Go to WTJ Information Page Go to WTJ Portal Go to WTJ War Series Go to WTJ Archives Go to WTJ Articles Go to WTJ Gaming Go to WTJ Store Go to WTJ Home Page
Hall: High Adventure
Chapter 3a - By the Route of the Air

THE winter of 1916-17 was the most prolonged and bitter that France has known in many years. It was a trying period to the little group of Americans assembled at the Ecole Militaire d'Aviation, eager as they were to complete their training, and to be ready, when spring should come, to share in the great offensive, which they knew would then take place on the Western front. Aviation is a waiting game at the best of seasons. In winter it is a series of seemingly endless delays. Day after day, the plain on the high plateau overlooking the old city of V— was storm-swept, a forlorn and desolate place as we looked at it from our windows, watching the flocks of crows as they beat up against the wind, or as they turned, and were swept with it, over our barracks, crying and calling derisively to us as they passed.

"Birdmen do you call yourselves?" they seemed to say. "Then come on up; the weather 's fine!"

Well they knew that we were impostors, fair-weather fliers, who dared not accept their challenge.

It is strange how vague and shadowy my remembrance is of those long weeks of inactivity, when we were dependent for employment and amusement on our own devices. To me there was a quality of unreality about our life at B—. Our environment was, no doubt, partly responsible for this feeling. Although we were not far distant from Paris, — less than an hour by train, — the country round about our camp seemed to be quite cut off from the rest of the world. With the exception of our Sunday afternoons of leave, when we joined the boulevardiers in town, we lived a life as remote and cloistered as that of some brotherhood of monks in an inaccessible monastery. That is how it appeared to me, although here again I am in danger of making it seem that my own impressions were those of all the others. This of course was not true. The spirit of the place appealed to us, individually, in widely different ways, and upon some, perhaps, it had no effect at all.

Sometimes we spent our winter afternoons of enforced leisure in long walks through country roads which lay empty to the eye for miles. They gave one a sense of loneliness which colored thought, not in any sentimental way, but in a manner very natural and real. The war was always in the background of one's musings, and while we were far removed from actual contact with it, every depopulated country village brought to mind the sacrifice which France has made for the cause of all freedom-loving nations. Every roadside cafe, long barren of its old patronage, was an evidence of the completeness of the sacrifice. Americans, for the most part, are of an unconquerably healthy cast of mind; but there were few of us who could frequent these places light-heartedly.

Paris was our emotional storehouse, to use Kipling's term, during the time we were at B—. We spent our Sunday afternoons there, mingling with the crowds on the boulevards, or, in pleasant weather, sitting outside the cafes, watching the soldiers of the world go by. The streets were filled with permissionnaires from all parts of the Western front, and there were many of those despised of all the rest, the embusques, as they are called, who hold the comfortable billets in safe places well back of the lines. It was very easy to distinguish them from the men newly arrived from the trenches, in whose eyes one saw the look of wonder, almost of unbelief, that there was still a goodly world to be enjoyed. It was often beyond the pathetic to see them trying to satisfy their need for all the wholesome things of life in a brief seven days of leave; to see the family parties at the modest restaurants on the side streets, making merry in a kind of forced way, as if every one were thinking of the brevity of the time for such enjoyment.

Scarcely a week went by without bringing one or two additional recruits to the Franco- American Corps. We wondered why they came so slowly. There must have been thousands of Americans who would have been, not only willing, but glad to join us; and yet the opportunities for doing so had been made widely known. For those who did come this was the legitimate by-product of glorious adventure and a training in aviation not to be surpassed in Europe.

This was to be had by any healthy young American, almost for the asking; but our numbers increased very gradually, from fifteen to twenty-five, until by the spring of 1917 there were fifty of us at the various aviation schools of France. Territorially we represented at least a dozen states, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. There were rich men's sons and poor men's sons among our number; the sons of very old families, and those who neither knew nor cared what their antecedents were.

The same was true of our French comrades, for membership in the French air service is not based upon wealth or family position or political influence. The policy of the Government is as broad and democratic as may be. Men are chosen because of an aptitude that promises well, or as a reward for distinguished service at the front. A few of the French élèves-pilotes had been officers, but most of them N.C.O.'s and private soldiers in infantry or artillery regiments. This very wide latitude in choice at first seemed "laxitude" to some of us Americans. But evidently, experience in training war pilots, and the practical results obtained by these men at the front, have been proof enough to the French authorities of the folly of setting rigid standards, making hard- and-fast rules to be met by prospective aviators. As our own experience increased, we saw the wisdom of a policy which is more concerned with a man's courage, his self-reliance, and his powers of initiative, than with his ability to work out theoretical problems in aerodynamics.

