Were pilots in the most perilous position during WW1?

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1. The battle for the skies

At the outset of WW1 General Ferdinand Foch dismissed the role that aviation could play in the war. "The airplane is useless for the purposes of war." But by 1918 air warfare had played an integral role in helping to draw the Great War to a close. This feat was all the more astounding considering the very first powered flight in history was made just 15 years earlier in 1903 by the Wright brothers.

From mere curiosity to an essential component of warfare, the importance of the battle for air supremacy was underlined when the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), which was part of the army, merged with the Royal Naval Air Service to form the Royal Air Force on 1 April 1918. But the human cost of progress was massive. The mortality rate for pilots was desperately high as they struggled with technology that was still in its infancy. So just who was in the most perilous position during WW1 – men in the cockpit or men in the trenches?

2. Evolution of aircraft

Reconnaissance

Initially, planes and Zeppelins were used for reconnaissance purposes only. The wooden-framed aircraft were covered with Irish linen and equipping the light aircraft with heavy weaponry proved problematic.

Dogfighting

When dogfighting (aerial combat) first came to prominence pilots were merely shooting at each other with pistols but as planes became more robust they were fitted with heavier firepower like Lewis guns. As aircraft became more manoeuvrable pilots developed techniques for combat such as the Immelmann turn, a high-speed diving attack on an opposition aircraft and accordingly flying became a more perilous activity.

Bombers

At 11.30am on Wednesday 13 June 1917 20 German planes carried out the most destructive air raid of the war. It was the first air raid in broad daylight – many people went out onto the streets and waved to the skies believing the planes to be British. 72 bombs were dropped, killing 162 civilians. This foreshadowed the horrific bomber offensives of WW2.

The Ultimate Fighter:The Fokker D7

So advanced was its design that the terms of the Armistice dictated that every model of the Fokker D7 was confiscated. It defied the conventional wisdom of the era which suggested that very thin wings braced with cables were the optimum design for an airplane. The Fokker D7 had notably thicker wings without bracing and it proved to be the most effective aircraft of the war.

3. Necessity as the mother of invention

From reconnaissance with Zeppelins and balloons to all – out fighting machines that served as a pre-cursor to the comparatively sophisticated aircraft used in WW2, advances in technology during WW1 caused a continual shift in aerial superiority.

One such advancement was the interrupter gear that allowed German pilots to fire bullets through the arc of the spinning propeller without striking the blades for the very first time. It was first fitted to the German Eindecker Monoplane and it led to the Germans gaining a huge advantage in aerial dogfights for several months – a period that became known as the Fokker Scourge in Britain, during which time the average life expectancy for an Allied pilot amounted to just 17.5 hours of flying time.

4. Flying aces of World War One

At the beginning of the war pilots received little attention. Many were selected for duty simply because they owned planes privately prior to the outbreak of the war. This changed when the Germans realised that pilots could be used to help wage a PR war and so the era of airborne 'aces' was born. Those pilots with multiple enemy kills to their name became known as 'aces' and were held up as heroes of the war effort. The most successful of all was the German – Manfred von Richthofen who became known as the Red Baron. Like many aces, von Richthofen was ultimately killed in air combat.

Albert Ball was featured on a special commemorative edition of Royal Mail stamps.

Ball was one of six recipients of the Victoria Cross to be featured on a special commemorative edition of Royal Mail stamps marking the 150th anniversary of the award.

Billy Bishop

Bishop was ordered to return to flight training but before he could return he was shot down. The order to return to flight school was consequently rescinded and subsequently he flew highly successful ‘lone-wolf’ missions.

Edward 'Mick' Mannock

His bravado belied the increasing guilt he began to feel for taking so many lives and he became more eccentric as the war progressed as a result.

The Red Baron

When the Red Baron was shot down on 21 April 1918 a doctor pointed out that he was not fit enough to be flying as a previous skull wound injury had not closed over.

5. The particular perils pilots faced

Aviation was in its infancy so many of the perils pilots faced during World War One were unknown.

Martin Shaw takes to the skies in an Avro 504k.

Dodge Bailey, a retired RAF pilot with over 20 years’ experience of flying WW1 aircraft, explains why the life of a pilot was a particularly perilous one: "The lack of standardisation between types of aircraft was a major difficulty. At the beginning there were no specifications for airplanes which usually meant that there was a lot less stability. The level of training was also a problem. To put it into context: It would be like taking someone up to their fourth driving lesson and putting them into a Formula One car and saying ‘Off you go!’ – they’re going to go off at the first corner."

6. Bravery and Bravado

The real effects of flying a plane during WW1

While there was a belief that pilots were 'posh' and were treated to a lifestyle that troops in the trenches could only dream of, the reality of life in the RFC and latterly the Royal Air Force was very different. "It was usually a comfortable life compared with any other fighting branch – if you have survived," says Derek Robinson, an author who has written extensively about the life of World War One pilots. The appalling statistics show that far more men were killed in training than they were in combat. Often the first flight you took was often your last flight. Quite simply, you were liable to crash the plane."

'Brawling in the back alley of a bar'

Derek Robinson tried to dispel the myth that air warfare was chivalrous and romantic in 'Goshawk Squadron' which was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1971. "All of the conventional and popular thought about the Royal Flying Corps was totally mistaken," he says. "The truth about air combat was that it was no different from brawling in the back alley of a bar late at night. There is no difference between getting shot in the back at 18,000 feet or getting shot in the trenches."

Bank of courage

While pilots were lauded for their bravery and derring-do attitude many of them struggled with the dangers they faced on a daily basis. "Every man has a bank account of courage and it gets spent and it expires," he says. "There were occasions that it was quite clear to other members of the squadron that a man had reached the end of his tether. You could see from his mannerisms he had been broken. Nightmares were not uncommon – usually about burning aircraft – the worst way to die for a pilot."

7. Which was safest - the air or the trenches?

In 1915 the average life expectancy for an Allied pilot was just 11 days but nearly nine out of 10 British troops survived the trenches. Which was safest?

The life of a pilot

The perilous position of pilots

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High fatality rate

14,000 Allied pilots perished during the war and over half of those fatalities occurred in training.

In the trenches

The threat of the trenches

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The walking wounded

Although nine out of 10 soldiers survived the trenches more men were killed in one week of trench warfare than pilots were lost over the duration of the war.