For a decade after the Wright brothers achieved powered flight the received wisdom was that if an aeroplane moved more than 20 degrees off the straight and level in any direction it would tumble from the sky. This was true for many of the pioneering aircraft of the day but Russian pilot Pyotr Nesterov turned the theory on its head in 1913.
Nesterov was the son of a career army man who attended a military school and then enrolled in the Tsar’s artillery in 1904 . In 1909 he encountered aircraft for the first time in their role of performing reconnaissance flights and spotting for his gunners – and to the adventurous 22-year-old this seemed like a spectacularly good wheeze.
In short order he began pilot training, qualifying as a pilot and then earning military pilot status. Not only was he talented at the controls but he also dedicated his time on the ground to thinking about strategy and tactics for the military use of aeroplanes. This included the possibility for an aircraft to fly in a loop if it needed to take evasive or aggressive action – and on 9 September 1913 a large crowd gathered at Syretzk Aerodrome near Kiev to see theory put into practice and successfully fly a loop in his Nieuport IV monoplane.
Within days the move was then copied by aspiring pilots across Europe and ‘looping the loop’ became a major box office success in that last year of peace. The birth of aerobatic displays came just in time to pre-empt the dogfights which would follow soon afterwards the course of the Great War.
For Nesterov that war would be measured in days. He encountered an Albatros reconnaissance aircraft on 8 September 1914 and attempted to shoot it down with a pistol. Having failed in this attempt he then tried to bring it down by using his undercarriage to give the German aircraft a glancing blow on the wing – but he misjudged the move and clattered into the Albatros so hard that while he did indeed inflict fatal damage, he fell out of his own machine and tumbled to his doom.
Uniquely for an officer of the Tsar’s armed forces, Nesterov remained an officially approved hero in the Communist regime. Indeed, Stalin renamed the city of Zhovkva in his honour in 1951, but its original moniker has since been restored.