Although I am an American, I am still in the French aviation corps, in
which I enlisted when the war broke out. I am too old for service under
the Stars and Stripes, but not too old to risk my life under the French
flag for the freedom of the world.
I was trained in a French aviation school. Flyers were needed
immediately; and so I did not go through "a ground school," or any
teaching like that given for
ight weeks in the American ground
schools. I was sent directly to the flying field and given a machine at
once. I did not, as they do at American flying fields, go up first with
an instructor who might be tempted to "scare me to death" by "looping
the loop" or doing "tail spins." I took my own machine at the very
start and, after being given the simplest directions, away I went in
it; but I did not break any records for altitude.
It was a small monoplane with a 20-horse-power motor, and its wings had
been clipped; so all it could do was to roll along the ground. It was,
however, some time before I could guide it in a straight line. I was
discouraged at first, but felt better when I learned that it was very
difficult even for an experienced flyer.
Such machines are called "penguins" and have a trick of turning
suddenly in a short half circle and smashing the end of a wing against
the ground. The queer antics of beginners in them furnish fun for every
one on the flying fields.
After I had mastered this machine, I was given one with a motor of
greater horse power, and in this I could fly along the ground at nearly
sixty miles an hour; but I could not rise into the air, for the wings
were clipped and did not have sufficient sustaining power to hold the
machine in the air.
Then at last I was given a plane with full-sized wings; but, as its
motor generated only about 25-horse power, I could get only from three
to six feet above the ground, and went skimming along now on the ground
and now a few feet in the air.
In these machines, we learned only how to manage the tail of the
machine. As we skimmed along the ground, we tipped the tail at an angle
slightly above a straight line. In a few moments we were off the
ground, and the roar of the motor sounded softer and smoother. It
seemed as if we were very far from the earth, and that something might
break and dash us to our death--in reality, we had not risen six feet.
To get back to earth, we must push the lever that lowers the tail--but
this must be done very slightly and very carefully. A little push too
much, and the machine will suddenly dive into the ground.
After my experience with the first two machines, I found it easy to
handle this one, and was soon given one that would take me up about
fifty feet and give me a chance to learn the "feel of the air." All my
flying was still in straight lines, or as nearly straight as I could
make it. We were not yet allowed to try to turn.
In the next machine I could rise two or three hundred feet and began to
learn to turn, although most of the flying was still in straight lines.
I was beginning to make good landings, which is the hardest part of the
game. We have to let the ship down on two wheels and let the tail skid
at a speed of thirty-five miles an hour and not break the landing gear.
The machines often bound three or four times when landing and that is
hard on the landing gear. My last landing was so soft that I was not
sure when I touched the ground. To take off is quite easy. The ship is
controlled by an upright stick which is between one's knees and just
right for the left hand. The rudder is controlled by the feet, and the
throttle is on the right side. To take off, we get up a speed of about
forty-six miles per hour and raise the tail up until the ship is level,
and then when she starts to rise, lift the nose just a little and climb
On turns, the ship has to be banked, tipped up with the inside wing
low, and turned with the rudder. It is quite a hard thing to do when it
is rough, as just about the time we bank, we get a puff of wind which
will hit one wing and she will roll and rock so that we have to get her
straightened out. It is a fight all the time until you get about 3000
feet up, when the air gets steady.
To land, we slow the engine down to idling speed and come down in a
steep glide until five or six feet from the ground, then level off and
glide along until she begins to settle, then jerk the tail down until
she stops. We always have to take off and come down against the wind.
I was obliged to follow the directions of my instructor, much against
my own wishes. It seemed to me that I could now do anything in the air
and that there was not the slightest danger. This too early feeling of
mastery is the cause of many beginners' being injured or killed, by
trying "stunts" too difficult for them.
I did not spend much time in flying at first, after I had learned how
to handle the airplane. It is not difficult to stay in the air and to
fly, but it is difficult to land safely without breaking the machine.
So I was kept practicing landing.
To secure my license I was required to fly 50 miles in a straight line
to a named place, and then back; then to fly 200 miles in a triangle,
passing through two named places; and last of all to stay one hour in
the air at an altitude higher than 7000 feet.
Now the French schools require only a 30-mile flight with three
successful landings, before sending the flyer to the finishing school,
where he learns to do all the "stunts" that a fighter must be able to
do in order to succeed. I learned the tail wing slip, the tail spin and
dive, the vrille, to loop the loop, and many other fancy flying
tricks. They have saved my life more than once.
I was interested in reading the other day James Norman Hall's funny
description of how he learned at last to master the penguin. He felt
triumphant, but he says, "But no one had seen my splendid sortie. Now
that I had arrived, no one paid the least attention to me. All eyes
were turned upward, and following them with my own, I saw an airplane
outlined against a heaped-up pile of snow-white cloud. It was moving at
tremendous speed, when suddenly it darted straight upward, wavered for
a second or two, turned slowly on one wing, and fell, nose-down,
turning round and round as it fell, like a scrap of paper. It was the
vrille, the prettiest piece of aÃ«rial acrobatics that one could wish
to see. It was a wonderful, an incredible sight.
