Battles In The Air
( Originally Published 1918 )
HE who conquers the fear of death is master of his fate. Upon this philosophy fifty thousand young men of the warring nations went forth to do battle among the clouds. The story of these battles is the real romance of the World War. In 1914 no one had ever known and history had never recorded a struggle to the death in the air. When the war ended a new literature of adventure had been created, a literature emblazoned with superb heroisms, with God-like daring, and with such utter disdain of death that they were raised out of the olden ranks of mere earth-crawling mankind and became supermen of the air.
Some of these heroic names became house-hold words during the war. These were the aces of the French, American and German air-forces. The British adopted a policy in news concerning their airmen similar to that governing their publication of submarine sinkings. They argued that the naming of British, Canadian and Australian aces would direct the attacks of German aviators against the most useful men in the British forces. They also felt that publicity would tend toward the swagger which in English slang was "swank" and toward a deterioration in discipline.
Raoul Lufberry, Quentin Roosevelt, son of ex-President Roosevelt, and Edward Rickenbacher were names that figured extensively in news of the American Air forces.
Lufberry and Roosevelt were killed in action. Rickenbacher, after dozens of hair-raising escapes from death, came through the war without injury. The pioneer of American aviators in the war was William Thaw of Yale, who formed the original Lafayette Escadrille.
Besides these men, America produced a number of other brilliant aces, an ace being one who brought down five enemy planes, each victory being attested by at least three witnesses.
The French had as their outstanding aces Georges Guynemer and Rene Fonck. Guynemer went into the flying game as a mechanician. He became the most formidable human fighting machine on the western front before he was sent to death in a blazing airplane.
Lieut. Rene Fonck ended the war with a total of seventy-five official aerial victories. He had an additional forty Huns to his credit but not officially confirmed. His greatest day was when he brought down six planes. His quickest work was the shooting down of three Germans in twenty seconds.
He fought three distinct battles in the air when, on May 8, 1918, he brought down six German airplanes in one day. All three engagements were fought within two hours. In all, Fonck fired only fifty-six shots, an average of little more than nine bullets for each enemy brought down—an extraordinary record, in view of the fact that aviators often fired hundreds of rounds without crippling their opponent.
The first fight, in which Lieutenant Fonck brought down three German machines, lasted only a minute and a half, and the young Frenchman gained his victory at the expense of only twenty-two shots.
Fonck was leading two other companions on a patrol in the Moreuil-Montdidier sector on May 8th, when the French squadron met three German two-seater airplanes coming toward them in arrow formation. Signaling to his companions, Lieutenant Fonck dived at the leading German plane and with a few shots sent it down in flames. Fonck turned to the left, and the second enemy flier followed in an effort to attack him from behind, but the Frenchman made a quick turn above him and, with five shots, sent the second German to death. Ten seconds had barely elapsed between the two victories.
The third enemy pilot headed for home, but when Lieutenant Fonck apparently gave up the chase and turned back toward the French lines the German went after him, and was flying parallel and a little below, when Fonck made a quick turn, drove straight at him and sent him down within half a mile of the spot where his two comrades hit the earth.
The German heroes were the celebrated Captain Boelke, and the no less famous inventor of the "flying circus," Count von Richthofen. Captain Boelke caused a great many Allied "crashes" by hiding in clouds and diving straight at planes flying beneath him. As he came within range, he opened up with a stream of machine-gun bullets. If he failed to get his prey, his rush carried him past his opponent into safety. He rarely re-attacked. Count von Richthofen was responsible for many airplane squadron tactics that later were used on both sides. The planes under his command were gaily painted for easy identification during the thick of a fight. Their usual method was to cut off single planes or small groups of Allied planes, and to circle around them in the method employed by Admiral Dewey for the reduction of the Spanish forts and ships in the Battle of Manila Bay.
The dangers of aerial warfare were instrumental in producing high chivalry in all the encampments of airmen. Graves of fallen aviators were marked and decorated by their former foes and captured aviators received exceptionally good treatment, where foemen aviators could procure such treatment for them.