There are many French pilots with excellent records of achievement in war-flying who have but a sketchy knowledge of motor and aircraft construction. Some are college-bred men, but many more have only a common-school education. It is not at all strange that this should be the case, for one may have had no technical training worth mentioning; one may have only a casual speaking acquaintance with motors, and a very imperfect idea of why and how one is able to defy the law of gravity, and yet prove his worth as a pilot in what is, after all, the best possible way — by his record at the front.

A judicious amount of theoretical instruction is, of course, not wanting in the aviation schools of France; but its importance is not exaggerated. We Americans, with our imperfect knowledge of the language, lost the greater part of this. The handicap was not a serious one, and I think I may truthfully say that we kept pace with our French comrades. The most important thing was to gain actual flying experience, and as much of it as possible. Only in this way can one acquire a sensitive ear for motors, and an accurate sense of flying speed: the feel of one's machine in the air. These are of the greatest importance. Once the pilot has developed this airman's sixth sense, he need not, and never does, worry about the scantiness of his knowledge of the theory of flight.

Sometimes the winds would die away and the thick clouds lift, and we would go joyously to work on a morning of crisp, bright winter weather. Then we had moments of glorious revenge upon the crows. They would watch us from afar, holding noisy indignation meetings in a row of weather-beaten trees at the far side of the field. And when some inexperienced pilot lost control of his machine and came crashing to earth, they would take the air in a body, circling over the wreckage, cawing and jeering with the most evident delight. "The Oriental Wrecking Company," as the Annamites were called, were on the scene almost as quickly as our enemies the crows. They were a familiar sight on every working day, chattering together in their high-pitched gutturals, as they hauled away the wrecked machines. They appeared to side with the birds, and must have thought us the most absurd of men, making wings for ourselves, and always coming to grief when we tried to use them.

We made progress regardless of all this skepticism. It was necessarily slow, for beginners at a single-command monoplane school are permitted to fly only under the most favorable weather conditions. Even then, old Mother Earth, who is not kindly disposed toward those of her children who leave her so jauntily, would clutch us back to her bosom, whenever we gave her the slightest opportunity, with an embrace that was anything but tender. We were inclined to think rather highly of our own courage in defying her; and sometimes our vanity was increased by our moniteurs. After an exciting misadventure they often gave expression to their relief at finding an amateur pilot still whole, by praising his "presence of mind" in too generous French fashion.

We should not have been so proud, I think, of our own little exploits, had we remembered those of the pioneers in aviation, so many of whom lost their lives in experiment with the first crude types of the heavier-than-air machines. They were pioneers in the fine and splendid meaning of the word — men to be compared in spirit with the old fifteenth-century navigators. We were but followers, adventuring, in comparative safety, along a well- defined trail.

This, at any rate, was Drew's opinion. He would never allow me the pleasure of indulging in any flights of fancy over these trivial adventures of ours. He would never let me set them off against "the heroic background" of Paris. As for Paris, we saw nothing of war there, he would say, except the lighter side, the home- coming, leave-enjoying side. We needed to know more of the horror and the tragedy of it. We needed to keep that close and intimate to us as a right perspective for our future adventures. He believed it to be our duty as aviators to anticipate every kind of experience which we might have to meet at the front. His imagination was abnormally vivid. Once he discussed the possibility of "falling in flames," which is so often the end of an airman's career. I shall never again be able to take the same whole-hearted delight in flying that I did before he was so horribly eloquent upon the subject. He often speculated upon one's emotions in falling in a machine damaged beyond the possibility of control.

"Now try to imagine it," he would say: "your gasoline tanks have been punctured and half of your fuselage has been shot away. You believe that there is not the slightest chance for you to save your life. What are you going to do — lose your head and give up the game? No, you've got to attempt the impossible"; and so on, and so forth.

I would accuse him of being morbid. Furthermore, I saw no reason why we should plan for terrible emergencies which might never arrive. His answer was that we were military pilots in training for combat machines. We had no right to ignore the grimness of the business ahead of us. If we did, so much the worse for us when we should go to the front. But beyond this practical interest, he had a great curiosity about the nature of fear, and a great dread of it, too. He was afraid that in some last adventure, in which death came slowly enough for him to recognize it, he might die like a terror-stricken animal, and not bravely, as a man should.

We did not often discuss these gruesome possibilities, although this was not Drew's fault. I would not listen to him; and so he would be silent about them until convinced that the furtherance of our careers as airmen demanded additional unpleasant imaginings. There was something of the Hindoo fanatic in him; or perhaps it was the outcropping of the stern spirit of his New England forbears. But when he talked of the pleasant side of the adventures before us, it was more than compensation for all the rest. Then he would make me restless and impatient, for I did not have his faculty of enjoyment in anticipation. The early period of training, when we were flying only a few metres above the ground, seemed endless.

