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
Serbia's Number One Pilot
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.
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
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.
The HENRI FARMAN HF20
with 80hp Giom rotary engine & pusher propeller
||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,
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.