Robert Smith-Barry: The man who taught the world to fly

Top, Major Robert Smith-Barry, Albert Ball, James McCudden - Bottom row,  Manfred von Richthofen, WWI aircraft, Upavon, Wiltshire Robert Smith-Barry's methods helped WWI fighter pilots like Albert Ball and James McCudden take on German aces such as the Red Baron

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As the RAF's Central Flying School celebrates its centenary year, BBC News looks back at the career of the daring and inspirational war veteran who became its icon.

"They've only seven hours flying, sir - and it's bloody murder."

It was the summer of 1916 - the early days of the Battle of the Somme - and squadron leader Maj Robert Smith-Barry was venting his frustration at the commander of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), in France.

Although considered a brilliant pilot himself, Smith-Barry was deeply concerned about some of the British recruits being pitched against highly trained German fighter squadrons.

"They have barely learned to fly, let alone fight," he told Maj Gen Hugh Trenchard.

At one point during the ensuing battle, he refused point blank to send replacement pilots over the front line until they had more experience.

For Smith-Barry, the dream of powered flight, pioneered by the Wright Brothers in 1903, had turned into a nightmare of bloodshed.

British SE-5s locked in aerial combat with German Fokker D7s, circa 1915

Start Quote

There was no romance about this - the best way to kill someone was a bullet through the back of the head before they even knew you were coming. They would dive out of the clouds - they would come out of the sun - they would always try to surprise you ”

End Quote Peter Hart Imperial War Museum

During the four-and-a-half months of the infamous battle, the corps lost 499 airmen and 782 aeroplanes - a third of its total force.

But it would not be until later that the 30-year-old would get chance to do something about it - and in the process revolutionise the way military pilots are trained.

'Easy pickings'

Smith-Barry earned his wings on the first course held at the Central Flying School (CFS), in Upavon, Wiltshire, in 1912.

The school exists to this day - although it is now based at RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire - and over the decades has cemented its reputation as a global centre for flight instruction.

All new pilots from the RAF, Royal Navy and British army are trained by CFS-accredited instructors.

Princes William and Harry are two notable recruits to benefit from a system which, according to the RAF, is "revered around the world".

But in 1912, the school - and British flight training generally - still had a long way to go.

According to Darren Arch, the current CFS wing commander, Allied pilots were not taught to fly an aircraft to its limits or recover from "difficult situations".

"As a result, they flew well within the capabilities of the aircraft and themselves," he said. "They became easy pickings for the opposition pilots."

Smith-Barry, on the other hand, loved delighting - and frightening - onlookers with incredible aerial antics, and he soon earned a reputation as a pilot who was not afraid to push a plane to its limits.

'Shot about by Fokkers'

During one early training flight, he pulled into a steep climb immediately after taking off.

"You mustn't do that kind of thing," his instructor said. He is reported to have responded with only a quizzical look.

German fighter pilot Hermann Goering in the cockpit of a Fokker DR1, circa 1916 British pilots faced German aces like Hermann Goering - who went on to lead the Luftwaffe in WWII

Smith-Barry first saw action in France in 1914, before a crash which killed his observer and left him in hospital.

He returned in April 1916 and was put in charge of the corps' 60 Squadron after the death of his commanding officer, Maj Francis "Ferdie" Waldron, during the Battle of the Somme.

He and Waldron had been on a mission to protect bombers en route to St Quentin in northern France when they were attacked.

Waldron was shot down while Smith-Barry managed to escape and land his Morane Bullet safely, despite being "shot about" by two Fokkers.

He survived only because his aircraft deflected a bullet heading straight for his back.

Bloody encounters like these gave him an acute awareness of the perils of aerial warfare - and the need to be adequately prepared.

He formed the view that only a new approach to flight training would produce the kind of British pilot capable of handling German aces such as Manfred von Richthofen - the Red Baron.

Officers attending the first course at the newly established Central Flying School in 1912 - Hugh Trenchard, pictured centre row, far right - Robert Smith-Barry, centre row, fourth from the left, Robert Smith-Barry (centre row, fourth from left) attended the first course held at the Central Flying School in 1912
The Red Baron's 'Flying Circus', January 1917 He soon realised pilots needed to be better trained if they were to stand a chance against Germans fighters
Dutch engineer Anthony Fokker , centre, poses with German flying aces Hermann Goering, right, and Bruno Loerzer during World War I Dutch engineer Anthony Fokker (centre) gave the Germans an early advantage in aircraft technology

As the Battle of the Somme progressed, Smith-Barry continued to push for changes to be made and, three days before its conclusion in November, he wrote a paper outlining his suggestions.

Gen Trenchard read Smith-Barry's proposals, and agreed to let him try out "these ideas you've been pestering me with".

Sharp turns

Posted back to England, he took command of 1 (Reserve) Squadron at Gosport, where he set about putting his revolutionary training methods into practice.

These included teaching sharp turns, spinning and recovery, and crosswind take-off and landings.

Flight training

James McCudden

Start Quote

At this time [1917] pilots were receiving very good training indeed, and were quite competent to go on their first flight with a good chance of shooting down an opponent”

End Quote Capt James McCudden Five Years in the Royal Flying Corps

He wrote: "If the pupil considers this dangerous, let him find some other employment as, whatever risks I ask him to run here, he will have to run a hundred times when he gets to France."

He insisted that as far as possible advanced pupils be allow to fly exactly as they chose - "their experiments limited only by the state of their own nerve".

Pupils sat in the front cockpit of an Avro 504 biplane equipped with a full set of dual controls, while an instructor sat behind communicating instructions through a specially designed device called the Gosport Tube.

Smith-Barry's regime was an almost immediate success. The pilots were trained so quickly, and to such a high standard, that his methods were soon adopted by the RFC.

In August 1917, 1 (Reserve) Squadron became the School of Special Flying - a unit to teach instructors.

'The art of flying'

Two months later, 500 copies of Smith-Barry's General Methods of Teaching Scout Pilots were published by the War Office.

And the following year, the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service were amalgamated to form the Royal Air Force.

Gen Trenchard, who would later become the first marshal of the Royal Air Force and be described as the "Father of the RAF", was among the first to recognise the impact of Smith-Barry's accomplishments.

He was, Trenchard said, the man who "taught the air forces of the world how to fly".

Training at RAF Cranwell Prince William was taught to fly by CFS instructors at RAF Cranwell

Ever since, Smith-Barry's methods have remained at the core of the Central Flying School's teachings.

And British pilots are no longer the only ones to benefit.

The centre at Cranwell now exclusively trains military flight instructors, who come from countries including India and Kenya, to study "pure flying and flying instruction".

But it was the founding in 1965 of a daredevil aerobatic team that seems most in keeping with the spirit of Robert Smith-Barry.

Established as a CFS unit at RAF Fairford in Glouces­tershire, the Red Arrows took their name from two previous teams - the Black Arrows and the Red Pelicans.

Red Arrows pilots have flown more than 4,000 displays in 52 countries, and are arguably the embodiment of Smith-Barry's vision of excellence through daring.

Wing Cdr Darren Arch said: "He [Smith-Barry] felt that in order for someone to master the art of flying, they had to operate the aircraft to its limits

"So, fly a spin, lose control of the aircraft, and regain control. It was only when you could master that you could truly master the art of flying.

"It's those skills and that foresight that we still use today."

Acknowledgements: RAF Museum, Imperial War Museum, Pioneer Pilot, F.D Tredrey, RAF Cranwell.

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