The adventures of a renowned American fighter pilot—in his own words
After initially enlisting as an ambulance driver during the Great War, American born Wellman transferred into the French Foreign Legion. By the end of 1917 he had earned his wings as a fighter pilot and had joined N. 87 escadrille of the Lafayette Flying Corps. The ‘Black Cats’ flew Nieuport ‘pursuit’ aircraft—first 17s and latterly 24s. Wellman named his own plane Celia—after his mother. In his career as a fighter pilot Wellman chalked up three confirmed ‘kills’ and five ‘probables’ before eventually being shot down by German anti-aircraft fire in March 1918. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre with two palms. Due to his crash injury he was invalided out of French service and returned to the United States where he began a highly regarded career as a film director. This book, published in 1918, recounts Wellman’s wartime experiences while they were still fresh in the mind, as such it is an invaluable first hand account of the aerial war over the Western Front from the first days of air combat. Recommended.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
Oddly enough, my first successful fight grew out of another escort trip with the Letord which, on Christmas Day, had led me into so much trouble. This time, however, the weather was excellent, although still beastly cold. Again we went over the German lines, the big machine finished its appointed task, and headed home, without encountering trouble. It was well on its way toward France, surrounded by six or eight of us little fellows doing police duty around it, when, looking ahead, I saw a series of black and white puffs suddenly appear out of nothing in the blue sky some three miles above Lunéville. I knew them to be bursting anti-aircraft shells, and fired from friendly guns too, for the Allies use a mixture of black and white powder, and the Germans black only.<br>
An enemy’s aircraft was somewhere “up there,” and, although I could not spot it yet, I broke away from our group and turned my Nieuport’s nose upward from the four thousand metre altitude at which we were then flying, while the Letord, and the rest of its escort dove for the landing—all, that is, except one which had a two-foot high “7” painted in red near the Cat of the fuselage, I knew the plane. It was flown by Miot, one of our daring French “aces.” To call his attention to the presence of a Boche I gave the usual signal, moving my control stick rapidly from side to side, and my little craft rocked merrily in its cradle of air.<br>
Miot answered in the same manner to tell me that he was “on,” and, although it was no part of our prescribed duty, we headed straight for the scene as located by the still bursting shrapnel shells, he on the right and I on the left.<br>
Suddenly the gunfire ceased. Our friends on earth had seen us going into action. For a moment I looked in vain for the enemy, and then, a hundred metres below, and perhaps four times that distance ahead of me, I saw a cleverly disguised two-place Rumpler. Even a practiced eye might well have been deceived, so perfectly did it blend into the landscape.<br>
I knew that a Rumpler was another type used both for bombing and taking photographs, and decided that it had been playing the same game as our Letord.<br>
For an instant I took my eyes off the quarry to see what Miot was doing. To my equal astonishment and dismay he had already started to dive directly at the Boche—a most foolish thing to do, as I have already explained. The observer was making the most of his unexpected opportunity, and was banging away as fast as his mitrailleuse would fire. Over the racket of my engine I could hear its spiteful “clack, clack, clack,” each of which spoke in the language of death. It was but a second more before a wave of horror swept over me, for I saw the top left-hand plane of Miot’s machine crumple up. The lower plane followed, torn loose by the sudden strain, and down, down, down he went, in a spinning nose dive with only one wing intact and the other flapping piteously like that of a mortally wounded bird.<br>
There was not a chance in the world for poor Miot, for he was falling, wholly out of control, from a height of more than three miles. A sweep of keen sorrow and a shudder went through me, followed instantly by a gripping desire to avenge him.<br>
Action in the air, with one’s plane going one hundred and thirty-five miles an hour, occurs much faster than it can be recounted, and, even as I was witnessing the fate of my comrade, I was diving vertically behind the Boche.<br>
When my plunge had carried me past and a little way below him, I tightened the muscles of my stomach, clinched my jaws and made the sharp turn which I have described. Then I turned my plane’s nose upward, gave her the juice, and opened fire when I was fifty yards distant. It was too far for dead certainty, and I was forced to go into a side wing-slip to prevent my plane from passing the Boche in its upward rush, without having the satisfaction of being sure that I had punctured it.<br>
At the same moment I saw another plane flash by me to attack in the manner in which I had. This time my eye caught sight of the number “10” beside the Black Cat. It was good old Tommy Hitchcock, come post-haste to my aid.<br>
As I recovered my equilibrium after falling sideways a little distance, I kept my eyes fixed on the spectacle just above and in front of me, and my heart leaped as I saw Tom complete his “Russian Mountain,” go streaking upward and cut loose with his Vickers. It flashed once, and the Rumpler’s propeller flew to pieces.<br>
I followed in his wake, and, steadied by Tom’s presence, fired more deliberately, and had the exultant satisfaction of realizing that this time I had scored a clean hit and silenced the enemy’s motor. Even so, he was not out of the fight, for the pilot was skilful, and he had plenty of altitude from which to volplane down to safety behind his own lines, if we could not “get” him first. He was wounded, but his fangs were not drawn, and for a few lively moments both Tom and I went through every conceivable acrobatic stunt in order to keep out of range of his two guns, and save our own hides, without quitting the combat.