The Few, the Brave, the Lucky
To face the enemy in World War I, pilots first had to survive flight training.
- By Tom LeCompte
- Air & Space magazine, July 2008
Courtesy Tom LeCompte
(Page 2 of 4)
The first flight with an instructor piloting is called the “joy flip”—I believe they side-slip, nose spin and generally try to scare you green. I am looking forward to it.
—Letter home, November 9, 1917
About the same time Shaw arrived in Europe, John McGavock Grider was transferred from the U.S. military air service to the Royal Flying Corps. Grider was a divorced cotton farmer from Arkansas with two young sons and a taste for adventure. Like Shaw, he wrote about his training and the catastrophes he witnessed at British flight schools. Together, their accounts draw a vivid picture of the risks that men of their time took to become military pilots.
A horrible thing happened today. We were all out on the tarmac having our pictures taken for posterity when somebody yelled and pointed up. Two Avros collided right over the airdrome at about three hundred feet. God, it was a horrible sight. We didn’t know who was in either one of them. I was glad I was sitting next to Cal. They came down in a slow spin with their wings locked together and both of them in flames. Fred Stillman was in one machine and got out alive but badly burned and Doug Ellis was in the other one and was burned to a cinder.
—Diary of John M. Grider, February 9, 1918, as edited and amended by friend and fellow pilot Elliot White Springs, in The War Birds—Diary of an Unknown Aviator, Texas A&M University Press, 1988
Two weeks later, Grider wrote about another disaster, this one apparently caused by the simplest of mistakes: failure to wear a safety belt.
Montgomery was killed when the pilot fell out of the front seat in an [Avro] in a loop. Montgomery was in the back seat and crawled up into the front cockpit and just had his hands on the controls when it crashed. Think of watching the ground coming up at you for two or three minutes while you wiggle up the fuselage. Makes my blood run cold!
It took one of the largest battles of World War I—and, with more than one million casualties, one of the bloodiest in history—to begin changing the face of military aviation, including better training for pilots. The Battle of the Somme, fought from July to November 1916, cost Britain a total of 782 airplanes and 576 pilots. While it was safer to be a pilot than a soldier in the trenches (the battle killed 420,000 British ground troops), concern over the adequacy of training forced Britain to establish minimum requirements for new pilots: 15 hours of solo flying, a cross-country flight of 60 miles with two landings, a climb to 6,000 feet with 15 minutes of flying level, a dead-stick landing within a circle 50 yards in diameter, and two landings in darkness, assisted by flares.