A first hand account of combat in the air by an American Observer
The Great War, as every student of the period knows, was the first conflict where combat took to the skies in machines that provided powered and manoeuvrable flight. There are few memoirs written by those engaged in the air war, so all are essential from an historical perspective and most are riveting. This was a risky profession where brave young men—sans parachutes—fought ‘dog-fights’ in primitive machines made only of fabric and wood; never was the phrase ‘by a wing and a prayer’ more apt. However, those on whom the greatest attention and fame has fallen are those who wore TWO wings on their chests—the pilots and potential ‘aces.’ The young men who wore the single wing insignia, the observers, who took the same risks as their pilot comrades, have always been neglected in the history of the Great War in the air. This book, with the incredible, first hand air combat experiences of its author, rectifies that. For those interested in the subject this is a brilliant and exciting account of action over the lines, armed with machine gun and camera. The author was regarded as one of the finest practitioners of his craft and included here is his account of a marathon intelligence gathering patrol which not only facilitated a significant allied victory on the battlefield, but may well have influenced the shortening of the war itself. Highly recommended in every way.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
The sudden jarring of the plane from the explosion and the more abrupt dive, released the throttle, throwing the motor into full speed. And with one mighty jerk like the sudden release of a taut rubber band, all three forces working in the same direction, and aided by the flyer’s greatest enemy, Newton’s law of gravity, that A.B. omnibus started straight down in one terrible dive.<br>
Poor old Phil was thrown completely out of the pilot’s seat and was only saved from going headlong into the open air by his head striking the upper wing of the plane, which knocked him back into the seat, dazed and practically unconscious. The “hard-boiled” observer in the back seat did not have a belt, for my famous A.B. plane was not equipped with them. I went completely out of the cockpit and in that brief second I had one of the rarest thoughts I have ever had—I was sure I was going to be killed and I regretted that it was in such a manner, for it was, indeed, unfortunate that I should be killed in an airplane accident when I might have died fighting in combat—there, at least, I would have had an equal chance with the enemy.<br>
As I shot out of that cockpit with the speed that a bullet leaves the barrel of a gun, my foot caught on the wire directly underneath the rim of the cockpit. With superhuman effort doubled by the intuitive hope of self-preservation, I grabbed the top gun which in those days was mounted on the top of the upper plane. Backward I fell. For a moment I was completely free of the airplane, in midair; as I fell my chin hit the outward pointing muzzle of the machine gun; I threw my arms forward and closed them in the grip of death. I had caught the barrels of my machine guns and the next thing I was conscious of was that I was hanging over the side of the fuselage, below the airplane, but clinging on to those machine guns for dear life. The old admonition “to stand by the guns, boys” was tame compared to me. My watchword was “hang on to the guns, boy.”<br>
The plane had fallen about one thousand feet and was still going, but stunned as he was, Phil was doing his best to level her off. I was sure if he ever did level her off the strain would be so great that it would fold or strip the wings. I cannot account for the strength that came to me, but I do know that if I ever should get into a good fight, I only hope I may again be that superman, with the agility of the ape riding the flying horse at the three-ringed circus.<br>
I scrambled up on those machine guns, grabbed the rim of the cockpit and the brace of the tourrelle and climbed in. My ears were splitting; I was certain that the top of my head had been shot away, for there was nothing there but a stinging, painful numbness. My heart was beating at the rate of nine hundred and ninety-nine round trips per second. I felt that my whole body was being flayed by sharp, burning, steel lashes. Then I suddenly grew as cold as ice and passed out. It was almost a literal case of a man being scared to death. When I saw the light again I was limp in the bottom of the fuselage. My first sensation was that we had crashed and I was alive in the wreckage, but the drone of the motor brought me to the realisation that we were still flying.<br>
Evidently Phil had gotten control again, so I pulled myself up to my seat in the cockpit and got my bearings—we were headed toward home. Poor Phil had his eyes set straight ahead. At his right he had a mirror which reflected the movements of the observer, thus obviating the necessity of continually turning around. When Phil saw my reflection in that mirror, however, he whirled around at top speed to verify it. His countenance changed from being horrified to complete surprise and then to genuine delight. He had evidently looked around immediately upon gaining control, and not seeing me, had realised that I had been thrown from the plane. He was going back to the airdrome to tell the horrible tale.