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More on Stephen Thompson's First Air Victory

stephen thompson

Learning Aviation From the French

A couple weeks ago we remembered the first "all"-American victory by Stephen Thompson. For the 99th anniversary of that event, last year Andy Parks gave a talk about Thompson ("Steve", to Andy) at the Vintage Aero Flying Museum, and most of the talk was from the museum's old tape recording of Thompson telling his own story! Following are some details from that talk.

Andy actually got to meet the famous aviator when Andy was a kid. Thompson was trained in the coastal artillery, and transferred to the air service as an observer. (Disrespectful comments on unfortunate logos are nothing new, by the way. The original observer insignia of a winged "O" resulted in aviators being teased in bars about wearing a flying toilet seat.)

Since the US did not really have a fully active, fully American air service operating until April 1918, a year after officially entering the war, the French were the ones to learn from. Thompson wanted to learn the aircraft maneuvers, and in February 1918, the French were happy for Americans to go in the air with them. 

Thompson explained that his fellow aviator trainees included a West Point graduate, a cashier, a draftsman at the Panama Canal, and a parachute jumper (he used to jump out of hot air balloons).

A Useful Bag of Sand

Observers were given 2-3 hours experience flying the plane. "This was not enough to make it safe for us to take an airplane off the ground, but some of the pilots had not had much more." They were anxious to fly, and took every opportunity that came up. One one occasion during the training, Thompson was offered an opportunity to go up with a pilot who had some trouble landing. When the pilot did manage to land, he explained that that was his first time up without an instructor. The instructor had told him to try going up with a bag of sand, so he had offered Thompson an opportunity - to be that bag of sand!

When Thompson eventually got to the front, he found there was a French group stationed nearby, so some of the student officers arranged to go with the French on their bombing raids. Their commanding officer approved, considering it part of their training, but the officers went just for the thrill. 

Promoted to a Gunner on a Bomber

On one of these occasions, at the last minute Thompson was offered the chance to go up as a gunner. He was excited for the opportunity of going along on a daylight bombing mission over Germany. Accurate bombing, he said, was not necessary since the goal was to hit somewhere in the city of Saarbrucken with 6,000 pounds of bombs. 

The electrically heated flying suit and gloves he was given plugged into the side of the cockpit, using the aircraft's electrical system which was powered by a wind-driven propeller out on the wing. Oxygen was self-administered, in that they had to pay attention to breathe faster and deeper than was natural, to keep from becoming drowsy at the altitude of over 4,000 meters. If he got enthralled with the scenery and forgot to keep breathing he started to feel the effects of oxygen deprivation.

Thompson got to experience anti-aircraft fire and evasive maneuvers. It took about 15 seconds for a shell to reach the aircraft, so the gunners had to "lead" the planes and the planes would zigzag to avoid the "archie." 

Albatros Attack and a Victory

The bombers were able to drop their bombs on the city, but were too high to see the effects of the explosion. Besides, they were being attacked. Thompson thought the German airplanes were beautiful, though they were in the line of fire of one of them. The French pilot signaled to Thompson to start shooting. When the pilot turned the aircraft, Thompson was able to start shooting back and could tell from his tracer bullets where to aim. 

The fight didn't last long; having dropped their bombs, they headed back to France. All the bombers from this mission returned, though some had holes in wings and one a hole in the gas tank. Thompson eventually found out that he had shot down an Albatros and that the pilot had escaped with minor injuries. 

Years later, Thompson met a girl from the city where the bombs had been dropped; she had been in a cellar at the time.

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