by Viktor Sajc
The time: Close of the 19th century. More and more dreamers the world over turn their eyes to the skies and dream of flying. Icarus is a legend, Jonathan Livingston Seagull a song yet unsung. Balloons, kites, gliders, and other contraptions, stemming from Leonardo’s genius, abound. Kitty Hawk is still twenty years away.
The place: Southeast Europe, the Balkan Peninsula, and Serbia – a constitutional kingdom recently liberated from five centuries of Ottoman rule. An enormous amount of Serbian national energy is released, striving to reach all the achievements of modern Europe in a single stride. Railways are built, new industries established, trade flourishes.
Aviation history in the works
News of the first powered flight in 1903 at Kitty Hawk traveled slowly. Indeed, the Wright brothers found it surprisingly difficult to publish articles about their successful flights. They did no flying in 1906, concentrating on a new engine design. That same year, Alberto Santos-Dumont forced their hand by becoming the first to fly in Europe. So in 1907 the Wrights made a triumphal tour of Europe, during which they established subsidiary companies for the manufacture of their designs in England, France, and Germany. The race was on.
Air racing became the most exciting sport, and the top pilots were as well known as F1 racing stars are today. The world’s first international aero meet was held at Reims, France, in August 1909. Louis Bleriot, first airman to fly the English Channel earlier that year, broke all records for speed over a 10-kilometer course with his heretofore unheard of 90km/h. Henri Farman won the duration prize, and later another prize for carrying two passengers.
The next several years were dominated by air meets in which aircraft designers and pilots competed in speed, endurance, altitude, and acrobatics for cash prizes put up by newspaper publishers, wealthy aviation enthusiasts, and a growing number of aero clubs that were being formed all over the world. Wood and canvas aircraft were relatively cheap to build and repair, with the engine being the most expensive item. Pilots had no cockpits but sat exposed to the wind braced by rudder pedals and control wheel. For many years no safety belts were used and a high percentage of fatalities in crashes was the result of the pilot being pitched out of his plane. Goggles, the cap worn backwards, and jacket became the uniform of the pilots during this era.
The military steps in
In those days, there was no such thing as a “military aircraft” in today’s sense of the word. The various military authorities had no idea what they wanted their aircraft to do, other than the obvious one of supplementing the balloon squads in the job of “spotting” for the men on the ground, so military aircraft were simply current designs purchased for military use. For example, it was not until 1910 that the French Army became interested in flying. They trained 60 pilots and bought a selection of aircraft, one of which was the first ever to be armed with a gun. The following year they were using aircraft regularly in exercises.
The Serbian army was no exception to this rule. Even though the first balloon pilot (aeronaut), major Kosta Miletic, had returned from training in Russia in 1902, he was forced to battle a series of bureaucratic obstacles before the first balloon squad was formed and equipped in 1909. Plans for a flying corps were slowly on their way…
A storm breaks over the Balkans
The First Balkan War broke out in October 1912. Serbia, Montenegro, Greece, and Bulgaria waged it against the Ottoman Empire in a final attempt to liberate the last of the territories that the Turks still occupied in Europe. The Serbian army advanced South through Kosovo and Metohija into Macedonia, then turned West toward the Adriatic coast, through central Albania. At the same time, the Montenegrin army advanced into Albania from the North and laid siege to the historic fortified city of Skadar.
In February 1913, the Serbian Army High Command formed a separate Coastal (Primorski) Army Corps in order to assist the Montenegrins on the Skadar front. Air support for this formation was assigned to the newly established “Coastal Airplane Squad”, the first Serbian air combat unit, with 3 airplanes and 4 pilots under the command of major Kosta Miletic.
Sgt. Mihajlo Petrovic
Serbia’s Number One Pilot
Mihajlo Petrovic was the first trained Serbian airplane pilot. He completed his training and exams at the famous Farman pilot school in France and was awarded the international
FAI license no.979 in June 1912.
His Serbian pilot’s license carries the number 1.
The hero of our story, Mihajlo Petrovic, is born on June 14, 1884, in a small village called Vlakca, near the town of Kragujevac in central Serbia. A bright child, he goes through elementary school in his native village with exemplary success. After that, all his family could afford was to send him to the Military Crafts School in nearby Kragujevac, which was already renown throughout Europe for its Artillery Works. For our adventurous boy Mihajlo, this was quite satisfactory – providing his first step into the great world outside, independence and a chance to learn about the Army.
