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9 Spectacular Ways to Die in World War 1 Aviation

For perspective on how much courage it took to get into one of those flying machines.

  1. Shredded Wings – before the days of rip-stop nylon, before the days of flame-retardant fabric, if the fabric caught fire or started ripping off, the aircraft acquired the aerodynamic characteristics of a brick.
  2. Fire – Sitting next to an engine that worked by igniting a series of fires and spit out oil and sometimes sparks, surrounded by fabric painted in flammable dope to tighten it, sitting somewhere next to the fuel that fed the engine, staying airborne by means of parts moving fast enough to produce plenty of frictional heat, one faced the constant possibility of death by fire even before reaching the ground.
  3. Cold – Creating their own wind chill factor and climbing thousands of feet in the air, pilots were not always dressed for the climate and even if they were, might have to choose between warm gloves and being able to control the plane. And after a while cold hands wouldn't control it anyway.
  4. Human Error – The pilot had all kinds of opportunities for error. So did the aircraft maintainer, who may have previously been a blacksmith. So did the parts producer, and remember that assembly lines and standardized parts were still a new idea, combat pilots were in many cases the test pilots, and what worked on a factory floor might not work on a muddy field in France. And all these professions represented the first generation to deal with airplanes, so most training was on-the-job.
  5. Weather – Even if (and it was an if!) meteorologists knew what weather conditions meant, that didn’t mean the 18-year-old flying the plane had any idea. Icing, updrafts, downdrafts, turbulence, and lack of visibility were still in the process of being explored by this first generation of aviators.
  6. Lack of Oxygen – Altitude effects were not well known, and pilots did not necessarily know how high they were. They could get into a situation of not thinking clearly, and not even know it wasn’t just from the cold.
  7. Jumping – Partway through the war, German aviators were issued parachutes (clumsy by today’s standards, they still saved some lives) but the Allies felt that parachutes could cause a pilot to abandon a plane while it could still be saved, and planes were in shorter supply than pilots. After Raoul Lufbery died from lack of a parachute, aviation policymakers were strenuously urged to reconsider by no less a name than Eddie Rickenbacker.
  8. Friendly Fire – Identifying friendly aircraft was a new art and gunners on the ground were inclined to shoot first at anything that might soon be attacking them from above.
  9. Combat – If all the above didn’t kill one, one could die from being incapacitated by any of the above plus an enemy bullet. Death in combat was the exception, not the rule, but only because there were so many hazards to survive, before getting to the front.

Manfred von Richthofen survived many of the above threats, most notably the last...until April 1918. Get the Red Baron t-shirt and use it to tell others what it took to fly, much less be an ace, much less the Ace of Aces, 100 years ago.

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