"Some one was counting the turns of the vrille. Six, seven, eight;
then the airman came out of it on an even keel, and, nosing down to
gather speed, looped twice in quick succession. Afterward he did the
retournement, turning completely over in the air and going back in
the opposite direction; then spiraled down and passed over our heads at
about fifty meters, landing at the opposite side of the field so
beautifully that it was impossible to know when the machine touched the
There is nothing in all the experiences of life like what one feels in
flying through the air, especially at a great height and with no other
machines in sight. There is a loneliness, unlike any other kind of
loneliness; there is a feeling of smallness and weakness; a sense of
the immensity of things and of the presence and nearness of God. It is
surprising that in doing that in which man has shown his greatest power
over the forces of Nature, he feels most his littleness and how easily
he could be destroyed by the very forces he has conquered.
Lieutenant Roberts, an American flying in France, described not long
ago an experience that came just after his first flight. He was up in
the air, higher than anybody had ever been before, when the machine
suddenly broke into little pieces, which, as he was tumbling down
through the air, he vainly tried to catch. Just as he hit the ground
and broke every bone in his body, he woke up on the floor beside his
The Englishmen are the most daring of all the flyers, take the most
risks, and do the most dangerous "stunts." Not so much is heard of them
because their exploits and their scores are not announced by the
British army. Bishop, who has just been ordered from the flying field
to safer work, is said to have brought down nearly eighty German
planes, and on the day he learned of his recall, went up and brought
The Americans are daredevils, too. I took one of them one night as a
"guest," when I went over Metz on a bombing expedition. One of the
bombs stuck. He thought it might cause us trouble when we landed,
possibly explode and kill us, so he crawled out over the fusilage and
released it. He certainly earned his passage.
With several other Americans we formed what we called the American
Escadrille; but as the United States was neutral at that time, we were
obliged to change the name to the Lafayette Escadrille.
Since joining the squadron, I have used all sorts of machines, and
there are many of them, from the heavy bombing machine to the swift
little swallow-like scouts.
My first important work was reconnoissance, in which I carried an
observer. I managed the machine, and he did the reconnoitering. We went
out twice a day and flew over into German territory, sometimes as far
in as fifty miles, observing all that was going on, the movements of
troops and supplies, and the building of railroads and defensive works.
We also took photographs of the country over which we flew.
Reconnoissance is dangerous work, and is constantly growing more so, as
anti-aircraft guns are improved. These guns are mounted on a revolving
table, upon which is a mirror in which the airplane shows as soon as it
comes within range of the gun. With an instrument designed for the
purpose, the crew get the flyer's altitude; and with another, the rate
at which he is traveling. They aim the gun for the proper altitude,
make the correct allowance for the time it will take the shell to reach
him, and as they have an effective range of over 30,000 feet, there is
reason to worry. Yet by zig-zagging and other devices, the aviators are
rarely brought down by anti-aircraft guns. The small scout machines
with a wing spread of not more than thirty feet are not visible to the
naked eye when at an altitude of over 10,000 feet, and are therefore
safe from these guns at this height.
But reconnoissance, to be effective, must be done at a much lower
altitude, and sometimes the machine must remain under fire for a
considerable period of time. Poiret, the French aviator, fighting with
the Russians, with a captain of the General Staff for an observer, was
under rifle and shell fire for about twenty minutes. His machine was
up about 4000 feet. Ten bullets and two pieces of shell hit his
airplane, but he never lost control. The captain was shot through the
heel, the bullet coming out of his calf; but he continued taking notes.
They returned in safety to their lines.
I also did some work in directing artillery fire. For this my machine
was equipped with a wireless apparatus for sending. No method has yet
been devised whereby an airplane in flight can receive wireless
messages. In directing the fire of the big guns, the aviator seeks to
get directly over the object that is under fire, and to signal or send
wireless messages in regard to where the shells land. After the aviator
is in position, the third shot usually reaches the target.
I am not yet one of the great aces, and will not, therefore, tell you
about any of my air battles. I hope some day you may read of them and
that I may come to have the honor of being named with Lufbery,
Guynemer, Nungesser, Fonk, Bishop, Ball, GenÃ©t, Chapman, McConnell,
Prince, Putnam, and other heroes of the air.
Lieutenant R.A.J. Warneford, who won the Victoria Cross for destroying
a giant Zeppelin, is one of the greatest of these; at least, he
performed a feat never accomplished before and never since.
