A ca­su­alty of war

Flying - - CONTENTS - By Peter Gar­ri­son

In May 2016, I met a woman named Su­san Mozena. When she learned that I fly, she told me her father, Charles d’Olive, had been an ace with five vic­to­ries in World War I.

My first thought was that my friend Javier Arango would have got­ten a kick out of my hav­ing had a close en­counter with some gen­uine Great War DNA. But that could not be. A month ear­lier, Javier him­self had be­come, so to speak, a de­layed ca­su­alty of that war when the Nieu­port 28 he was fly­ing crashed for un­known rea­sons, killing him.

Javier owned a mag­nif­i­cent col­lec­tion of World War I planes. Most of them were ex­tremely ac­cu­rate re­pro­duc­tions, a few orig­i­nal. They resided be­side the grass airstrip on his ranch in cen­tral Cal­i­for­nia in a row of an­ti­sep­ti­cally clean hangars lib­er­ally sup­plied with mouse­traps. Mice, it seems, like to eat old air­planes.

The air­planes them­selves were beau­ti­fully made, and spot­less. Once, when we were talk­ing about var­i­ous air­plane col­lec­tions, Javier de­scribed what he called the Pla­tonic fal­lacy, which is the idea that the thing most faith­ful to the orig­i­nal is an un­blem­ished re­pro­duc­tion. In fact, he said, the true orig­i­nal would have been dirty and some­what slap­dash in man­u­fac­ture be­cause, like its pi­lot, it would not have been ex­pected to last more than a few weeks in com­bat.

Nev­er­the­less, Javier’s air­planes were, in fact, pol­ished and per­fect. Nearly all were in fly­ing con­di­tion. Most had cen­tury-old ro­tary en­gines, which are weird be­cause the en­tire engine spins with the pro­pel­ler. They emit a steady mist of cas­tor oil, whose lax­a­tive ef­fect gave rise to some funny, and prob­a­bly false, wartime sto­ries. As soon as one of Javier’s air­planes landed, with oil stream­ing down its belly, a his­tor­i­cally in­cor­rect swarm of helpers armed with polishing cloths sprang into ac­tion and re­stored it to its Pla­tonic state.

World War I was a pe­riod of very rapid evo­lu­tion in air­plane build­ing. I say “air­plane build­ing” rather than “air­plane de­sign” be­cause aero­nau­ti­cal en­gi­neer­ing was not yet a pro­fes­sion, and the Tony Fokkers and Tom Sop­withs of the world, though they man­u­fac­tured thou­sands of air­planes, were re­ally back­yard hob­by­ists, writ large. The pure sci­ences of fluid me­chan­ics and aero­dy­nam­ics de­vel­oped along a sep­a­rate track, and un­til the 1920s they had lit­tle or no in­flu­ence on the cre­ation of fly­ing ma­chines. And I say “evo­lu­tion” be­cause sur­vival of the fittest was cer­tainly in play when each side’s air­planes, how­ever toy­like they looked, were hunt­ing one an­other through the skies with ma­chine guns.

You can get some feel for the break­neck speed of de­vel­op­ment dur­ing the war from the fact that the Wrights first flew in 1903, and then qui­etly im­proved their ma­chines and their fly­ing skills for sev­eral years be­fore tak­ing a Flyer to France in 1908. The Euro­pean ex­per­i­menters were still mak­ing baby steps then; the Wrights’ mas­tery of flight amazed and in­spired them. Only six years later, the war be­gan. At first, its aerial com­po­nent con­sisted of a few devil-may-care sports­men tak­ing pot­shots at one an­other with pis­tols. One thing led to an­other, and by the time the war ended in 1918, most of the tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances that would oc­cur be­tween then and 1940 had al­ready been sketched out.

