July 01, 2013

Peter and the Loop



Today, when you look at the Nieuport monoplane that Pyotr Nesterov flew upside down to perform history’s first aerial loop on August 27, 1913 (September 9, New Style), it looks like a toy. By now we are used to huge airplanes with rows and rows of seats and long aisles down which flight attendants roll carts of refreshments. Jaded by hermetically sealed and sturdy machines where you can eat, sleep, listen to music and watch movies, it is hard for us to grasp the idea that such a feat was performed using a flimsy-looking, unbelievably tiny contraption with an open-air cockpit. How could that be? It looks like nothing more than an amusement park ride!

But it’s true. One hundred years ago people were flying such contraptions. By today’s standards, these flights were extremely slow and short. When Pyotr Nesterov flew from Kiev to Gatchina (a town outside St. Petersburg), the trip was hailed as an incredible feat. Indeed, if you think about it, in the early twentieth century, every time pilots climbed into tiny airplanes and soared into the sky, they were performing an act of amazing bravery, doing something most people on Earth had never dreamed of. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that in the early days of aviation, pilots across the globe were seen as heroes, as the rock stars of their day, as daredevils. They ascended into the air, zoomed over the earth like birds, and made people proud of what the human race could achieve through reason, ingenuity, and courage.

Even among this courageous breed, Pyotr Nesterov stood out as someone who was constantly pushing boundaries. The young officer was always experimenting, tinkering with his airplane’s design, trying to find new ways of flying. The Russian term for the feat he performed is “мертвая петля,” dead loop, an obvious hint at its danger, as well, perhaps, at the fact that, before the age of fuel-injection, the engine would stall — go dead — when the plane deviated from the horizontal orientation for which it was designed. The maneuver was indeed considered deadly, but it was the general belief in its impossibility that compelled Nesterov to try it. For him, the word “impossible” was an irresistible challenge.


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