PTT, Dave Unwin
War may be hell but it certainly accelerated aircraft development
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