The Last Bombing Run
They survived the mission; would they survive the landing?
- By Tom Murphy
- Air & Space magazine, March 2012
(Page 2 of 3)
Late February 1918: Stationed with the 2nd Aviation Instruction Center in Tours. I took my first instructional flight in a French “warp wing” Caudron G3 with an Anzani 90-horsepower air-cooled radial engine. I soloed in three hours and continued my instruction in cross country flying and altitude. Landing on a target and other techniques were now taught by an American instructor, himself taught by the French.
Early May: With 20 hours of flying time, I started instructing others like myself, from dual to solo.
Well, we were flying, which is what we came to France to do. I spent my spare time sightseeing over the Tours area, gaining hours and experience. My promotion orders put me on active service as a First Lieutenant, Air Services, American Expeditionary Force, France. I wasted no time in donning my French-built uniform: high leather boots, Sam Browne belt, 1st lieutenant bars, flying wings, and cap. I continued routine instructing, cross-country flying, and chateau-hunting.
August: Lieutenant Spain, our detachment commander, called me and some other officers into his office. Orders had come down to find men to train for night bombing. England had the best facilities for such training at its flying fields and with British squadrons of night bombers at the front in France. From these primitive flying fields, the British had set up operations flying the biggest night bomber the Allies had: the Handley-Page Type O/400, constructed of aeroplane cloth, spruce struts made of Olympic Mountain-grown spruce, and wire to hold it together. It was powered by two 375-horsepower Rolls-Royce 12-cylinder engines, with fixed hardwood four-blade propellers. With its wings spanning 100 feet, and at more than 62 feet long, the ship was so big its wings were on hinges so they could fold back against the body to squeeze in a hangar for maintenance.
A bomb bay sat between the upper and lower wings, and a long snout stuck out in front with a seat for the observer/bombardier. We had a three-man crew: pilot, observer, and gunlayer [gunner], the latter stationed just behind the wings. The engines could run for 50 hours, after which they were pulled for complete overhaul.
Flying time was said to be eight hours, but we liked to think more of five to six hours at a so-called flying speed of 70 to 80 miles per hour, landing at 50. Volunteers were sent to Handley-Page Stonehenge flying field in Salisbury Plains for further instruction, then on to France, arriving at Independent Force 100 Squadron in mid October.
November 10, 1918: My last bomb run, one day before the armistice was signed on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Our ship was filled with 300 gallons of gasoline, one ton of bombs, and magnesium incendiaries packed 260 to a metal canister. The target was Frescaty Aerodrome at Metz, France, then in German hands.
Handley-Page pilots had a saying about the O/400: “It takes an hour to get to 6500 feet, our ceiling, with a ton of bombs” in describing a “typical night bombing show.”