First Responders

American World War I pilots joined up early by serving with Britain’s Royal Air Force.

American pilot Oliver Ralston received flight training in Canada before heading to England in 1918, where he learned to fly bombers. (Courtesy Gavin Mortimer)

Battling the Elements

(Courtesy Gavin Mortimer)

Open-cockpit airplanes offered no protection from the cold, so pilots improvised, as this one did by wearing a leather mask. In a letter to his family, one American pilot wrote: “My ears are very sore from high altitudes and long dives and my eyes are rather sore from flying without goggles.” He added that no one wore goggles when “you’re out hunting,” since painful eyes were a small price to pay for an unobstructed view. Being exposed to the elements resulted in other afflictions: split lips, frostbite, and headaches.


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