Sunday, 4 December 2011

Terror Of The Autumn Skies - The True Story of Frank Luke, America's Rogue Ace of World War I

Terror Of The Autumn Skies by Blaine Pardoe

The True Story of Frank Luke, America's Rogue Ace of World War I

" ..Lieutenant Frank Luke,Jr., was not just one of the four Army Air Service aviators to win the Congressional Medal of Honor. He was the first pilot to receive that honor. He received the Medal of Honor decades before the more widely known Captain Eddie Rickenbacker. Most people who know any American First World War pilots know one name: Eddie Rickenbacker, the top ranking American ace of the war. His was the name that history chose to etch in our collective consciousness as the pilot worthy of our memories. Rickenbacker knew Frank Luke personally. “Had he lived he would have put me out of business long ago as America’s leading ace. I wouldn’t have had a show against him.” Rickenbacker is remembered as America’s “Ace of Aces”. But there were a few days in the early autumn of 1918 when Frank Luke held that title. That September, Eddie Rickenbacker was number two to a young stallion, a maverick pilot who captivated a nation—if only for a few days. Rickenbacker merely inherited the title from Frank..."

Chapter One   " First Blood August 16, 1918

“Am waiting now to be sent to the front and am very anxious, for I feel that I am better than the average German and as good as the best.”   Frank Luke July 1918

Near Coincy, France

The pilots flying into battle that day hated their new airplanes. Almost universally, they held the same flat opinion: “The thing flies like a bloody brick.”

The American 27th Aero Squadron (the Eagles, or Fighting Eagles as they were most commonly known) had recently received their new Spad XIII C.1s. The Spad XIII aircraft were temperamental and hard to maintain. These fussy planes would present new challenges and dangers during the combat patrol on the morning of August 16, 1918.

Major Harold Hartney took up fifteen of the new Spads with him in an escort mission. A dozen or so were with the 27th Squadron, the rest were from the 94th Squadron. They were to provide cover for a photographic mission over the trench lines led by the 88th Squadron and Major Kenneth Littauer. It was supposed to be a simple mission, and after take-off the Major led his squadron in almost perfect formation. For the new replacement pilots, it was a chance to gain valuable flight experience.

Four years of war had mauled the once lush green French landscape. There were still patches of green, grass that had not been blasted or burned, leaves that still clung to their trees; but these were exceptions from the air. The ground was mostly brown and black, the sod and mud of the war had ripped it up and turned France into a vision of hell. The trench lines of the Germans and the Allies ran parallel to each other like jagged scars across the burned and churned landscape. The space between the trench-lines was a deadly jumble of shell holes and barbed wire and death known as No-Man’s Land. Smoke clung to the ground, smoke often mixed with the horrors of chemical gas shells. From the air, pilots could see the lands beyond the front. They could see what France had been before the war.

The afternoon of August 16 was clear, only a few clouds in the sky. The sun would have been welcomed, though once the aircraft got into the air, it would provide no warmth for them. It was perfect flying weather.

The universe of Spad XIII pilots was not the glorious one that is often associated with World War I aviators. The twin Vickers machine guns were mounted in front of the cockpit, in a narrow space between the top of the engine cowling and the bottom of the upper wing. It was a space only one foot by three feet to see though, shoot through, and live and die by. The freezing windtunnel was only protected by a tiny windshield and a menacing gun sight in their field of vision. Further out in front of the pilot was a nasty engine that belched choking smoke and Castor oil as it ran. Each breach they drew was ice cold air laced with smoke. It seared at their lungs and stung at any exposed portion of their flesh. The noise was loud enough to rise above the rush of the wind and the padding over the ears that they wore.

The pilot sat with only some thin wood and doped fabric between him and a potentially deadly bullet. To the sides of the pilot, there was nothing substantial—a thin layer of doped canvas. Dope was a varnish-like covering painted onto the canvas to make it more rigid and durable. He had a similar level of protection at his feet, and he sat on a thin seat of light brown leather stretched over a piece of plywood.5 Pilots wore a lot of clothing, as the open cockpit made flight over a few thousand feet a bone-chilling experience. Fur lined goggles and a leather flying cap encased their heads, but that was not enough to keep anyone warm, not at 21,000 feet. The trademark scarves that most pilots wore were not just for the warmth, but to keep the light spray of Castor oil out of their mouths. While often times the lives of pilots were portrayed as glorious compared to the infantry, the truth was that if they took in even a small amount of oil they would be confined to their latrines. Pilot’s gloves were really massive mittens, usually lined with fur or wool. The only part that was open was for the index finger, to allow the pilot to hit the gun trigger.

Parachutes had been around for years, but were reserved for members of the Signal Corps, who sat under observation balloons. Some pilots experimented with parachutes, but the thought was that they were not suitable for American pilots. The Germans provided their pilots with this “luxury” for survival, but the Americans did not. If your Spad was hit and forced down, you had no choice but to ride it all the way to the shellscarred, trench-torn ground. If you were lucky, you might be able to guide what was left of your aircraft to make some sort of landing. If not, you would most likely flip over, or pancake, on the ground and be crushed in your cockpit.

Flying the temperamental new Spad XIIIs was not simply a matter of working the throttle, rudder pedals, and the flight control stick. Just keeping the aircraft in the air required constant concentration and was complicated even by today’s standards. You had to watch your oil pressure, making sure that it stayed near the midline of 150 grams. A pilot had to monitor the temperature of the engine and try to maintain it at around 70°C. When you were performing combat maneuvers it was important to keep the engine above 500 RPM. Pilots had to make sure that near the end of a long flight they turned on their Nourrice fuel tank. If you dove vertically, you had to close the choke. There was a sediment cup on the fuel line that had to be cleaned prior to a mission or your line could clog and kill your engine mid-air. Managing and maintaining the Spad was summed up best by Major Hartney’s number one tip for “General Maintenance of the Plane: Live with your machine as much as possible.”

There was no armored protection whatsoever, not in this era. The standard .303 bullet fired at a cockpit had little to impede its trajectory other than the pilot himself. The cockpit controls were laid out in a semicircle and were more basic than a modern automobile’s. Foot-pedals, a throttle, and a stick completed the controls. It was an icy world of chunks of wood, a handful of bolts, wire, flammable gasoline, hot oil, dope-painted canvas, and prayer.

Besides bullets from enemy planes, pilots had to contend with fire from anti-aircraft cannons (known as “Archie”), which was inaccurate but still deadly. Shrapnel could shred a fighter or the pilot. Machine guns on the ground, if you wandered too close, could pop through the tight canvas and mangle an engine or pilot. The aircraft themselves sometimes fell apart or were shaken apart from damage. Dive or bank too steeply and pull up, and the wing canvas could rip free from the wood framing and send you to your death.

The life expectancy of a new pilot in 1918 was less than three weeks..."

Copyright © 2008 by Blaine L. Pardoe

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