How this progress was achieved in­trigued and fas­ci­nated Javier, who had ma­jored in the his­tory of sci­ence at Har­vard. The wartime builders — Javier’s prin­ci­pal in­ter­ests were Sop­with, Nieu­port and Fokker — left no record of the al­ter­na­tives they con­sid­ered, or the rea­sons for their choices, or the mis­takes they made. We don’t know un­der what as­sump­tions, true or false, they op­er­ated, or what ef­fects they ex­pected their in­no­va­tions to have. Javier hoped that by build­ing and fly­ing the air­planes and com­par­ing his ob­ser­va­tions with con­tem­po­rary records he could gain in­sight into how they de­vel­oped.

A mu­tual friend in­tro­duced me and Javier in 2006, and we soon set out to sup­ple­ment his sub­jec­tive ex­pe­ri­ences by in-flight mea­sure­ments. It used to take a whole cabin full of gy­ro­scopes and ac­celerom­e­ters and record­ing

equip­ment to doc­u­ment an air­plane’s be­hav­ior, but to­day, tiny solid-state equip­ment does the same thing within a cube 2 inches on a side. That was lucky, be­cause these air­planes’ cock­pits barely ac­com­mo­dated a pi­lot, let alone any­thing else.

Un­for­tu­nately, Javier had a day job, and the project moved slowly. We did suc­ceed in in­stru­ment­ing and test­ing a Sop­with Camel, which was the premier fighter of the war on the Al­lied side. The Camel was no­to­ri­ous for the al­leged ef­fects on its be­hav­ior of the ro­tary engine, which was like a gi­gan­tic gy­ro­scope at­tached to the nose of the air­plane. If you wanted to go one way, the gy­ro­scope pulled you in an­other. The Camel’s quirks gave rise to var­i­ous ca­nards, one of which was that it could more eas­ily turn 270 de­grees to the right than 90 to the left. This was like say­ing you could get from New York to Paris faster by way of Tokyo than Lon­don, but it was a suf­fi­ciently durable myth to have found its way into Wikipedia.

Our con­clu­sion, which was not novel, was that the Camel did in­deed have quirks, and that pi­lots adapted to them and, in fact, learned to put them to use in com­bat. What was novel was that we were able to as­sign num­bers to pitch and roll rates and ac­cel­er­a­tions, speeds, rates of climb and glide, and so on, and to as­sess the real mag­ni­tudes of the ef­fects of that in­fa­mous nasal gy­ro­scope. We at­tempted to pub­li­cize our find­ings in my pop­u­lar ar­ti­cles and Javier’s schol­arly pa­pers and lec­tures, but we prob­a­bly pro­duced the most last­ing im­pact upon hu­man knowl­edge by the sim­ple ex­pe­di­ent of go­ing on­line and edit­ing the Wikipedia ar­ti­cle.

Our next sub­ject was to be the Fokker Tri­plane, the Camel’s leg­endary an­tag­o­nist. Those find­ings could have set­tled once and for all the ques­tions about Snoopy and the Red Baron that have long tor­mented read­ers of Peanuts.

In 55 years of fly­ing, I have lost a num­ber of friends to this safe­ty­ob­sessed pas­time. With Javier, I lost not only a ge­nial and gen­er­ous friend, but what sur­rounded him: the old air­planes, their sounds and smells, the way they looked in the air and the way it felt to wrig­gle into one of their tiny cock­pits and imag­ine my­self about to de­part on a dawn pa­trol over France, hop­ing no one would no­tice that I was scared to death.

On the calm morn­ings when the air­planes were rolled out to be flown un­der the morn­ing sun, I re­mem­ber the mix of bird­song and the chat­ter of ra­dial en­gines, the sweet coun­try air and the sight of an old bi­plane drop­ping in over the pole fence at the end of the run­way to land, like a bird, al­most at a walk. I re­mem­ber Javier’s grin, un­der his leather gog­gles and cap, as he climbed out. Those things will re­main with me. I hope to be re­mem­bered, when my own time comes, as fondly as I re­mem­ber Javier and the world that he brought with him.

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