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WW1 Mid-Air Collisions - Watch Where You're Going!

dangers of wwi aviation eddie rickenbacker field kindley oswald boelcke richthofen brothers

Death by Wingman

Pilots sometimes laugh over the comic end of a comrade shot down in course of a combat. It is a callousness made possible by the continuous horrors of war. If he dies from an attack by an enemy it is taken as a matter of course. But to be killed through a stupid and preventable mistake puts the matter in a very different light.

Statement by Eddie Rickenbacker, who made many comments in his books about how much better it would have been for Allied pilots to have parachutes. At this point in the war, he said, German pilots had been using parachutes for six months.

Plummeting to Earth

One event that made Rickenbacker angry about the lack of parachutes was a mid-air collision of two of his fellow pilots, Walter Smyth and Alexander Bruce, while patrolling at high altitude. Rickenbacker was asleep at the time, grounded for yet another ear problem, but dreamed of something going wrong with Smyth, who was a close friend. (In Fighting the Flying Circus, Rickenbacker said he dreamed Smyth had been shot down in flames. In his later autobiography, he said he saw it as it actually happened. "I suddenly saw, as in a dream, Walter's plane collide with Bruce's. It seemed to happen in a cloud, yet I saw it clearly. Their wings touched and fell off, and I saw both planes plummeting to earth.")

There were many tragic aspects to the death of Smyth, who had been part of the war effort in the ambulance service even before the US entered the war. "His father had died while he was with us and he had vainly attempted to get home to see his mother in New York who was then critically ill. But mothers are not considered by those in authority - his application was denied."

Pilots Might Fail to Go Down With the Plane

Rickenbacker commented bitterly that "A major in the Paris headquarters of the Air Service told me that the service did not believe in parachutes. 'If all of you pilots had parachutes,' he told me coldly, 'then you'd be inclined to use them on the slightest pretext, and the Air Service would lose planes that might otherwise have been brought down safely.'"

A few days previously, a similar event to the Smyth-Bruce collision had killed Germany's third-highest scoring ace Erich Loewenhardt (third after Manfred von Richthofen and Ernst Udet.) Loewenhardt collided with Alfred Wenz and both, with their parachutes, were able to bail out. Of course, the parachutes were very clumsy compared to today's parachutes, but they gave the pilot some hope of never experiencing that sudden and extreme deceleration at ground level. Wenz survived. Unfortunately for Loewenhardt, his parachute failed and he fell from 12,000 feet. 

Dangers of High Altitude

Climbing the "fourteeners" - Colorado's peaks which are over 14,000 feet high - gives some hints of what lack of oxygen does to one's thinking, especially if one is used to sea level. Headaches are common and with or without headache or other indication, one's situational awareness can decrease. Any latent sleep deprivation feels greater and it is hard to stay awake. All - or none - of the collisions mentioned could have been affected by some of these problems, not to mention inexperience, the stress of combat, and actual malfunctions of the aircraft.  

Ongoing Problem

Two years previously, Germany had lost the father of its air force and the Red Baron's mentor, Oswald Boelcke, to a mid-air collision. Nor did the danger stop with the first world war. Wings Over the Rockies museum in Denver is currently exhibiting a set of sculptures, "Lest We Forget" by a WWII pilot portraying archetypes of those lost in aviation in WWII. Two of the figures in the back of the sculpture represent an inexperienced pilot who lost focus and accidentally tangled his wings with a more experienced pilot, bringing both of them down. "Stud, with his hand on Lonesome's shoulder, comforts his wingman, knowing that the mistake that caused their deaths was simply the result of the overall chaos around them."

Another Notable Event

On 13 August, the Red Baron's brother, Lothar von Richthofen, is shot down, possibly by American soon-to-be-ace Field Kindley. However, Lothar was only wounded, and would live four more years before dying in an aviation accident. 

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