World War One
A personal essay about aviation in WWI, by someone who was there. From the Portland Writers website.
During World War One, the role of airplanes and how they were used changed greatly. At first planes were only used for sport, but people started realizing that not only could airplanes be useful but they could even influence an outcome of the war greatly. Soon the war was filled with blimps, planes, and tethered balloons. By the end of the war, planes became a symbol of fear, but they were not always treated with such respect.
In the time leading up to the war, the general feeling about planes was, they were a sneaky, unfair tactic that should not be used in warfare. During The 1899 Hague Peace Conference it was put on record that the dropping or shooting of any projectiles or explosives from the air during a time of war was forbidden and was considered a crime of war. It could only be used for inspection or spying missions.
I would always say, "The airplane may be all very well for sport, but for the army it is useless". This is because even by the beginning of the war in 1912, the use of planes in war was still prohibited by the War Office. Shortly thereafter this changed, as people awakened to the possibilities of air warfare.
The world soon started to realize the effectiveness of planes in war and how the control of the skies could influence the outcome. Although the French were the first to have a working, powerful air force and to license fliers, their trust in airplanes still was not up to par. Their lack of trust was justified, for the planes had no weapons, too many wires, and no reliable motor.
Soon all countries in the war effort had their own little air force, built hangers, and started to train pilots. The first bombing occurred in November 1911. Although the Italians dropped the first bomb, soon all countries were involved in bombing raids. It was followed by the first aerial dogfight in 1912. This consisted of a primitive exchange of pistol fire between British and German planes.
The first flying experience for the United States occurred in 1862, during the Civil War. General McClellan went into battle against the South with a balloon corps floated by hydrogen and pulled by four horses.
Literary fiction started to breed ideas about the use of planes in warfare. The most famous writer to explore the idea was H.G. Wells. He wrote The War In The Air, a book about the future in which battle is conducted with planes.
In Germany, literary fiction preceded the actual development of warfare in the air. Rudolph Martin was a writer who predicted that the German's future was not on the sea, but in the air. He also believed that further development in aviation would kill the importance of distance and help to lead toward the German unification of the world. Martin's novel helped to prepare the Germans for their use of planes in the war. The fiction soon became scientific fact.
The United States ultimately was slower than France and Germany to develop an air force. On March 3, 1911, Congress appropriated $125,000 to start an air force, which consisted of five planes. The Americans organized the first squadron on March 5, 1913, in Texas City. It consisted of nine planes. Although the United States entered the war in 1917, it did not use planes in the war at that time. U.S. pilots had little or no experience in "cross-country navigation." They did not have good maps and sometimes they became lost, ran out of fuel and then crashed.
That is just a little bit of the history that happened while I was in my twenties. I was one of the pilots that first got to fly the nine planes that the U.S. owned. I never actually went into battle, but I was happy enough to just be accepted. I vividly remember my best friend; his name was Roger Flatts. I remember when we first went up in the air. It was incredible. We came back down and the first thing out of Roger's mouth was, "Oh man! I cant wait to go back up." I thought to myself for a little bit and was in a daze on how they could think up the idea of using planes in the war. It was ingenious.
Roger went back up into the air about three days later. He came back down, but not in the right fashion. His plane started to spiral towards the ground. Within the next minute, he hit the ground in one of the biggest explosions yet. We had a funeral for him the day after he died. I was one of the speakers at the funeral. Here is what I said: Roger was one of the most loyal people that I have ever met. He was always there for me in the bad times and the good. He was my flying partner and best friend. He was the best pilot the Army has ever seen and most likely will ever see for decades to come. I just want him to stay in the hearts of the people of America. He was and will always be my best friend.
After his death I was mourning for a while. I was sort of scared to go back into the air right away. Roger's wife, Susan, came up to me and said, "You are now the best pilot the Army has, so don't be afraid go up there and fly the plane for America and most importantly Roger." I turned to her and gave her a hug and said, "Don't you worry about me I will do my best to serve Roger and do what I know he would do in each situation he got put in." I also told her, " If you ever need anything or just anyone to talk to just let me know." She said, "Thanks," and walked away.
I know I told Susan that I would go back up there and wouldn't be afraid. I went back up there without any questions, but I was still very afraid. I didn't know what was going to happen. I didn't know if I was going to crash like the best of them, Roger. So I was a bit hesitant. I knew if I didn't go back up there I would not only be letting down myself, but I would be letting all of America down too. I flew planes for about 13 years. At the end of my career they let me go because my sight was failing. I didn't have the sharp eyesight that was required by the Army.
I am glad that I have the chance to tell you a little bit about my past. I am proud of myself for conquering my fears. I know you will do the same in the years to come.
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