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A few short years ago flying was in its experimental stage; to-day, though man’s conquest of the air is yet a dream unrealised, it has developed enormously and to an amazing degree; to-day, flying is one of the chief factors of this world war, both on sea and land. Upon the Western front alone there are thousands upon thousands of aeroplanes—monoplanes and biplanes—of hundreds of different makes and designs, of varying shapes and many sizes. I have seen giants armed with batteries of swivel guns and others mounting veritable cannon. Here are huge bomb-dropping machines with a vast wing spread; solid, steady-flying machines for photographic work, and the light, swift-climbing, double-gunned battle-planes, capable of mounting two thousand feet a minute and attaining a speed of two hundred kilometres. Of these last they are building scores a week at a certain factory I visited just outside Paris, and this factory is but one of many. But the men (or rather, youths) who fly these aerial marvels—it is of these rather than the machines that I would tell, since of the machines I can describe little even if I would; but I have watched them hovering unconcernedly (and quite contemptuous of the barking attention of “Archie”) above white shrapnel bursts—fleecy, innocent-seeming puffs of smoke that go by the name of “woolly bears.” I have seen them turn and hover and swoop, swift and graceful as great eagles. I have watched master pilots of both armies, English and French, perform soul-shaking gyrations high in air, feats quite impossible hitherto and never attempted until lately. There is now a course of aerial gymnastics which every flier must pass successfully before he may call himself a “chasing” pilot; and, from what I have observed, it would seem that to become a pilot one must be either all nerve or possess no nerve at all.
Conceive a biplane, thousands of feet aloft, suddenly flinging its nose up and beginning to climb vertically as if intending to loop the loop; conceive of its pausing suddenly and remaining, for perhaps a full minute, poised thus upon its tail—absolutely perpendicular. Then, the engines switched off, conceive of it falling helplessly, tail first, reversing suddenly and plunging earthwards, spinning giddily round and round very like the helpless flutter of a falling leaf. Then suddenly, the engine roars again, the twisting, fluttering, dead thing becomes instinct with life, rights itself majestically on flashing pinions, swoops down in swift and headlong course, and turning, mounts the wind and soars up and up as light, as graceful, as any bird.
Other nerve-shattering things they do, these soaring young demigods of the air, feats so marvellous to such earth-bound ones as myself—feats indeed so wildly daring it would seem no ordinary human could ever hope to attain unto. But in and around Paris and at the front, I have talked with, dined with, and known many of these bird-men, both English, French and American, and have generally found them very human indeed, often shy, generally simple and unaffected, and always modest of their achievements and full of admiration for seamen and soldiers, and heartily glad that their lives are not jeopardised aboard ships, or submarines, or in muddy trenches; which sentiment I have heard fervently expressed—not once, but many times. Surely the mentality of the flier is beyond poor ordinary understanding!
It was with some such thought in my mind that with my friend N., a well-known American correspondent, I visited one of our flying squadrons at the front. The day was dull and cloudy, and N., deep versed and experienced in flying and matters pertaining thereto, shook doubtful head.
“We shan’t see much to-day,” he opined, “low visibility—plafond only about a thousand!” Which cryptic sentence, by dint of pertinacious questioning, I found to mean that the clouds were about a thousand feet from earth and that it was misty. “Plafond”, by the way, is aeronautic for cloud strata. Thus I stood with my gaze lifted heavenward until the Intelligence Officer joined us with a youthful flight-captain, who, having shaken hands, looked up also and stroked a small and very young moustache. And presently he spoke as nearly as I remember on this wise:
“About twelve hundred! Rather rotten weather for our business—expecting some new machines over, too.”
“Has your squadron been out lately?” I enquired (I have the gift of enquiry largely developed).
“Rather! Lost four of our chaps yesterday—‘Archie’ got ’em. Rotten bad luck!”
“Are they—hurt?” I asked.
“Well, we know two are all right, and one we think is, but the other—rather a pal of mine—”
“Do you often lose fellows?”
“Off and on—you see, we’re a fighting squadron—must take a bit of risk now and then—it’s the game, y’know!”
He brought me where stood biplanes and monoplanes of all sizes and designs, and paused beside a two-seater, gunned fore and aft, and with ponderous, wide-flung wings.
“This,” he explained, “is an old battle-plane, quite a veteran too—jolly old bus in its way, but too slow; it’s a ‘pusher’, you see, and ‘tractors’ are all the go. We’re having some over to-day—tophole machines.” Here ensued much technical discussion between him and N. as to the relative merits of traction and propulsion.
“Have you had many air duels?” I enquired at last, as we wandered on through a maze of wheels and wings and propellers.
“Oh, yes, one or two,” he admitted, “though nothing very much!” he hastened to add. “Some of our chaps are pretty hot stuff, though. There’s B. now; B.’s got nine so far.”
“An air fight must be rather terrible?” said I.
