When the Bugs in New Technology Are Actually Deadly
Maybe it makes sense that the US Army didn't want racecar drivers as pilots, thinking that combat was scary enough, and if the pilots actually understood their machines, they wouldn't fight. In a survey of the Cornell University records of Cornell aviators who died in WWI, very few of them actually died in anything that could be called combat. Many died of flu or its complications, but the rest died of some kind of aircraft accident, generally resulting from the fact that not only were the pilots new to flying, but also the airplane designers and builders were new to the idea of flying machines.
Stories in Fighting the Flying Circus by Eddie Rickenbacker illustrate frequent dangers of the airplanes. Note that because this book was about the amazing events he'd experienced (though none as amazing as the Hedley story) a surprising number of the incidents quoted below did NOT result in the death of the pilot.
1. Stripped Wings
He saw that the entire length of his left upper wing was stripped of fabric! And as he turned a horrified gaze to the other wing, he saw that its fabric too was even at that moment beginning to tear away from its leading edge and was flapping in the wind! So furious had been his downward plunge that the force of the wind's pressure had torn away the fragile covering on both his upper wings. Without this supporting surface his airplane would drop like a stone.
Although Jimmy Meissner, James Norman Hall, and Eddie Rickenbacker all lived through the canvas coming off their Nieuport wings, each was greatly surprised to survive the experience.
2. Out of Fuel
The remaining three pilots of his formation passed the encircling enemy machines only to find that this protracted maneuvering had quite exhausted their fuel. One by one their engines spluttered and died.
I thought of looking at my watch to see how late it really was. I had fuel for only two hours and ten minutes. ... The time indicated that I had now been out exactly two hours and ten minutes.
3. Engine Trouble
Could be caused by combat, or not...
Loomis was very plainly sinking to earth. His propeller was slowly turning and I knew instinctively that he had been struck in some vital part of the engine.
I had stalled my engine and was now drifting through air with a dead propeller while watching the proceedings above me. ...the sole method of restarting my motor was a long dive that would force my propeller to revolve.
Just as they approached the road which skirts the west side of the aerodrome, the Liberty's engine stopped. A line of wires ran along the roadside some fifteen feet above ground. Jimmy saw them and attempted to zoom over them - but in vain.
The Fokker with a red nose had not been able to complete his loop. He had stalled just at the moment he was upright on his tail, and in this position he was now hanging. And more extraordinary still, his engine had stalled and his propeller was standing absolutely still.
While landing, or in the air. Rickenbacker tells of a collision on landing which both pilots walked away from. On the other hand,
...two pilots while patrolling over the enemy's lines at a very high altitude had collided. With wings torn assunder both machines had dropped like plummets to the ground below.
Also could be caused by combat, or not...
The enemy's incendiary bullets had set fire to his fuel tank! With a sudden puff of flame all the rear section of his machine burst into a furious blaze. ... It takes some time to fall three miles even at the top speed of a 220-hp engine. The dive kept the blaze away from him, but a backward glance informed Sumner that the fire was eating up the entire length of his fuselage and that at any moment he would be flung out into space.
In this case, a German was following the pilot down, still shooting, so the pilot tried to dodge, and the German broke off the chase, but also the quick change in direction had poured the fuel out of a hole his fuel tank and put out the fire. The pilot crash-landed, crawled out of the wreck, and barely avoided being crushed by his own wheel, which had been shot away but hadn't landed as fast as the diving airplane!
6. Falling Asleep
The effects of high altitude were not well known.
The soft air and monotonous motion had lulled him to sleep. Subconsciously his hand controlled the joystick or else the splendid equilibrium of the Spad had kept it upon an even keel without control.
The pilot woke up just in time to land.