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A pilot and gunner inspect the Handley. (Courtesy Tom LeCompte)

The Few, the Brave, the Lucky

To face the enemy in World War I, pilots first had to survive flight training.

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Dear Mother and Dad:

From This Story

This looks cheerful, but it is much more cheerful than it looks…. After 12 hours on BE2c’s I took one up and smashed it to bits. Am not hurt—just messed up a bit.

—Letter home, March 16, 1918

Frederic Barr Shaw had reason to be cheerful. He was alive, and would fly again, unlike scores of fellow cadets in Britain’s Royal Air Force. The year before, Shaw had recorded in his journal that at the field where he received primary flight training, there were an average of three crashes a day. In most cases, the pilot escaped with only cuts and bruises, but over the course of several months, many were seriously injured or killed.

During most of World War I, pilots stood a greater chance of being killed during training or in accidents than in combat. Aviation, after all, was only a few years old when the war broke out in 1914. From a few dozen types of airplanes and a few hundred pilots around the world, it grew in a matter of years to include hundreds of types of aircraft and thousands of pilots. In 1917, British manufacturers rolled out nearly 14,000 aircraft—a staggering number, considering that just three years earlier, only 193 had been built in the course of a year. With hostilities at full bore, the pressure to produce airplanes and pilots for combat resulted in unreliable machines flown by men who didn’t know how to operate them. Training time was slashed from six months to three in order to double the number of pilots for the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service (they merged in 1918 to become the Royal Air Force). In the letters and diaries of pilots like Shaw, the process of training emerges as a raw and dangerous business.


A terrible day. Harold Coo, Langston and Lt. Cdr. Murray were killed. Chesterton had two legs broken and MacLaren concussion of the brain. Many crashes. Coo and Langston collided at 500 ft. Murray and Chesterton in dual flight came to earth in a spinning nose dive... Getting awfully fed up on the flying game. Feeling blue.

—Shaw’s journal, January 22, 1918


Shaw considered himself the ideal candidate for the Royal Naval Air Service, even though he had likely never seen an airplane, much less flown in one. Born in Canada, he was living in Kansas City, Missouri, when he volunteered to become a cadet, figuring his year of college and classical piano training would impress recruiters looking for good breeding and social standing. After several months of letters and telegrams to a recruiter in Ottawa, Shaw was finally accepted, and in October 1917 he was told to go to Halifax and catch a boat bound for England. He was assigned to Squad 16-A, along with about 40 other recruits, at the Royal Naval College in Greenwich. There, his month-long training consisted of lectures on flight theory, meteorology, navigation, wireless telegraphy, and engine mechanics. The courses, he wrote his parents, were terribly boring and seemed to have little to do with flying. “Rotten, all of them,” he complained in a letter home. Shaw was then transferred to Vendome, a small French town about 120 miles southwest of Paris, to begin flight training.


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

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