“Oh, I don’t know!” he demurred. “Gets a bit lively sometimes. C., one of our chaps, had a near go coming home yesterday—attacked by five Boche machines, well over their own territory, of course. They swooped down on him out of a cloud. C. got one right away, but the others got him—nearly. They shot his gear all to pieces and put his bally gun out of commission—bullet clean through the tray. Rotten bad luck! So, being at their mercy, C. pretended they’d got him—did a turn-over and nose-dived through the clouds very nearly on two more Boche machines that were waiting for him. So, thinking it was all up with him, C. dived straight for the nearest, meaning to take a Boche down with him, but Hans didn’t think that was playing the game, and promptly hooked it. The other fellow had been blazing away and was getting a new drum fixed, when he saw C. was on his tail making tremendous business with his useless gun, so Fritz immediately dived away out of range, and C. got home with about fifty bullet holes in his wings and his gun crocked, and—oh, here he is!”
Flight-Lieutenant C. appeared, rather younger than his Captain, a long, slender youth, with serious brow and thoughtful eyes, whom I forthwith questioned as diplomatically as might be.
“Oh, yes!” he answered, in response to my various queries, “it was exciting for a minute or so, but I expect the Captain has been pulling your leg no end. Yes, they smashed my gun. Yes, they hit pretty well everything except me and my mascot—they didn’t get that, by good luck. No, I don’t think a fellow would mind ‘getting it’ in the ordinary way—a bullet, say. But it’s the damned petrol catching alight and burning one’s legs.” Here the speaker bent to survey his long legs with serious eyes. “Burning isn’t a very nice finish somehow. They generally manage to chuck themselves out—when they can. Hello—here comes one of our new machines—engine sounds nice and smooth!” said he, cocking an ear. Sure enough, came a faint purr that grew to a hum, to an ever-loudening drone, and out from the clouds an aeroplane appeared, which, wheeling in graceful spirals, sank lower and lower, touched earth, rose, touched again, and so, engine roaring, slid smoothly toward us over the grass. Then appeared men in blue overalls, who seized the gleaming monster in unawed, accustomed hands, steadied it, swung it round, and halted it within speaking distance.
Hereupon its leather-clad pilot climbed stiffly out, vituperated the weather and lit a cigarette.
“How is she?” enquired the Captain.
“A lamb! A witch! Absolutely tophole when you get used to her.” The tophole lamb and witch was a smallish biplane with no great wing spread, but powerfully engined, whose points N. explained to me as—her speed, her climbing angle, her wonderful stability, etc., while the Captain and Lieutenant hastened off to find the Major, who, appearing in due course, proved to be slender, merry-eyed and more youthful-looking than the Lieutenant. Indeed, so young seeming was he that upon better acquaintance I ventured to enquire his age, and he somewhat unwillingly owned to twenty-three.
“But,” said he, “I’m afraid we can’t show you very much, the weather’s so perfectly rotten for flying.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said the Captain, glancing towards the witch-lamb, “I rather thought I’d like to try this new machine—if you don’t mind, sir.”
“Same here,” murmured the Lieutenant.
“But you’ve never flown a Nieuport before, have you, eh?” enquired the Major.
“No, sir, but—”
“Nor you either, C.?”
“No, sir, still—”
“Then I’ll try her myself,” said the Major, regarding the witch-lamb joyous-eyed.
“But,” demurred the Captain, “I was rather under the impression you’d never flown one either.”
“I haven’t—yet,” laughed the Major, and hasted away for his coat and helmet.
“Can you beat that?” exclaimed the Lieutenant.
The Captain sighed and went to aid the Major into his leathern armour. Lightly and joyously the youthful Major climbed into the machine and sat awhile to examine and remark upon its unfamiliar features, while a sturdy mechanic stood at the propeller ready to start the engine.
“By the way,” said he, turning to address me. “You’re staying to luncheon, of course?”
“I’m afraid we can’t,” answered our Intelligence Officer.
“Oh, but you must—I’ve ordered soup! Right-oh!” he called to his mechanician; the engine hummed, thundered, and roaring, cast back upon us a very gale of wind; the witch-lamb moved, slid forward over the grass, and gathering speed, lifted six inches, a yard, ten yards—and was in flight.
“Can you beat that?” exclaimed the Captain enthusiastically, “lifted her clean away!”
“I rather fancy he’s about as good as they’re made!” observed the Lieutenant. Meanwhile, the witch-lamb soared up and up straight as an arrow; up she climbed, growing rapidly less until she was a gnat against a background of fleecy cloud and the roar of the engine had diminished to a whine; up and up until she was a speck—until the clouds had swallowed her altogether.
“Pity it isn’t clear!” said the Captain. “I rather fancy you’d have seen some real flying. By the way, they’re going to practise at the targets—might interest you. Care to see?”
The targets were about a yard square and, as I watched, an aeroplane rose, wheeling high above them. All at once the hum of the engine was lost in the sharp, fierce rattle of a machine gun; and ever as the biplane banked and wheeled the machine gun crackled. From every angle and from every point of the compass these bullets were aimed, and examining the targets afterwards I was amazed to see how many hits had been registered.
After this they brought me to the workshops where many mechanics were busied; they showed me, among other grim relics, C.’s broken machine gun and perforated cartridge tray. They told me many stories of daring deeds performed by other members of the squadron, but when I asked them to describe their own experiences, I found them diffident and monosyllabic.
