Roland Garros (1888-1918) was the first fighter ace in World War I. In fact, he's the person who made the designation "ace". Garros had won fame as a pilot before the war. Garros was a piano student until the airplane captured his imagination. He convinced the Brazilian flyer Alberto Santos-Dumont to teach him to fly. He learned quickly and in 1911 won major air races. In 1913 Garros became the first man to fly across the Mediterranean. When War was declared, he was giving exhibition flights in Germany, but was able to fly out of Germany at night, where he joined the French Air Force. He entered combat in 1915. Air to air combat had just begun, and with it the problems of aerial gunnery. Machine guns were available, but could not be used for forward quarter fire because they would quickly saw through the wooden propellor blades used by planes of that era. That made pursuing an enemy problematic. Sure you could chase them, but unless you could overtake them there was no way to shoot at them. This grealy limited the utility of fighter aircraft.

Saulnier was the first to come up with a solution, a synchronizing gear that Garros was there to help debug. But early ammunition was poor, it fired at irregular velocities leading to problems. And the Morane gear had issues. Flyer Eugene Gilbert had tried attaching metal to the propellor, in effect armoring against the relatively low-velocity slugs used in machine guns of the day. But the early experiments reflected the shells back onto the firing plane. Killed two of Gibert's assistants. Not good. Garros figured that only 7% of the shells would hit the propellors, so they wouldn't be struck every shot. He and M/S engineers experimented with different shaped deflectors until they found one that turned the slugs away from plane and pilot.

Garros quickly went aloft to try the new device out. On April 1, 1915 he attacked two Albatros scouts and shot both down. By the 18th he had destroyed five German Aircraft, and Frenchmen began calling him an "ace", a trendy term of the era for anyone who had done something special. Only the term stuck for fighter pilots.

Garros reign as top ace did not last. He suffered engine trouble behind German lines, and both he and his Morane-Saulnier were captured. The Germans sent the plane to Anthony Fokker to be copied.

Fokker studied the device and saw right away it was a cobbled together solution. First, it increased propellor mass and drag, robbing the airplane of power. The deflector may have saved the propellor in the short run, but the propellor assembly still took a hammering, which may have contributed to Garros' engine trouble and capture. He devised the first real synchronizing gear. The plane's machine gun was set in semi automatic mode, and then a cam was attached to the propellor, with the lobes located precisely behind the propellor. Fokker designed the cams to trigger the gun, realizing that the mechanical delay meant that by the time the bullet left the gun, the propellor would have moved out of the way. The device didn't care about engine speed, and proved reliable. Fokker gave a synchronizer equipped Fokker Eindecker to Max Immelmann and the rest is history.

Garros remained in a German POW Camp until 1918 when he was able to escape. He returned to flying in an era where everyone had synchronizer gear. He was patrolling the front in October 1918 when he must have seen something. He sped away from his wingman, who could not keep up. The wingman saw an explosion in the distance. Roland Garros was dead, the cause of his death still a mystery.

sources itself largely cribbed from Arch Whitehouse: Decisive Air Battles of the First World War, 1963 which I read about a dozen times during middle school, as it was in the school library

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