Letters From a WWI Jenny Pilot

In 1918, my grandfather’s wish was simple: “Give me a Lewis gun in the cockpit of a fast fighter plane, and I know that I’d be satisfied with life.”

This Jenny belongs to Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in New York. (Philip Makanna)
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He flies the Curtiss JN-4, a homely little biplane nicknamed the Jenny. The JN-4 can reach a maximum speed of 75 mph and climb to a service ceiling of 6,500 feet—impressive figures for its day. The airplane’s primary use is as a trainer, and virtually every American and Canadian pilot sent to the front will have spent time in the Jenny’s dual cockpits.

My grandfather painstakingly masters the demanding ship, and comes to love it. His hours in the Jenny prompt the most exact writing to be found in his letters, most of them written to his wife. It is as though he were replaying every moment of one flight in order to correct its faults in the next. And he’s very critical, indicting himself not only for technical flaws but also for matters of style: “Banked for the turn too close to the ground. No harm done, but bad form.” His instructors say little, which causes anxiety, but they move him along in increasingly demanding tasks. Within a week of his first flight, his teacher will casually kick a plane into a spin at 2,500 feet and wait for Louis to find his way out of it.

I did pretty well, but I learned the danger of it, for on one trial I could not centralize my rudder soon enough and we got to revolving very rapidly and fell 1000 ft. before I could level the ship. On another one I tried to level before the spin had developed and actually kicked the ship over on its back. This had me guessing for some time before we described a half loop to come out.

“It’s a lot of fun,” he insists, then adds honestly, “when your instructor is along to give you nerve.”

One of Louis’ instructors, a Lieutenant Merrill, assigns the fledgling pilot a series of stunts designed to increase his confidence. In the first, a power spiral, a steep bank throws the Jenny on its side, shifting the rudder and elevator positions. “It’s hard to remember the change,” Louis writes, “but if you make an error in your controls you are very apt to go into a spin. I cut several of these spirals, but found them difficult.”

He masters the maneuver and soldiers on, though each day presents its challenges.

I had a thriller in the air today—bumps like never before—with all controls held neutral, the ship would roll and toss just like a small boat in a high sea. You had to keep fighting it all the time to stay right side up. I have never worked so hard as I did. The air pockets were fierce. It’s a queer sensation to fall fifty feet or shoot straight up, to feel the bottom of the ship drop out from under you…

And there is at least one moment of manifest danger when a new instructor, Lieutenant Funck, twists the airplane into an Immelmann, and a stream of oil flies back across the fuselage and into both cockpits. “It completely blotted out the windshield and my goggles,” he writes. “I pulled them off and got a faceful of oil. The ship, in the meantime, had dropped out of the loop and was volplaning [gliding without power] down…. The strain of the loop in the high wind had broken a feed pipe in the motor. If it had happened to me alone, I think I would have lost control before I discovered the trouble, because I was blinded for several seconds.”

Other barriers stand between Louis and his coveted gold wings. He flies no more than an hour or two a day; he is expected to keep up with many of his regular duties; and his health continues to be fragile. But the greatest threat to his ambition was time. On October 30, he tells his diary, “I now have my back to the wall. The time allotted for dual instruction has expired. I must solo tomorrow.”

On the journal’s next tattered page, he begins to describe this elemental rite. It’s frustrating to be denied the details: Silverfish have eaten almost all of the paper. But at the bottom, a single word—“Celebrate!”—survives.

About William Crawford Woods

Author of the novel The Killing Zone with pieces in Esquire and The Atlantic, William Crawford Woods is currently at work on a non-fiction book titled Three Soldiers: Fathers and Sons and American Wars.

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