“Hallo!” exclaimed C., as we stepped out into the air, “here comes the Major. He’s in that cloud—know the sound of his engine.” Sure enough, out from a low-lying cloud-bank he came, wheeling in short spirals, plunging earthward.
Down sank the aeroplane, the roaring engine fell silent, roared again, and she sped towards us, her wheels within a foot or so of earth. Finally they touched, the engine stopped and the witch-lamb pulled up within a few feet of us. Hereupon the Major waved a gauntleted hand to us.
“Must stop to lunch,” he cried, “I’ve ordered soup, you know.”
But this being impossible, we perforce said good-by to these warm-hearted, simple-souled fighting men, a truly regrettable farewell so far as I was concerned. They escorted us to the car, and there parted from us with many frank expressions of regard and stood side by side to watch us out of sight.
“Yesterday there was much aerial activity on our front.
“Depôts were successfully bombed and five enemy machines were forced to descend, three of them in flames. Four of ours did not return.”
I shall never read these oft recurring lines in the communiqués without thinking of those three youthful figures, so full of life and the joy of life, who watched us depart that dull and cloudy morning.
Here is just one other story dealing with three seasoned air-fighters, veterans of many deadly combats high above the clouds, each of whom has more than one victory to his credit, and whose combined ages total up to sixty or thereabouts. We will call them X., Y. and Z. Now X. is an American, Y. is an Englishman, whose peach-like countenance yet bears the newly healed scar of a bullet wound, and Z. is an Afrikander. Here begins the story:
Upon a certain day of wind, rain and cloud, news came that the Boches were massing behind their lines for an attack, whereupon X., Y. and Z. were ordered to go up and verify this. Gaily enough they started despite unfavourable weather conditions. The clouds were low, very low, but they must fly lower, so, at an altitude varying from fifteen hundred to a bare thousand feet, they crossed the German lines, Y. and Z. flying wing and wing behind X.’s tail. All at once “Archie” spoke, a whole battery of anti-aircraft guns filled the air with smoke and whistling bullets—away went X.’s propeller and his machine was hurled upside down; immediately Y. and Z. rose. By marvellous pilotage X. managed to right his crippled machine and began, of course, to fall; promptly Y. and Z. descended. It is, I believe, an unwritten law in the Air Service never to desert a comrade until he is seen to be completely “done for”—hence Y. and Z.’s hawk-like swoop from the clouds to draw the fire of the battery from their stricken companion. Down they plunged through the battery smoke, firing their machine guns point-blank as they came; and so, wheeling in long spirals, their guns crackling viciously, they mounted again and soared cloudward together, but, there among the clouds and in comparative safety, Z. developed engine trouble. Their ruse had served, however, and X. had contrived to bring his shattered biplane to earth safely behind the British lines. Meanwhile Y. and Z. continued on toward their objective, but Z.’s engine trouble becoming chronic, he fell behind more and more, and finally, leaving Y. to carry on alone, was forced to turn back. And now it was that, in the mists ahead, he beheld another machine which, coming swiftly down upon him, proved to be a German, who, mounting above him, promptly opened fire. Z., struggling with his baulking engine, had his hands pretty full; moreover his opponent, owing to greater speed, could attack him from precisely what angle he chose. So they wheeled and flew, Z. endeavouring to bring his gun to bear, the German keeping skilfully out of range, now above him, now below, but ever and always behind. Thus the Boche flying on Z.’s tail had him at his mercy; a bullet ripped his sleeve, another smashed his speedometer, yet another broke his gauge—slowly and by degrees nearly all Z.’s gear is either smashed or carried away by bullets. All this time it is to be supposed that Z., thus defenceless, is wheeling and turning as well as his crippled condition will allow, endeavouring to get a shot at his elusive foe; but (as he told me) he felt it was his finish, so he determined if possible to ram his opponent and crash down with him through the clouds. Therefore, waiting until the Boche was aiming at him from directly below, he threw his machine into a sudden dive. Thus for one moment Z. had him in range, for a moment only, but the range was close and deadly, and Z. fired off half his tray as he swooped headlong down upon his astonished foe. All at once the German waved an arm and sagged over sideways, his great battle-plane wavering uncertainly, and, as it began to fall, Z. avoided the intended collision by inches. Down went the German machine, down and down, and, watching, Z. saw it plunge through the clouds wrapped in flame.
Then Z. turned and made for home as fast as his baulking engine would allow.
These are but two stories among dozens I have heard, yet these, I think, will suffice to show something of the spirit animating these young paladins. The Spirit of Youth is surely a godlike spirit, unconquerable, care-free, undying. It is a spirit to whom fear and defeat are things to smile and wonder at, to whom risks and dangers are joyous episodes, and Death himself, whose face their youthful eyes have so often looked into, a friend familiar by close acquaintanceship.
Upon a time I mentioned some such thought to an American aviator, who nodded youthful head and answered in this manner:
“The best fellows generally go first, and such a lot are gone now that there’ll be a whole bunch of them waiting to say ‘Hello, old sport!’ so—what’s it matter, anyway?”
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