Until the advent of America into the war, neither side had a marked advantage in air-craft. At first Germany had a slight advantage; then the balance swung to the Allied side; but at no time was the scale tipped very much. American quantity production of airplanes, however, gave to the Entente Allies an overwhelming advantage. Final standardization of tools and design for the "Soul of the American Airplane" was not accomplished until February, 1918. Yet within eight months more than 15,000 Liberty engines, each of them fully tested and of the highest quality, were delivered.
The United States did not follow European types of engines, but in a wonderfully short time developed an engine standardized in the most recent efficiency of American industries.
According to Secretary of War Baker, an inspiring feature of this work was the aid rendered by consulting engineers and motor manufacturers, who gave up their trade secrets under the emergency of war needs. Realizing that the new design would be a government design and no firm or individual would reap selfish benefit because of its making, the motor manufacturers, nevertheless, patriotically revealed their trade secrets and made available trade processes of great commercial value. These industries also contributed the services of approximately two hundred of their best draftsmen. Parts of the first engine were turned out at twelve different factories, located all the way from Connecticut to California. When the parts were assembled the adjustment was perfect and the performance of the engine was wonderfully gratifying.
Thirty days after the assembling of the first engine preliminary tests justified the government in formally accepting the engine as the best aircraft engine produced in any country. The final tests confirmed the faith in the new motor.
British and French machines as a rule were not adapted to American manufacturing methods. They were highly specialized machines, requiring much hand work from mechanics, who were, in fact, artisans.
The standardized United States aviation engine, produced under government supervision, said Secretary of War Baker, was expected "to solve the problem of building first-class, powerful and yet comparatively delicate aviation engines by American machine methods—the same standardized methods which revolutionized the automobile industry in this country."
The manufacture of De Haviland airplanes equipped with Liberty motors was a factor in the war. One of these De Havilands without tuning up, made a non-stop trip on November 11, 1918, from Dayton, Ohio, to Washington, D. C., a distance of 430 miles, in three hours and fifty minutes. Great battle squadrons of these De Haviland planes equipped with Liberty motors made bombing raids over the German lines in the Verdun sector. Others operated as scouting and reconnaissance planes and as spotters for American artillery.
In the period from September 12th to 11 o'clock on the morning of November 11th, the American aviators brought down 473 German machines. Of this number, 353 were con-firmed officially. Day bombing groups, from the time they began operations, dropped a total of 116,818 kilograms of bombs within the German lines.
Bombing operations were begun in August by the 96th Squadron, which in five flying days dropped 18,080 kilograms of bombs. The first day bombardment group began work in September, the group including the 96th, the 20th and 11th Squadrons. The 166th Squadron joined the group in November.
In twelve flying days in September the bombers dropped 3,466 kilograms of bombs; in fifteen flying days in October 46,133 kilograms, and in four flying days in November, 17,979 kilograms.
On November 11th, the day of the signing of the armistice, there were actually engaged on the front 740 American planes, 744 pilots, 457 observers and 23 aerial gunners.
Of the total number of planes, 829 were of the pursuit type, 296 were for observation and 115 were bombers. In addition, several hundred planes of various types were being used at the instruction camps when the war ended.
America, although the last of the great nations to embark upon a great aircraft production program, was the birthplace of the airplane, the Wright brothers being the undisputed inventors of the modern type.
Wilbur and Orville Wright made their first experiments in flying at Kittyhawk, N. C. Their first attempts were of a gliding nature and were accomplished by starting from the top of a dune or sandhill, the operator lying full length, face downward on the under plane of the machine. During these experiments they succeeded in flying six hundred feet.
Their first flight with an airplane driven by a motor was on December 17, 1903, when they succeeded in flying about two hundred and seventy yards in fifty-nine seconds. This machine was driven by a sixteen-horse-power motor.
Santos Dumont was one of the early pioneers in aeronautical experiments. After showing a marked talent with balloons, he turned his attention to heavier-than-air machines, and in 1906 created a world's record in a flight of 280 yards at a speed of twenty-five miles an hour.
In 1907 Henry Farnum made a half circular flight in a Voisin biplane, using a fifty-horsepower motor, returning to his starting point. About this time a flight of nine minutes and fifteen seconds was recorded by Delagrande on a Voisin constructed biplane.
