How They Trained
Rare archival footage shows Army pilots learning to fly Jennies in 1917.
- By Phillip W. Stewart
- AirSpaceMag.com, May 05, 2008
National Air and Space Museum SI 94-9641
Years ago, an aviation enthusiast in England sent me a letter asking if I knew of any World War I aviation documentary films in the United States. He said he’d already contacted the Pentagon and the U.S. Embassy in London, and was told that none existed. He found that hard to believe, as did I.
So began what has turned into a two-decade-long, on-again, off-again search for historic documentary footage related to WWI aviation.
Even though the film cameras of the day—heavy wooden boxes with crude, brass-encased glass lenses, metal hand cranks, and ungainly tripods—were cumbersome, they did manage to record many key events of the Great War. In fact, from 1914 to 1919, the major combatants exposed millions of feet of 35-millimeter film. Unfortunately, due to film decay and disposal practices, only a small percentage of the footage can be found today.
American WWI films were shot in Europe, as history happened, by courageous soldier-cameramen with the U.S. Army Signal Corps. The films that found their way to the States after the war were moved to the National Archives in the late 1930s. Today they are considered official records of the U.S. government and are preserved at the Archives as part of the world’s largest film collection, with holdings of over 360,000 reels, most of which reside in College Park, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C.
Unfortunately, very few of the motion pictures show airplanes in action. Of the thousands of WWI-related reels in the Archives, I discovered only 71 titles that document any aviation activities. And half of those consist of only a few scenes.
Still, there are a few gems. Aviation Training in the United States, which runs about 11 minutes (see “Video Gallery” at right to watch the film), includes the only known footage of U.S. Army pilots training “over here.” Army cadets are shown undergoing flight instruction, and there is extensive footage of a Curtiss “Jenny” airplane in flight. The film was shot primarily at the recently reopened Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas, in 1917 and 1918, and was loosely re-edited by the Army in 1936.
Not only is the film in superb shape after 90 years, it includes a number of rare scenes. It’s the only film I’ve found that shows the Artillery Spotting Classroom in use. Cadets in the specially designed classroom would sit high above a large battlefield diorama and survey simulated artillery hits on “enemy” targets. The cadets would then check their maps, identify the location of the hits, and practice sending correction reports to the battery command post via Morse code.
Another sequence shows a cadet’s first solo flight, starting with a complete preflight check of a JN-4 Jenny. The student is then seen in the Jenny’s rear cockpit as the instructor on the ground waves goodbye, the engine is gunned, and the airplane begins to roll. Then, as the Jenny lifts off and climbs, we see an exceptional view of the cadet (shot from a camera in the front cockpit). (I doubt the person doing the flying was a cadet—this one looks way too calm to be on his first solo. More likely, for safety’s sake, an instructor posed as the student.)