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Observations From a Fighter Pilot Without a Parachute

dangers of wwi aviation

The Era of Airborne Warriors in Single Combat

The book No Parachute: A Fighter Pilot in World War I by Arthur Gould Lee, has so many good quotes about aviation and war, it is tempting to just fill blog articles with quotes from that book for the rest of the year. But that would mean ignoring some other fascinating stories and upcoming hundredth anniversaries. So here are just a few of the interesting observations from the foreword, written by a man who was there (in the RFC) and was nobody special, at least in the sense of not being a famous ace, just a pilot who survived through the war and wrote home to his wife about it, and years later, with both world wars in hindsight, compiled some of these primary sources into a book. (In fact, the book was published just a year before the first moonwalk, which surely made that generation look back on their part in aviation history with justifiable pride.)

The idea that WWI's air war was somehow glorious was true, if temporary, according to Lee. "The young airmen of the belligerent nations of the First World War, who rode their primitive flying machines high above the land-locked armies in France and Belgium, were unique in the history of mankind, for they were the first mortals ever to give battle in the vast spaces of the sky."
"Among them was an even rarer breed, unique in another degree, for they waged their conflicts in a fashion that flourished for but an hour, then was gone for ever. They were the airborne warriors who engaged in single combat, like the knights of mediaeval chivalry, but wielding a winged machine gun in place of lance and sword."

Without Mercy But Without Hate

Lee explains why the mid-WWI air war (what was going on exactly 100 years ago, in 1917) so caught the imagination. "This was the time when air combat could indeed be tinged with something of the knightly chivalry of old, when a pilot, perhaps still in his teens, might inwardly salute his antagonist, even wave to him as they circled each other, seeking the chance to fire. And having killed, could feel pity for a fellow flyer, or, if he had gone down in flames, remorse for inflicting so gruesome an end. For now was a period, not to last for long, when enemies in the air could fight without mercy but without hate, could even respect and admire each other's skill and valour. Yet in spite of these attitudes every man fought with but one purpose - to kill or be killed."
"For the most part, this saga of individual combat took place in 1916 and 1917....when, on the formation of the Royal Air Force in April, 1918, the brief life of the R.F.C. came to an end, so did the conditions that permitted the phase of the knightly duel."

The Craziest of the Brave

But by April 1918, "air fighting became an affair of fleeting brushes between flights of three or four planes held in tight tactical cohesion, with neither chance nor mood for knightly attitudes."
"Effective as were these ordered mass engagements in terms of destructiveness, they seldom held the same fascinations for earthbound watchers as the tourneys of the earlier combatants. To the soldiery bound to the slime and carnage of the trenches the occupants of the glinting specks duelling high in the heavens were as beings of another world. Forgetful of their own risks and hardships, they gazed aloft not with envy but with a shudder at the very thought of fighting in such contraptions, and generously rated the airman as the craziest of the brave."
"The bonds that gave a unity to them all were that they flew and that they were young. For to fly and fight and die in the frail cockleshells of that day was the privilege only of audacious youth. Yet once he had taken wing in this exclusive company any fledgling with courage, skill and luck could quickly become a knightly figure, an ace, as the French called him, a flying star, to flash into the sky like a meteor, and, if he could escape destruction, to stay there, resplendent."

Hence the Title of the Book

The few well-known aces received most of the glory, but there were also "several thousand pilots and observers and gunners who also flew and fought. These men shared all the hazards of the air war. They endured the searing tensions of daily anti-aircraft fire and of almost daily combat, often in outdated aeroplanes, knowing always that each flight could be the last, that there was no escape should their plane break a wing or burst into flames. For there were then no parachutes."

Learn how this knightly aerial combat started - check out our t-shirt commemorating the first air victory, that happened on the ground!

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