The first previously announced public flight was made on July 4, 1908, by Glenn H. Curtiss at Hammondsport, N. Y., and was witnessed by a number of New Yorkers who had gone to Hammondsport to see the flight.
In the winter of 1913–14 Mr. Rodman Wanamaker gave Glenn H. Curtiss a commission to build a flying boat which would fly across the Atlantic. Commander Porte was brought from England, and he, with Mr. Curtiss, worked out the designs for a flying boat much larger than any previously built, and fitted with two motors instead of one. As entirely separate power plants would be used, one motor would naturally run somewhat faster than the other, and it was freely predicted that the machine could not be handled. The first trial, however, proved that it would not only fly, but that after it was once in the air, one motor could be slowed down and even stopped and the machine continue to fly. This machine was the forerunner of the seaplane, used by the American, British and other navies in the war, although somewhat changed in detail. The be-ginning of the war stopped the transatlantic experiments and this machine found its way into the British navy. It was christened the "America," and the larger flying boats or sea-planes which are now being built and used by the British and American navies are still known as the "America" or super-American type.
At first fighting operations were carried out by individual aviators or comparatively small squadrons, but the battles of March, 1918, witnessed the definite development of larger squadrons, maneuvering as effectively as bodies of cavalry, and in massed formation attacking infantry columns. The possibilities of the new aerial arm were further demonstrated in the creation of a barrage, as effective as that of heavy artillery, for the purpose of holding back advising bodies of infantry.
In the first days of the German offensive there took place an aerial battle which up to that time was unique in the annals of war-fare.
It was a battle not merely for the purpose of gaining the mastery of the air, but to aid Allied infantry and artillery in stemming the tide of the German advance, and when the drive finally slowed down and came to a halt in Picardy, the Allied airmen had undoubtedly contributed largely to the result.
During March 21 and 22, 1918—the opening days of the great German drive-there was comparatively little aerial activity. The aviators of both sides were preparing for the impending battle, which actually began on the morning of March 23d and lasted all that day and the day following.
The story of the air battle of March 23d-24th reads like one of the most extraordinary adventure tales ever imagined. The struggle began with squadrons of airplanes ascending and maneuvering as perfectly as cavalry. They rose to dizzy heights, and, descending swept the air close to the ground. The individual pilots of the opposing sides then began executing all manner of movements, climbing, diving, turning in every direction, and seeking to get into the best position to pour machine-gun fire into enemy airplanes. Every few minutes a machine belonging to an Allied or German squadron crashed to the ground, often in flames. At the end of the first day's fighting wrecked airplanes and the mangled bodies of aviators lay strewn all over the battle-field.
All next day, March 24th, the struggle in the air went on with unabated fury. The Allied air squadrons were now on the offensive and penetrated far inside the German lines. The German aviators counter-attacked whenever they could, and more than once succeeded in crossing the French lines. But at the close of the second day victory rested with the Allied airmen, and during the next five scarcely a German airplane took the air.
The sudden termination of the war caused speculation throughout the world concerning the future of the airplane. When rumor declared that America's newly-won pre-eminence in aviation would disappear, Captain Roy N. Francis, of the Division of Military Aeronautics, made this statement;
America cannot afford to junk the airplane fleet which has cost her so many millions of dollars. I do not believe that any other nation will do so. Even if the peace congress should decide on universal disarmament, there are still any number of uses to which airplanes can be put in time of peace.
Take the air mail service, for instance. This is now only in its infancy, but it is destined to become as common as the railway mail service. It will employ hundreds of airplanes and aviators all over the country.
Then there is the possibility of our machines being used for sea-coast patrol work, a valuable addition to our coast-guard forces which save many ocean vessels from disaster every year.
They will be largely used for army dispatch work.
Instead of sending official messages from post to post by the present methods, airplanes will be used after the war as they are now being used at the front.
On the Great Lakes, airplanes can be used for coast-guard work, as on the seacoast, and they can also be used for patrolling the lakes themselves. Think how many wrecked lake vessels might have been saved in the past had there been an airplane nearby to carry its message of distress and guide rescue ships to the scene.
