PTT, Dave Un­win

War may be hell but it cer­tainly ac­cel­er­ated air­craft de­vel­op­ment

Pilot - - CONTENTS - Dave Un­win Pi­lot’s Flight Test Ed­i­tor op­er­ates a Jodel D.9 from a farm strip and has logged stick-time on ev­ery­thing from ul­tra­lights to fast jets

The re­cent armistice cen­te­nary cel­e­bra­tions caused me to ru­mi­nate upon one of the great­est para­doxes of the grotesque com­edy that is war: it is in­cred­i­bly ef­fi­cient at ex­pe­dit­ing tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances that ben­e­fit mankind.

In Au­gust 1914 as Bri­tain’s nascent Royal Fly­ing Corps and its nau­ti­cal coun­ter­part the Royal Naval Air Ser­vice pre­pared for its first ma­jor con­flict it num­bered only 276 of­fi­cers, 1,797 other ranks and pos­sessed only about 150 of the flim­si­est of fly­ing ma­chines. These crude aero­nau­ti­cal con­trap­tions (aero­plane is pos­si­bly too strong a word) were barely ca­pa­ble of sus­tained flight, let alone car­ry­ing bombs, guns, cam­eras or ra­dios! Yet barely four years later the RFC and RNAS had mor­phed into the world’s first in­de­pen­dent air force, and by the time the guns fell silent on 11 Novem­ber 1918 the RAF was a force to be reck­oned with. It con­sisted of around 27,000 of­fi­cers, al­most 267,000 other ranks and over 22,000 air­craft.

And what air­craft they were! Large, multi-en­gine bombers, pow­er­ful, wellarmed scouts, night-fight­ers, fly­ing­boats… In fact, and un­like most of the early fly­ing ma­chines, some of the air­craft op­er­ated by the RAF in 1918 would not have been be­yond the skill set of a 2018 PPL with a cou­ple of hun­dred hours and some Tiger Moth time. Take the SE5A, for ex­am­ple. I’ve only flown a 7/8th scale replica, which−al­though it has an al­most iden­ti­cal power-to-weight ra­tio and wing-load­ing as the gen­uine ar­ti­cle−isn’t quite the real deal. How­ever, my old mate Peter Hol­loway has. He used to fly the Shut­tle­worth Col­lec­tion’s SE5A, F904 and when we dis­cussed it re­cently opined that (while ad­mit­ting the fuel sys­tem, in par­tic­u­lar, has its foibles) the SE5A is recog­nis­able as an aero­plane, and when com­pared to some other ma­chines of the era is not that dif­fi­cult, just dif­fer­ent. It has a wa­ter-cooled V8 en­gine, ad­justable el­e­va­tor trim, con­trol­lable mix­ture, steer­able tail­skid and is es­sen­tially a prac­ti­cal ma­chine. If you look at an orig­i­nal Blériot XI it seems a world away from the SE5A, yet barely seven years sep­a­rate the two types’ first flights.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, with­out the im­per­a­tive of con­flict, ad­vances in aero­nau­ti­cal tech­nolo­gies slowed to a crawl be­tween the world wars, and ar­chaic con­trap­tions such as the Vick­ers Vir­ginia and Han­d­ley-page HP42 were− in­cred­i­bly−still in ser­vice when World War II started. How­ever, if World War I re­sulted in great strides then World War II pro­duced gi­ant leaps. The Gloster Glad­i­a­tor was still in front­line ser­vice with the RAF in 1940, and just four years later the same com­pany’s Me­teor be­came op­er­a­tional with 616 squadron, and the dif­fer­ence be­tween these two types is noth­ing less than stag­ger­ing. One was a ra­dial-en­gine bi­plane armed with ri­fle-cal­i­bre ma­chine-guns with a top speed of 220 knots, while the other was jet-pro­pelled and car­ried four 20mm can­non at al­most dou­ble the speed. Ad­vances in just about ev­ery other as­pect of avi­a­tion, from pres­suri­sa­tion or radar, to elec­tronic nav­i­ga­tion and vari­able-pitch pro­pel­lers, were driven at al­most ex­po­nen­tial rates by the ex­i­gen­cies of war.

Of course, and as is of­ten the case−the killing and dy­ing were mostly done by men who weren’t ter­ri­bly keen on ei­ther killing or dy­ing, but just wanted to fly. In his poem ‘An Irish Air­man Fore­sees His Death’ (writ­ten about his friend, the WWI ace Ma­jor Robert Gre­gory, MC) W B Yeats wrote in his fa­mous so­lil­o­quy ‘I know that I shall meet my fate, some­where among the clouds above; those that I fight I do not hate, those that I guard I do not love’. In the sec­ond stanza Yeats con­tin­ued with ‘nor law, nor duty made me fight, nor pub­lic men nor cheer­ing crowds, a lonely im­pulse of de­light, drove to this tu­mult in the clouds’. You see, Gre­gory was an Ir­ish­man from County Gal­way, who died fight­ing for Bri­tain while other Ir­ish­men were fight­ing against Bri­tain to cre­ate an in­de­pen­dent Ire­land. So, did he want to fight, or just fly? Like many Pi­lot read­ers, I’ve read quite a few au­to­bi­ogra­phies of fa­mous fighter pi­lots, and (with a few ex­cep­tions) most were aim­ing at the en­emy air­craft when they fired their guns, and not at the man or men within it. In­deed, when Arthur RhysDavids was told that the Fokker Tri­plane he had shot down the pre­vi­ous day was flown by the Ger­man ace Werner Voss he replied, “if only I could have brought him down alive!”

James Mc­cud­den, VC, Rhys-davids’ CO who also en­gaged the Tri­plane, later wrote that “as long as I live I shall never for­get my ad­mi­ra­tion for that Ger­man pi­lot, who sin­gle-handed fought seven of us for ten min­utes, and also put some bul­lets through all of our ma­chines. His fly­ing was won­der­ful, his courage mag­nif­i­cent, and in my opin­ion he is the bravest Ger­man air­man whom it has been my priv­i­lege to see fight.”

De­spite the ab­ject hor­rors of war, I think that air­men of all sides ap­pre­ci­ated that they could at least rise above the trenches into a sky that was un­tainted by mud and blood, so per­haps the last words should go to Bob Cole, a Tem­pest V pi­lot based at Volkel in Hol­land dur­ing 1944. Upon hear­ing that the Ger­man ace Wal­ter Nowotny (who was greatly re­spected by the Al­lies) had been killed in his Me262 Cole said that “who­ever first dared paint mark­ings on a plane’s wing was a swine!”

a Blériot XI seems a world away from an SE5A

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.