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 3 of 4)
By 1917, every pilot was required to perform aerobatics: to sideslip, to loop, to imitate a fall out of control, and to perform a dozen other maneuvers. Though most training airplanes were outfitted with dual controls, allowing the student to learn by first following the instructor’s control movements, many instructors knew only marginally more than their students. Instructors were simply drawn from pilots either waiting to go to the front or those deemed unfit for it. There was no consideration given to their qualifications or motivation, and they received little supervision. Each instructor taught on the basis of his own experience and attitude. Many instructors, though, were averse to taking risks themselves, so they taught their students primarily how to avoid getting into dangerous flight situations, rather than how to recover from them. As a result, training left the students ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of aerial combat. According to The Great War in the Air by John H. Morrow, one British officer complained in May 1917 that most pilots being sent into combat “can’t even fly, let alone fight.”
Experienced pilots understood that if they manipulated the controls in a particular way, the aircraft would—or at least should—move in a certain way. Yet few could explain exactly why, or which flight controls performed at each stage of a maneuver. Many principles of flight were simply a mystery, so if anything unexpected happened, a pilot was apt to lose control, and his ability to regain it was often a matter of luck.
Take spins: Before 1916, few pilots unfortunate enough to get themselves into a spin lived to tell of the experience. One pilot who did was surrounded upon landing by others congratulating him on his seemingly fantastic feat. When asked how he did it, he cheerfully replied that he did “everything wrong,” by which he meant he did the opposite of what his experience and intuition as a pilot told him. By mid-1917, enough anecdotes had circulated about pilots recovering from a spinning nose dive by pushing forward on the control stick rather than the natural inclination to pull back that it motivated British commanders to rethink air training. Under the leadership and inspiration of Major Robert Smith-Barry, the School of Special Flying was opened in Gosport, England, in August 1917.
Before Gosport, many pilots completed training while on active service, during which they were expected to fly more powerful, less forgiving aircraft, often with little or no training on transitioning from one type to another (by 1916, the British flew 76 varieties). They had to perform combat maneuvers while under fire and extreme stress. Gosport emphasized aerobatic and combat maneuvers and also adopted a standard aircraft for training: the British-made Avro 504 biplane. By the end of 1917, Smith-Barry also had introduced the Gosport Tube, a system of voice pipes and headphones for communication between instructor and pupil. Though it came too late in the war to benefit many pilots, Gosport revolutionized flight training in Britain, and according to Richard Hawkins in The Irish Sword, a journal of military history, many of the school’s techniques became part of the foundation of knowledge for generations of pilots.
Shaw did not have the benefit of the Gosport Tube for his first “flip,” as he and his comrades called a flight. After a week of sitting around Vendome watching crash after crash, he finally got in the air, taking off on Sunday, December 16, 1917, with his instructor in a French-made Caudron G-3 biplane. Sitting in the front seat of the two-seat trainer, Shaw stayed up for 35 minutes and got to a height of 200 feet. At one point, the instructor tapped him on the back and, using a hand signal, instructed him to take the control stick and perform a series of turns. Afterward, the instructor took control and landed the aircraft.
If there was anything remarkable about Shaw’s first flight, it was how unremarkable it was. In his letters and journal, there was no romantic reflection on having “slipped the surly bonds of Earth.” Despite all the waiting and all the crashes he had witnessed, he expressed no pent-up anxiety, no sense of anticipation, and no wonder at seeing the ground from a new perspective. For Shaw, as for many pilots then, it was all very matter-of-fact.
“If you were a kid and you got into one of these planes, you wouldn’t know how scared you should be because you had nothing to compare it to,” says Dan Taylor, a radio personality at WCBS-New York and a pilot, restorer, and historian. They would have had good reason to be nervous, says Taylor, who has flown everything from a 1911 Blériot to a 1917 Sopwith Camel. In World War I, he adds, “all these planes had a lot of drag, so they weren’t very aerodynamic. They had the glide ratio of a brick, so you always had to keep an eye out for an open field.”
Today, it takes years to design and test a new airplane before it goes into production. But in World War I, airplanes were designed, built, and flown in weeks, with the aerodynamics, flight characteristics, and structural integrity worked out literally on the fly. They were rickety machines, each little more than a wicker seat and an engine, held together with fabric and wire. Even in the best flying conditions, the aircraft were slow and unstable, requiring constant attention.