Forest patrol is still another opening for the use of expert aviators. Every year, almost, our great forest fires in the northwest demonstrate that our present methods of prevention of forest fires are faulty; chiefly be-cause the fires are not discovered while they are still smoldering. Constant airplane patrol over our great forests would make forest fires a thing of the past.
Then there are any number of commercial uses to which airplanes can 'be put. Instead of a cargo f bombs, a commercial airplane could carry a cargo of small package freight for which immediate delivery is necessary.
The use of the airplane for passenger carrying is now being developed. The huge Caproni and Handley-Page machines will be used for this purpose in the future. Thousands of persons will want to fly just for the novelty, and the possibility of accidents will be reduced to the minimum.
Again, there is the need for scientific research and improvement of the airplane, which will keep scores' of men and machines busy for years.
It will not be necessary, of course, to maintain the numerous government training fields for aviators after the war, but some of the best of them should be retained. I do not believe it will be necessary to discharge a single pilot or observer from the army or to junk a single undamaged airplane after the war.
Henry Woodhouse, Governor of the Aero Club of America and a world-wide authority on aeronautics, made the following forecast:
Aircraft capable of lifting fifteen tons, with a speed of one hundred miles an hour, are now in actual production. The first of the American-built Caproni planes, equipped with four Liberty motors and developing 1,750 horse-power has just been successfully tested. This giant plane has a total lifting capacity of 40,000 pounds, or twenty tons. The super-Handley-Page or the Caproni could easily carry fifty bags, or more than a ton of mail. This means 100,000 letters Judging the future development of aircraft by what has taken place in the last two years, we may look for the building of a 5,000-horse-power airplane, possibly within a year.
If the people of the various cities along the eight great air-ways already proposed insist on it, at least a dozen additional aerial mail lines can be "established within twelve months. This can be done by utilizing only machines not needed by the army or navy. That means it will be possible to send by postplane at least 50,000,000 of the 100,000,000 day and night letters, and at least 25,000,000 of the 50,000,000 special delivery letters that are sent each year in the United States.
Postoffice officials estimate that the average cost of telegraphic day and night letters now going over the wires is close to one dollar each. Special delivery letters average about thirteen cents apiece.
This makes a total of more than fifty million dollars' worth of potential aerial mail business that is simply waiting for the establishment of aerial mail routes which can easily be established within the next twelve months.
Four hundred miles is the distance over which post-plane day mail is most effective. Aerial mail letters' are effective over any distance, since, with proper stations, light signals and guides for night postplane flying, the air mail can be carried more than one thousand miles between the hours of 6 P. M. and 8 A M.'
The cost of aerial mail night and day letters will be less than that of wire communication. The cost of an aerial mail letter is sixteen cents for two ounces. For this price there can be sent a message that would cost five dollars to send by telegraph.
The estimate of $50,000,000 of potential postplane business takes no account of the possibilities of trans-porting parcel post aerial mail. One of the Caproni 2,100-horse-power machines now in operation could easily transport 2,500 pounds of mail. At least $25,000,000 worth of parcel post could be sent by airplane.
Enthusiasts who look forward to the transatlantic transportation of aerial mail as certain to come within the next twelve-month assert that there is another twenty-five million dollars' worth of transatlantic mail waiting for an aerial mail service. They point out that Uncle Sam now pays eighty cents a pound to American steamships to carry transatlantic mail and that a charge of $1 per letter across the Atlantic would be a paying proposition. Charges of mismanagement and graft were investigated by the United States Senate and by the Department of Justice. Former Justice of the United States Supreme Court' Charles E. Hughes was named by President Wilson to conduct the latter inquiry. Waste was found, due largely to the emergency nature of the contract. Justice Hughes recommended that Col. Edward Deeds, of the United States Signal Corps, be tried by court martial for his connection with certain contracts, and recommended that several other persons be tried in the United States courts. Justice Hughes and the Senate 'Investigation Committee gave their unqualified approval to the management of America's aircraft production by John D. Ryan. Mr. Ryan resigned his charge as head of the Aircraft Production, Board in November, 1918. His last public announcement was of the invention of an aerial telephone, by which the commander of a squad-ran standing on the ground could communicate with aviators flying in battle formation.