Knights of the Air
Those daring young Frenchmen and their flying machines. In 1918, you could often spot a great French ace just by the way he flew.
In fact, aerial tactics could help identify pilots of any nationality, said historian John Morrow whose research on the development of wartime aviation led him to talk with World War I pilots, including America's last living ace, Raymond A. Brooks.
"The French believed they were knights of the air and they harked back to the early French knights," Morrow said. "When they flew they thought of their airplanes as mounts or chargers".
As distinctive as the flavors of a country's cuisine or the colorful design on an aircraft's wing, a nation's cultural traits bled through and distinguished its airborne fleets.
Unlike infantry, aviators maintained a sense of independence and individuality -- in their fighting styles, in their training, even in the design of their aircraft.
Those traits were a natural outgrowth of a fighting air service developed from scratch under the intense pressures of an infant industry rushing headlong into war.
Each culture glamorized its aerial war heroes. The early air warriors were seen as gallant knights riding airborne steeds, chivalrous to the end.
But the realities of World War I aviation were gory and horrible, Morrow said. Mortality rates were high, training was minimal and nervous breakdowns were common.
Aircraft were not always well constructed; sometimes wings would fall off in mid-flight or an engine would conk out at 10,000 feet and a pilot's only choices were to go down with the plane or jump out. Either way, chances of survival were not good. Although the Germans had developed parachutes for their pilots' use by 1918, British and French planes were not equipped with them because some commanders believed parachutes were too bulky or heavy. Most light-weight, wood-and-fabric airplanes lacked armor protection for their crews because of the weight.
"Some of the pilots commented that their planes were just about as dangerous to them as they were to the enemy," Morrow said. "Many British pilots who survived wrote in their memoirs that they were quite resentful of their superior officers for sending large numbers of them up without adequate training, in poor aircraft, to what these men felt was certain death."
In those days there was no such thing as a tour of duty.
"The only way really to get out was to get killed, seriously wounded or have a nervous breakdown," Morrow said. "You knew you were going to fly and fight for the duration of the war."
By 1918, for mutual protection, British and German pilots fought in squadrons or even larger formations, while the French aces still preferred to hunt alone.
"They viewed aerial combat as very much of an individual thing -- a test of your valor," he said. "And since the Germans invaded France, really occupied a good part of the northeastern section, they were trying to drive the Germans out. It made them very aggressive in aerial combat."
Fiercely independent, the French fighter pilots were daredevils of the Western Front by day and the "darlings" of Paris society by night, Morrow said. It wasn't unusual for a free-wheeling French flyer to drive to Paris for the evening following a day of dogfights.
Georges Guynemer, a top French ace, epitomized French valor. At age 18 and with political pull from his father, Guyenmer enlisted in the newly formed air service. Although weakened by tuberculosis, he developed great skill as a pilot. Too exhausted to go on fighting, he refused to be grounded and eventually was killed in combat.
"He was too frail to be in the army. His father had to get him special dispensation to be in the air service as a mechanic," Morrow said. "He then went on to fly and became one of France's greatest aces."
For the British and Germans, aerial combat was more a team effort, but they still approached their teams with very different cultural attitudes, he said. For the British it was much like a sport. But for the Germans, squadrons were a matter of military practice.
Many of the early British aviators were "amateur" soldiers inducted into the service as "private school youth," Morrow said.
"These youth were out far more for the adventure and the fun, as they put it," he said. "They had often been raised on team sports in school and a lot of them made an analogy between aerial combat and a game of rugby."
In spite of their school-boy outlook and the "we're sorry to kill the fellows" attitude, the British "tended to be a lot more aggressive in the air when they started flying," he said. "They wanted to go out and fight somebody and they wanted to arm their aircraft.
"The British fliers were not necessarily trained in the military and they didn't particularly relish just observing or looking down at the lines," Morrow said. "They wanted some action themselves and they created it in the air."
As the war continued, Britain recruited more aviators of lower and working classes who brought a change of attitude, he said. They saw war not as a sport, but as a serious endeavor. They hated the Germans and they were out to kill them.
German aviators were usually drawn from professional military ranks.
"The German pilots were often trained military men who had been raised in the army, had gone to cadet schools and had come from other branches into aviation," Morrow said. "They viewed aviation very much as a business and took it very seriously. When given a job they did it as assigned."
For example, early in the war, Germans used aviation basically to observe where the lines were drawn in trench warfare. The only way to see what the other side was doing was to fly over and look with the naked eye or take pictures.
"If the Germans had a job that called for them to observe the other side of the front, they went, they did it and they came home," Morrow said.
Occasionally, national preferences were reflected in the aircraft types.
"French designers generally preferred to design small fighters," Morrow said. "Some officers complained 'We can't get most manufacturers to design bigger and heavier planes. They don't want to build bombers.' Those designers preferred fighters because they felt they were more compatible with French character, although a very few, like Voisin and Farman, built larger airplanes.
"The Germans were associated with air ships and dirigibles, which were huge and didn't work well in the war," he said. "They were very slow and very visible and easily shot down, as the Germans discovered the hard way. But the Germans, limited in their choice of engines to six-cylinder, in-line types, excelled at developing aircraft technology and were the first to develop the all-metal airplane."
Aces like Frenchman Georges Guyenmer, Irishman Edward Mannock, American Eddie Rickenbaker and German Baron von Richthofen, AKA the Red Baron, were household names, known for aggressive flying and courage. Dashing, young daredevils, they are remembered not only for skilled and brave feats but also for pioneering a new era of warfare.
Sometimes skill didn't always account for survival; fate or fortune also played a role, said Raymond A. Brooks, America's last living World War I ace, before his death last summer.
"If your engine gives out at 18,000 feet or your wing breaks off, you're out of luck and there's nothing you can do about it," the veteran told Morrow.
"I survived," he said. "And as far as I was concerned, it was luck, pure luck."