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Rickenbacker Versus the Flying Circus

94th aero squadron flying circus hamilton coolidge

The Hazards of Making War Movies During Wartime

Eddie Rickenbacker still had only five or six victories back in September. By October 9th, he had 16 victories. On October 21st, he and several other pilots helped make a war movie, starting that movie tradition of using what's available rather than what's technically correct in aircraft. With a captured Hanover they had been using for practice dogfights, they worked out a plan for making an aviation movie. The show went on and the movie got made in spite of a crash of the cameraman's own aircraft.

Aces Do Their Own Stunts

In the rear seat of the Hun machine sat Thorn Taylor, the villain of the play. He was dressed in villainous enough looking garments to deceive even the most particular Hun. He too had a gun, one which swung on a tournelle and which would emit a most fearsome amount of smoky and fiery projectiles when the climax of the action was reached. As a clever piece de resistance Thorn carried with him, down out of sight of the camera until the proper time came, a dummy Boche pilot stuffed with straw. At the height of the tragedy Thorn was supposed to duck himself down out of sight behind his cockpit and heave overboard the stuffed figure, which would fall with outstretched arms and legs, head over heels to earth. This would portray the very acme of despair of the Boche aviators, who, it would be seen, preferred to hurl themselves out to deliberate death rather than longer face the furious assaults of the dashing young American air-fighters.

Those were the days when Hollywood actors actually exposed themselves to life and limb-threatening situations for their art, and this was wartime, and these actors had not only real airplanes but real bullets.

It was necessary to keep an eye on the camera, so as not to get out of its beam while pulling off our most priceless stunts, and at the same time we had to be a little careful as to the direction in which our bullets were going.

Don't Shoot the Fake German

They forgot to be careful which direction they were going with respect to the ground, though, and got too close to a French aerodrome which didn't know they weren't supposed to shoot at this Hanover. Rickenbacker had to pretend to be bringing the Hanover in for a surrender, and after landing got to explain to the French why American pilots were getting out of the German aircraft. 

The movie showing a daring American shooting down a whole bunch of doomed Hanovers turned out well (by 1918 standards; Howard Hughes wasn't directing yet!) and got shown in American "movie palaces".

Shooting Down the Flying Circus

Eddie Rickenbacker's last several victories show why his war autobiography is Fighting the Flying Circus. Around this time Eddie Rickenbacker went for a balloon but found himself fighting four Fokkers from Baron von Richthofen's Flying Circus squadron, now led by Hermann Goering. Rickenbacker recognized them as well-practiced veterans of air warfare. Boxed in by the four, he decided not to wait for the kill and started attacking instead, managing to shoot one down. "Considerably bucked up with this success I did not seize this opportunity to escape, but executed blindly a sudden loop and renversement, under the strongest impression that my two enemies above would certainly be close onto my tail and preparing to shoot." They were, but apparently stunned by this unpredictable prey, they decided to head for Germany, and in "a faster and heavier Spad machine" Rickenbacker dived after them and managed to shoot down another.

Hamilton CoolidgeWhen the Shell Has Your Name

On October 27th Hamilton Coolidge, a Harvard man, friend of Quentin Roosevelt's, and descendant of Thomas Jefferson, remembered as "one of the best pilots and most respected men in the American Air Service" became one of two pilots during the whole war to be shot down in high flight by "archy" - anti-aircraft fire (the name came from a popular song "Archibald, Certainly Not!"). Rickenbacker explained why aviators didn't worry much about archy unless they were shooting a balloon or in some similar situation where the gunner could know where the aircraft was going.

It requires a second or more for him to steady his aim. How many riflemen can compute the exact point 176 feet ahead of their gun-muzzle where the bullet and the pilot's head must meet in order to bring down the prize? Not one!

The guns weren't even aimed at Coolidge but at American bombers which he was flying to help.  "The shell had Hamilton's name written on it and there was no escape!"

Shooting Down More of the Flying Circus

On the same day, Rickenbacker shot down a Flying Circus Fokker, then started to attack yet another when he realized the Fokker hadn't completed a loop and was hanging from his propeller. Fokkers could actually do that, but couldn't stay hanging if the engine stalled as this engine had and the propeller stopped turning! Rickenbacker had resolved back in the spring to "play fair", to never shoot at a pilot who was at a disadvantage. Besides, this could be a great opportunity, to actually capture one of the Fokkers from the Flying Circus! So Rickenbacker was very angry when another Allied pilot shot at the Fokker as Rickenbacker herded it across the lines, forcing the Fokker to land on rough ground. The pilot survived, but not the trophy aircraft. 

And One More of the Flying Circus

On October 30th, Rickenbacker scored his final two victories. He was proud of the record of the 94th Aero Squadron, which he noted included 8 aces and the greatest number of victories and hours over the lines of any American squadron. Rickenbacker felt it his responsibility to lead the squadron not only in title, but in victories and airtime, never asking any other to do something he wouldn't do himself. "So covetously did I guard this understanding with myself that I took my machine out frequently after the day's patrol was finished and spent another hour or two over the lines." In a couple weeks, one of his solos over the lines would give him the greatest view of events on the morning of November 11th.

The first of Rickenbacker's last two victories was yet another Flying Circus Fokker. Flying two miles behind German lines by the time he finished that chase, he saw a balloon bedded down for the night, and attacked it. He fired up and down its whole length, but the incendiary bullets didn't catch it on fire very quickly; he had time to set up for another pass before it caught. Flying along looking for another balloon he suddenly realized he had been out for more than the length of time he had fuel for. He had passed back over the German lines, but not by much, and was afraid his engine would quit any second. Darkness was coming and making landing places hard to identify. But his engine kept going long enough for him to signal his field that he was returning in trouble, and at the last moment lights showed him the way in. "I cleared the road, landed with the wind and struck the ground with a quiet thud less than a hundred feet from the entrance to 94's hangar—right side up!" And so Eddie Rickenbacker's last victory flight ended.

Not Over Yet, Over There

There was, he said, a general feeling of being close to "finis de la guerre." But the war wasn't over yet. It seemed especially sad when men were killed at this point, but peace was not yet certain. After four years of seeing the enemy killing one's buddies, could one really trust enemies in their trenches to lay down arms and actually quit?

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