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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About the same time Shaw arrived in Europe, John McGavock Grider was transferred from the U.S. military air service to the Royal Flying Corps. Grider was a divorced cotton farmer from Arkansas with two young sons and a taste for adventure. Like Shaw, he wrote about his training and the catastrophes he witnessed at British flight schools. Together, their accounts draw a vivid picture of the risks that men of their time took to become military pilots.

A horrible thing happened today. We were all out on the tarmac having our pictures taken for posterity when somebody yelled and pointed up. Two Avros collided right over the airdrome at about three hundred feet. God, it was a horrible sight. We didn’t know who was in either one of them. I was glad I was sitting next to Cal. They came down in a slow spin with their wings locked together and both of them in flames. Fred Stillman was in one machine and got out alive but badly burned and Doug Ellis was in the other one and was burned to a cinder.

—Diary of John M. Grider, February 9, 1918, as edited and amended by friend and fellow pilot Elliot White Springs, in The War Birds—Diary of an Unknown Aviator, Texas A&M University Press, 1988

Two weeks later, Grider wrote about another disaster, this one apparently caused by the simplest of mistakes: failure to wear a safety belt.

Montgomery was killed when the pilot fell out of the front seat in an [Avro] in a loop. Montgomery was in the back seat and crawled up into the front cockpit and just had his hands on the controls when it crashed. Think of watching the ground coming up at you for two or three minutes while you wiggle up the fuselage. Makes my blood run cold!

It took one of the largest battles of World War I—and, with more than one million casualties, one of the bloodiest in history—to begin changing the face of military aviation, including better training for pilots. The Battle of the Somme, fought from July to November 1916, cost Britain a total of 782 airplanes and 576 pilots. While it was safer to be a pilot than a soldier in the trenches (the battle killed 420,000 British ground troops), concern over the adequacy of training forced Britain to establish minimum requirements for new pilots: 15 hours of solo flying, a cross-country flight of 60 miles with two landings, a climb to 6,000 feet with 15 minutes of flying level, a dead-stick landing within a circle 50 yards in diameter, and two landings in darkness, assisted by flares.

By 1917, every pilot was required to perform aerobatics: to sideslip, to loop, to imitate a fall out of control, and to perform a dozen other maneuvers. Though most training airplanes were outfitted with dual controls, allowing the student to learn by first following the instructor’s control movements, many instructors knew only marginally more than their students. Instructors were simply drawn from pilots either waiting to go to the front or those deemed unfit for it. There was no consideration given to their qualifications or motivation, and they received little supervision. Each instructor taught on the basis of his own experience and attitude. Many instructors, though, were averse to taking risks themselves, so they taught their students primarily how to avoid getting into dangerous flight situations, rather than how to recover from them. As a result, training left the students ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of aerial combat. According to The Great War in the Air by John H. Morrow, one British officer complained in May 1917 that most pilots being sent into combat “can’t even fly, let alone fight.”

Experienced pilots understood that if they manipulated the controls in a particular way, the aircraft would—or at least should—move in a certain way. Yet few could explain exactly why, or which flight controls performed at each stage of a maneuver. Many principles of flight were simply a mystery, so if anything unexpected happened, a pilot was apt to lose control, and his ability to regain it was often a matter of luck.

Take spins: Before 1916, few pilots unfortunate enough to get themselves into a spin lived to tell of the experience. One pilot who did was surrounded upon landing by others congratulating him on his seemingly fantastic feat. When asked how he did it, he cheerfully replied that he did “everything wrong,” by which he meant he did the opposite of what his experience and intuition as a pilot told him. By mid-1917, enough anecdotes had circulated about pilots recovering from a spinning nose dive by pushing forward on the control stick rather than the natural inclination to pull back that it motivated British commanders to rethink air training. Under the leadership and inspiration of Major Robert Smith-Barry, the School of Special Flying was opened in Gosport, England, in August 1917.

Before Gosport, many pilots completed training while on active service, during which they were expected to fly more powerful, less forgiving aircraft, often with little or no training on transitioning from one type to another (by 1916, the British flew 76 varieties). They had to perform combat maneuvers while under fire and extreme stress. Gosport emphasized aerobatic and combat maneuvers and also adopted a standard aircraft for training: the British-made Avro 504 biplane. By the end of 1917, Smith-Barry also had introduced the Gosport Tube, a system of voice pipes and headphones for communication between instructor and pupil. Though it came too late in the war to benefit many pilots, Gosport revolutionized flight training in Britain, and according to Richard Hawkins in The Irish Sword, a journal of military history, many of the school’s techniques became part of the foundation of knowledge for generations of pilots.

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