Five years later, in 1902, even Kragujevac has grown too small for a now restless young man Mihajlo. Even though he was quite successful in his studies, he decides to leave military crafts and seek further education abroad. By tradition, he turns to Russia and sets off on the long journey North. As was the custom of that time for all foreign would-be students, he is held up in a small border town, learning the Russian language for several months. With this delay, he didn’t reach St.Petersburg until November, when it was too late to enroll in any of the academies. So he spends the harsh Russian winter looking for some kind of work, during a troubled time when jobs were really hard to find. After recuperating from a long illness, our disenchanted Mihajlo decides to return to Serbia.
He is back in Kragujevac in time to enroll for Artillery NCO Training in 1903. After two years of this school, in 1905, 21 year old corporal Mihajlo Petrovic enlists in the Guards Artillery regiment in Nis, the second largest Serbian city after the capital, Beograd.
It seems that our young hero is now set on a fairly straightforward military career. He moves between several garrisons, from Nis to Kragujevac, and on to Beograd. He receives his sergeant’s stripes in 1910. However, by all accounts, he is also an artist at heart – a poet and a painter. The taste for adventure has never left him, and he keeps hearing about a new breed of heroes – the aviators.
When the Serbian Army calls for volunteers for a new Air Corps in 1912, our Mihajlo does not hesitate a single instant. He passes all the necessary exams and medical tests with flying colors, and his dreams finally come true when he becomes one of the first group of six candidates selected for flight training in France.
This time there are no delays. Immediately upon the group’s arrival in France, Mihajlo is enlisted in the Farman school in Etamps, where training began during the last week of May 1912. Meeting Mihajlo and seeing his first few training flights, the famous French pilot Broden was forced to comment that “… he is sure to become an ace. He is so calm, as if he despises death!”.
After only twenty days of training, Mihajlo is the first one in his group to advance to solo flying. This event seems to have drawn considerable public attention. One of the onlookers, a reporter from Figaro, was so impressed by Mihajlo’s performance that he wrote a long article, complete with photograph, commending “the fearless and admirable Serb sergeant”.
Mihajlo completed all the necessary courses by the end of June, and he was ready for his flying exams. He passes them on June 22 and 23, becoming the first Serbian pilot with a diploma – a pilot’s license. The fact that he received his license a full month ahead of the other members of his group confirms his extraordinary talent.
By the time Mihajlo and his fellow pilots returned to Serbia, the First Balkan War had broken out. Events were speeding up – a location for the first military airfield had been selected in the vicinity of Nis (Trupalsko polje) and a total of 12 aircraft, Bleriot monoplanes and Farman biplanes, arrived from France. Mihajlo’s Farman HF20 wasAlthough the same make as the airplane he flew in France assembled by the end of December 1912. , this machine was a different model with different handling qualities, so Mihajlo spent the next month in flight tests and training. His first combat assignment came through in February, in the newly formed Coastal Airplane Squad that was to provide air support for the troops laying siege to Skadar, in northern Albania.
After an exhausting journey across the Albanian mountain ranges, the squad reached its destination in the small village of Babalushi, where a site for the airfield had been selected. After assembling the aircraft they had brought with them, they planned their first test flights for March 7. The morning weather seemed calm and clear. A crowd of spectators, mainly officers from army units stationed nearby, gathered to watch the flying machines in action. The first few flights passed without a hitch. Then came the shock, best described by excerpts from the squad log book:
7.III.1913 – calm and warm
Engine test runs today. Lt. Jugovic flew the Farman for 12min. and landed well. Lt. Stankovic flew the Bleriot for 25min. and landed well. At 9:25, Sgt. Mihajlo Petrovic flew the Farman over our positions on Meglushi and Bushati at an altitude of 1500m. At 9:45, after cutting the engine and starting his landing approach, he met with a heavy thermal gust. His aircraft stalled, then pitched downward. He was thrown off from a height of 900 to 1000m and killed. The machine is badly damaged.
Buried Sgt. Petrovic this afternoon in Barbalushi. The men are in good health, but their morale is extremely low, due to the death of Sgt. Petrovic.
Following the end of the Balkan Wars, Sgt. Petrovic’s remains were moved, and buried with highest military honors in the cemetery at Cetinje, the capital of Montenegro. They rested there until 1931, when they were moved to Beograd, the capital of Yugoslavia, at his family’s request.
This story deserves one final note:
During the memorial services held for Sgt. Mihajlo Petrovic in 1931 in Beograd, a squadron belonging to the 6th Flight Regiment of the Royal Yugoslav Air Force flew overhead, in honor of Serbia’s number one pilot and one of the first military pilots in the world to lay down his life in the line of duty.