A much bemedalled Charles Nungesser is seen wearing both French and foreign decorations, including the British Military Cross
Charles Eugene Jules Marie Nungesser was born in Paris on 15 March 1892. Dropping out of school, he travelled to Brazil to work in his uncle’s sugar plantation, but ended up finding employment in Argentina as a car mechanic. He then started racing cars professionally in South America at the age of 17, where he met another Frenchman who had access to an aeroplane. Nungesser talked his friend into letting him take the Bleriot into the air by himself, and after flying it around for a few minutes, he made a successful landing. Within two weeks he had refined his flying abilities and started his career in aviation.
Returning to France following the outbreak of war, Nungesser joined the 2nd Hussars as a private. He requested, and was approved for, a transfer to the Service Aeronautique at around this time. Receiving his brevet on 2 March 1915, Nungesser was sent to VB106, then moved to N65, having achieved one victory in a Voisin two-seater. However, soon after arriving at his new unit he took off without permission, so although he received the Croix de Guerre, he was also placed under close arrest for eight days!
Gaining his second victory in December, Nungesser became a Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur. Badly injured in a crash on 6 February 1916, which saw both of his legs broken, he returned to be commissioned, and in April began scoring victories. Wounded in combat on 19 May, he was back in action within a few days. By the end of 1916 Nungesser had claimed 21 victories, but had been injured again in June. He had also received the Military Cross from the British. In early 1917 Nungesser had to return to hospital because of his earlier injuries, but he managed to persuade his superiors not to ground him. Getting himself attached to V116, with his own Nieuport, he added nine more confirmed victories to his tally by August 1917.
In December Nungesser was injured yet again, this time in a car crash, but after treatment, and a month as an instructor, the ace returned to his old unit – now SPA65. Although the rest of the escadrille now flew SPADs, he still continued with later versions of the Nieuport adorned with his distinctive fuselage insignia of a black heart, as well as large red, white and blue stripes on the wings and top decking. In May 1918, with his score at 35, Nungesser was made an Officer of the Legion d’Honneur. By mid-August he had claimed a total of 43 victories, plus 11 probables.
Post-war, Nungesser flew many crowd-pulling aerial shows, and then came the chance to fly the Atlantic with old friend Francois Coli. The pair took off on 8. May 1927 in a Levasseur PL 8 but were never seen again. At one stage it was said he had had every major bone in his body broken at least once, and he often flew before previous injuries had properly healed.