At last came the event which really marked the beginning of our careers as airmen: the first tour de piste, the first flight round the aerodrome. We had talked of this for weeks, but when at last the day for it came, our enthusiasm had waned. We were eager to try our wings and yet afraid to make the start.

This first tour de piste was always the occasion for a gathering of the Americans, and there was the usual assembly present. The beginners were there to shiver in anticipation of their own forthcoming trials, and the more advanced pilots, who had already taken the leap, to offer gratuitous advice.

"Now don't try to pull any big league stuff. Not too much rudder on the turns. Remember how that Frenchman piled up on the Farman hangars when he tried to bank the corners."

"You'll find it pretty rotten when you go over the woods. The air currents there are something scandalous!"

"Believe me, it's a lot worse over the fort. Rough? Oh, la la!"

"And that's where you have to cut your motor and dive, if you're going to make a landing without hanging up in the telephone wires."

"When you do come down, don't be afraid to stick her nose forward. Scare the life out of you, that drop will, but you may as well get used to it in the beginning."

"But wait till we see them redress! Where's the Oriental Wrecking Gang?"

"Don't let that worry you. Drew: pan-caking isn't too bad. Not in a Bleriot. Just like falling through a shingle roof. Can't hurt yourself much.."

"If you do spill, make it a good one. There hasn't been a decent smash-up to-day."

These were the usual comforting assurances. They did not frighten us much, although there was just enough truth in the warnings to make us uneasy. We took our hazing as well as we could inwardly , and of course with imperturbable calm outwardly; but, to make a confession, I was somewhat reluctant to hear the businesslike "Allez! en route!" of our moniteur.

When it came, I taxied across to the other side of the field, turned into the wind, and came racing back, full motor. It seemed a thing of tremendous power, that little forty-five-horsepower Anzani. The roar of it struck awe into my soul, and I gripped the controls in no very professional manner. Then, when I had gathered full ground speed, I eased her off gently, and up we went, over the class and the assembled visitors, above the hangars, the lake, the forest, until, at the halfway point, my altimetre registered three hundred and fifty metres. Out of the corner of my eye I saw all the beautiful countryside spread out beneath me, but I was too busily occupied to take in the prospect. I was watching my wings, nervously, in order to anticipate and counteract the slightest pitch of the machine. But nothing happened, and I soon realized that this first grand tour was not going to be nearly so bad as we had been led to believe. I began to enjoy it. I even looked down over the side of the fuselage, although it was a very hasty glance.

All the time I was thinking of the rapidly approaching moment when I should have to come down. I knew well enough how the descent was to be made. It was very simple. I had only to shut off my motor, push forward with my "broom-stick,"—the control connected with the elevating planes , — and then wait and redress gradually, beginning at from six to eight metres from the ground. The descent would be exciting, a little more rapid than Shooting the Chutes. Only one could not safely hold on to the sides of the car and await the splash. That sort of thing had sometimes been done in aeroplanes, by over-excited pilots. The results were disastrous, without exception.

The moment for the decision came. I was above the fort, otherwise I should not have known when to dive. At first the sensation was, I imagine, exactly that of falling, feet foremost; but after pulling back slightly on the controls, I felt the machine answer to them, and the uncomfortable feeling passed. I brought up on the ground in the usual bumpy manner of the beginner. Nothing gave way, however, so this did not spoil the fine rapture of a rare moment. It was shared — at least it was pleasant to think so — by my old Annamite friend of the Penguin experience, who stood by his flag nodding his head at me. He said, "Beaucoup bon," showing his polished black teeth in an approving grin. I forgot for the moment that "beau- coup bon" was his enigmatical comment upon all occasions, and that he would have grinned just as broadly had he been dragging me out from a mass of wreckage.

Drew came in a few moments later, making an almost perfect landing. In the evening we walked to a neighboring village, where we had a wonderful dinner to celebrate the end of our apprenticeship. It was a curious feast. We had little to say to one another, or, better, we were both afraid to talk. We were under an enchantment which words would have broken. After a silent meal, we walked all the way home without speaking.

We started off together on our triangles. That was in April, just passed, so that I have now brought this casual diary almost up to date. We were then at the great school of aviation at A— in central France, where, for the first time, we were associated with men in training for every branch of aviation service, and became familiar with other types of French machines. But the brevet tests, which every pilot must pass before he becomes a military aviator, were the same in every department of the school. The triangles were two cross-country flights of two hundred kilometres each, three landings to be made en route, and each flight to be completed within forty-eight hours. In addition, there were two short voyages of sixty kilometres each—these preceded the triangular tests — and an hour of flight at a minimum altitude of sixty-five hundred feet.


  Copyright © 1996-2003 by The War Times Journal at www.wtj.com. All rights reserved.