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 4 of 4)
There was no such thing as “hands off” flying, Taylor explains. “The planes got pushed around by the wind, and the controls on many were heavy. You had to manage the engine much more, and you had to watch your attitude and airspeed to prevent overstressing the airframe.” And every airplane was different, even those of the same type. “They each had their own flight characteristics, depending on the individual rigging and what kind of damage the plane had sustained,” he says. Another worry was engine failure, so dead-stick landings were a required part of training. “But it did make you a better pilot, because you were more prepared for the unexpected,” Taylor says.
That is, if you survived. Before accumulating five hours of flying time, Shaw had wrecked two airplanes, a number that presumably was not considered a problem, given that his instructors allowed him to continue. After three and a half hours of flying with an instructor, Shaw soloed. He flew two circuits around the school’s field and landed, as he’d been instructed. Over the next three weeks, Shaw accumulated a total of 14 hours of dual and solo time, flying both Caudron and U.S.-made Curtiss JN “Jenny” trainers. In addition to takeoffs and landings, he mastered spirals and S-turns, climbed to 7,800 feet, and made a series of cross-country flights. He was then sent to Cranwell, England, for final training before being assigned to a combat squadron.
When he took off on March 11, 1918, from Cranwell’s field in a single-engine BE2c biplane, Shaw had a total of 25 hours of flight time. Soon after, he wrote, the engine “went dud,” just as it had many times before. At about 50 feet off the ground and with a large hangar and a line of airplanes looming in front of him, all his options were bad. Deciding not to crash into the hangar and the airplanes, he tried to turn around. He
didn’t make it. The airplane stalled and nosed into the ground. Shaw was pried bleeding and unconscious from the twisted mass of wood, wire, and cloth. When he came to, he was in the Northern General Hospital in Lincoln, where he was told details of the crash.
His injuries were minor: a concussion and some cuts and bruises. But he would spend nearly eight weeks at the hospital, apparently lost in the bureaucracy as the new Royal Air Force began operations. When he finally returned to Cranwell, it was June, and he had to repeat much of his earlier training.
Grider, in the meantime, had also survived flight training, accumulating about 20 solo hours before being sent to the School of Aerial Fighting in Ayr, Scotland. There, he advanced from Farmans to French SPADs, and saw nine cadets die in crashes. He was at Ayr just 19 days when he was ordered to the front. “I’d like to stay here a while,” he wrote, “but they kill off pilots too fast for any one to linger very long.”
Assigned to the 85th Squadron under Canadian air ace Lieutenant Colonel William “Billy” Bishop, Grider flew bomber escort and patrols, helping to neutralize Germany’s new Fokker D.VII. He downed four enemy airplanes before disappearing in a fog behind enemy lines in June 1918. His squadron learned later from a note dropped by a German pilot that Grider had been shot down in a dogfight and was buried somewhere in Armentieres, France. The airfield in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, is dedicated to him.
As for Shaw, after completing his training at Cranwell, learning on BE2cs and Airco DH9s, he was sent to the #1 School of Navigation and Bomb Dropping at Stonehenge. There he learned how to fly the giant Handley Page O-400 twin-engine bomber, and how to conduct night bombing missions. By the time he finished the six-week course and was assigned to 100 Squadron in France, it was the last week of October 1918. Within two weeks, the Armistice was signed and the guns fell silent. Eight months later, Shaw returned to the United States without ever having flown a combat mission. While surviving flight training was lucky in itself, his crash was even luckier: Being out of commission for eight weeks may have saved his life. Back home in Missouri, he married his sweetheart, Dorothy Price, and the two had a daughter, Janet—my mother. His good luck, it turns out, was mine too.