The Few, the Brave, the Lucky

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

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

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.”

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