At three o'clock one morning in June, 1915, he discovered a Zeppelin
returning from bombing towns along the east coast of England. The Huns
shot Captain Fryatt because, as they said, he was a non-combatant and
tried to defend himself. The rule that non-combatants should not attack
military forces was made with the understanding that military forces
would not war on non-combatants. But law, or justice, or agreements
never are allowed by the Huns to stand in their way. This Zeppelin was
returning from a raid in which twenty-four were killed and sixty
seriously injured, nearly all women and children, and all
Lieutenant Warneford well knew of the dastardly deeds of the Zeppelins,
and he immediately gave chase, firing as he approached. The Zeppelin
returned his shots. He mounted as rapidly as possible so as to get the
great gas-bag below him, until he reached over 6000 feet and the
Zeppelin was about 150 feet directly below him. Both were moving very
rapidly, and to hit was exceedingly difficult, but he dropped six
bombs, one after the other. One of them hit the Zeppelin squarely,
exploded the gas-bag, and set it afire its entire length. The explosion
turned Lieutenant Warneford's airplane upside down, and although he
soon righted it, he was obliged to land. He was over territory occupied
by the Germans and he landed behind the German lines, but he succeeded
in rising again before being captured, and returned to his hangar in
safety, to tell his marvelous story. The Zeppelin and its crew were
completely destroyed. A few days later Lieutenant Warneford was killed.
One of the greatest air duels, between airplanes, was during the Battle
of Vimy Ridge. At that time Immelman was as great a German ace as were
Boelke and Richthofen later, and Ball was the greatest of the English.
One morning Ball learned that Immelman was stationed with the Germans
on the opposite line, and carried him a challenge which read:
CAPTAIN IMMELMAN: I challenge you to a man-to-man fight to take
place this afternoon at two o'clock. I will meet you over the
German lines. Have your anti-aircraft guns withhold their fire
while we decide which is the better man. The British guns will
Ball dropped this from his airplane behind the German lines, and soon
afterward Immelman dropped his answer behind the British lines:
Your challenge is accepted. The German guns will not interfere.
I will meet you promptly at two.
A few minutes before two, the guns ceased firing, and all on both sides
fixed their eyes in the air to witness a contest between two knights
that would make the contests of the days of chivalry seem tame.
The French plane at the top is maneuvering for position
preparatory to swooping down on its German adversary.
Copyright by Underwood & Underwood, N.Y.]
In an air battle, the machine that is higher up is thought to have the
advantage. Both Ball and Immelman went up very high, but Ball was below
and seemed uncertain what to do. The British were afraid that he had
lost his nerve and courage when he found himself below, for he made no
effort to get above his opponent, but was flying now this way and now
that, as if "rattled."
Immelman did not delay, but went into a nose dive directly towards the
machine below, which he would be able to rake with his machine gun as
he approached; but just at the proper moment, Ball suddenly looped the
loop and was directly above the German, and in position to fire. As the
shower of bullets struck Immelman and his machine, it burst into flames
and dropped like a blazing comet.
Ball returned to his hangar, got a wreath of flowers, and went into the
air again to drop them upon the spot where Immelman had fallen dead.
Four days later Ball was killed in a fight with four German planes, but
not until he had brought down three of them.
But the fighting planes do not get all the thrills in the air. A young
English aviator and his observer who were directing artillery fire in
September, 1918, showed as great devotion and courage as any ace and
lived through as exciting an adventure as ever befell a fighting
They were flying over No Man's Land to get the proper range for a
battery which was to destroy a bridge of great value to the Huns. Their
engine had been running badly and back-firing. They would have returned
home had their work been of less importance.
Suddenly the pilot smelled burning wood, and looking down, saw the
framework near his feet blackened and smoldering. It had caught fire
from the backfire of the engine and the exhaust, but was not yet in a
decided blaze. He turned off the gas and opened the throttle. Then he
made a steep, swift dive, and the powerful rush of the air put the fire
Then he hesitated, trying to decide whether to "play safe" and go home
or whether to continue their work until the battery had secured the
exact range. He knew that in a very short time and with a little more
observation, their work would be completely successful. So he turned to
the observer and asked him what he thought. The observer leaned over
and examined the damage near the pilot's feet. It did not look very
bad; so he shouted, "Let's carry on."
Up they went again and in a short time had shells from the battery
falling all about the bridge, which was soon destroyed. Their work was
done, and well done. In the excitement they had forgotten the bad
engine until they heard it give one last sputter and stop.
Then they perceived the woodwork was on fire again and really blazing
this time. To dive now would only fan the flames about the pilot's
feet, but they must get to the ground, and get there quickly, too.
The pilot put the machine into a side slip toward the British line.
This fanned the flames away from his feet. The observer squirted the
fire extinguisher on the burning wood near the pilot's feet, and thus
enabled him to keep control of the rudder bar.
They were now within fifteen hundred feet of the ground, but the heat
was almost unbearable. The right wing was beginning to burn. Down,
down, they went, and luckily towards a fairly good landing place. One
landing wheel struck the ground with such force that it was broken off,
and the airplane bumped along on the other for a short distance until
it finally crashed on its nose and left wing.
Both pilot and observer were unhurt. They sprang to the ground and
hurried away from the burning wreck just in time, for a few seconds
later the gasoline tank exploded. They looked at each other without a
word, but neither of them regretted that he had stayed up until the job
had been finished.
Such is the life and the danger of the flyers; but thousands of the
finest young men of all the nations at war eagerly seek the service,
for the aviators are the eyes of the armies and will determine always
more than any other branch which side shall be finally victorious.