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World War I Aerial Adventure Written by a Pilot

children's books about WW1 eddie rickenbacker parks family pilot attributes

Adventure in the Air

Bigglesworth, popularly known as Biggles, a slight, fair-haired, good-looking lad still in his teens, but an acting Flight Commander, was talking, not of wine or women as novelists would have us believe, but of a new fusee spring for a Vickers gun which would speed it up another hundred rounds a minute.

Boys may believe after reading Hardy Boys books that sons of detectives actually bring international criminals to justice during school vacations. Adults realize real adventure stories are few and far between, and hardly ever happen to the same person...except in a very few periods in history involving exceptional circumstances and exceptional people, such as WWI pilots.

Biggles: The Camels are Coming started with a 1932 story published by W. E. Johns, who flew with the RFC in WWI and knew exactly what he was talking about. In the Author's Note he says that Bigglesworth is a composite character but completely in line with what you might find in an RFC squadron at the time. Understanding that readers may have a hard time believing one man could have so many adventures, he points out that the readers weren't there in the last two years of WWI when "every day - and I might almost say every hour - brought adventure, tragic or humorous, to the man in the air, and as we sat in our cockpits warming up our engines for the dawn 'show', no one could say what the end of the day would bring, or whether he would be alive to see it."

Fiction or Not?

To the question of just how many adventures of that sort one man is likely to survive, all he can answer is that truth is stranger than fiction. "I sometimes wonder how any of us survived, yet there were some who seemed to bear a charmed life. William Bishop, the British ace, Rene Fonck, the French ace and prince of air duellists, and, on the other side, Ernst Udet, and many others, fought hundreds of battles in the air and survived thousands of hours of deadly peril. Every day incredible deeds of heroism were performed by pilots whose names are unknown, and had the Victoria Cross been awarded consistently, hundreds instead of a few would have worn the coveted decoration."

He isn't really worried about readers' opinions, though because he knows his subject and "I would say that exaggeration is almost impossible where air combat is concerned." Things that can't be exaggerated: the speed with which dogfights happened, the horror of a head-on aerial collision, and seeing a fellow pilot die in flame. Fiction allows him to express some of the good, the bad, and the exciting that he experienced, while avoiding the disturbing visual images a movie has to have (besides which, CGI effects don't simulate real WWI aircraft that well.) Fiction also allows him to put in things "never written down on combat reports" such as friendly fire incidents, an airplane making a perfect landing with a dead crew, a pilot's bullets tearing the goggles off his enemy which then got tangled in the pilot's wires as a souvenir of the fight, a man who fell 200 feet through the roof of a convent and landed in the (unoccupied) bed of a nun, and a pilot who ended up in the same hospital as the ground troops he had just been shooting at! 

All that is still nonfiction, from the author's note, but it shows how W. E. Johns' short time in the war gave him 102 Biggles books' worth of ideas for adventure (eventually including Biggles, the interplanetary explorer.) As the book moves into the story of Biggles, it has many helpful footnotes explaining the concept and significance of terms such as officers mess, DH-9, Lewis gun, and the difference between white and black smoke from anti-aircraft fire.

To Inspire Future Generations

The Vintage Aero Flying Museum owes its existence in part to this type of book (such as the 1913 book in the Parks collection Dave Dashaway, the Young Aviator), which inspired the young James Parks' interest in WWI aviation. Eventually he realized that not only were these amazing stories closely based on fact, but some of the men in them were his father's Sunday dinner guests. That started his collection of artifacts and information. (Read more about it in Men of the First War in the Third Dimension.)

We can say from personal experience these stories haven't lost their interest for 21st-century kids. Likewise, we frequently recommend Eddie Rickenbacker's autobiography to boys, explaining it as an adventure book for boys that also happens to be true. With two airplane crashes, acehood, racecar career, losing and making fortunes, being lost at sea, being a presidential envoy to Russia, and more, Eddie Rickenbacker would surely fall in Johns' category of "one who seemed to bear a charmed life." Note to parents: Biggles: the Camels are Coming has some strong language, but mild compared to the average schoolyard of today.

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