tunisia. His feat is being recreated this week by a team of pilots following Garros’s historic route, some in an exact replica of the plane flown by Garros.
Roland Garros in 1910 (Wikimedia Commons)
4. A year after that notable first, Garros joined the French army as World War I broke out. But he didn't just stroll down to army headquarters and sign up. He was teaching aviation in Germany at the time and had to sneak home via a night flight to Switzerland in order to serve his country.
5. Garros played a part in an important military invention – a forward-facing machine gun mounted on a fighter plane. He came up with an attachment that protected the blades of the plane's propeller from being damaged by bullets.
6. The term "ace" pilot was first used in reference to Garros after he shot down several enemy aircraft. Reports vary as to whether he downed four or five planes, and the debate actually matters – because the accepted definition of "ace" has become a fighter pilot who has shot down five or more enemy planes. Though Garros was the first ace, he may not actually be an ace at all.
7. In 1915 Garros crashed his plane behind enemy lines. He attempted to burn the plane so German scientists wouldn't be able to replicate his machine gun innovation. He was unsuccessful, and his plane was turned over to aircraft designer Anton Fokker, while he was placed in a POW camp. Fokker used Garros' concept to create an even more effective gun.
8. Garros remained in captivity for three years. Was he set free? Not this tough guy – he escaped, returning immediately to the army to continue fighting.
9. Just a few months after escaping from prison, Garros was shot down and killed in action. He died on Oct. 5, 1918.
10. So how about that tennis connection? When Garros was a student in Paris, he was a member of the Stade Français club, a tennis venue that had been hosting tournaments since 1891. So frequent a visitor was he that when Stade Français donated a piece of their land to create a venue for an international tennis tournament in 1928, they stipulated that it be named after the war hero and tennis aficionado. A legend was born, and a legacy honored.
Roland-Garros, French Open 2012, women's champion Maria Sharapova (Flickr Creative Commons / Mister E)
Written by Linnea Crowther. Find her on Google+.