This is a continuation of the career in Rise of Flight
I wrote up here
, and rather than make that one AAR a zillion pages, I figured I'd start a new one.
To summarize, Martin Miller fled the USA to escape arrest by stowing away on a troop transport due for France and, in a botched attempt to escape the port once they arrived, wound up impersonating a French aeroplane mechanic. Through a convoluted set of plot points, he became a Nieuport 17 pilot and was given a set of false papers in order to continue to fly.
Although he had amassed 18 victories in the air, his Escadrille had made a poor showing and they had been given more and more support missions behind the lines, which freed up more modern scouts to take the fight to the Germans. A New Cat For An Old Fox 30 August 1917
Dommartin les Toul Aerodrome
I was nervous.
The Escadrille senior enlisted was alternating between glaring at me and writing on a large sheet of paper, jabbing at it with his pencil as if attacking it at his desk in the foyer outside of the Commander's office, and the clerk was acting as if I were not there at all.
The Executive Officer had passed through from his office to the Commander's with a smirk and a bounce in his step, winking at me as he closed the door behind him.
Anything that made the Exec pleased enough to display a friendly gesture my way could not be good for me. He had once suggested I be hanged by the neck, after all. True enough that we had improved our interactions considerably - saving another's life tends to do that - but that was no hinderance to delighting in minor mischiefs.
"Martin," the Exec shouted through the door, "if you're still out there, come in here."
I entered without knocking. The Commander rebuked the XO for yelling for me, and asked that I sit down in a pleasant tone. While I had sufficient wariness when it came to the Exec, I had a like amount of respect for our Commander. Older by a third for those he commanded, he had a presence that calmed men in distressful excitement and excited men in depression.
"Please sit down," he said with a grin and a pleasant tone that suggested I was not in any sort of trouble, but his eyes were very serious. An unnerving quality; often his eyes held a completely different emotion than the rest of his face or his voice.
"The 84th Escadrille has been all but wiped out in the last two weeks," he said matter-of-factly, "including their commander and executive officer."
I said nothing. As much as it was terrible, we too had taken many casualties. Of the pilots I had started out with three months ago, only four of original twenty-eight were still with us!
"I am to take command of the 84th, and have been given the perogative of taking a couple pilots and a few crew with me. Who do you suppose that will be?"
"Rendell," I said immediately. He had been my flight leader from the start, and was very competent at getting us to the objectives and back home again. "Lafayette, when he is healed," I added, as although he was very young and impulsive, I liked him a great deal and knew he stood the best chance of survival with the Commander guiding and training him.
I took a deep breath. Either they had brought me in to tell me I was to go with them and were looking for me to volunteer, or they had brought me in to tell me I was to remain. My papers were only as good as Higher Command allowed them to be, and should I be left behind and given a less understanding Escadrille commander I might find myself in chains being sent back to Alabama. Well, maybe not that, as I was more than a triple Ace, but perhaps drummed out of the service or transferred to the Infantry.
"And me. I would like to go with you."
"That is very good, Sergeant Miller," he said flatly, "because you wouldn't have had a choice to stay."
I suppose I had been very tense and noticeably relaxed, as he began to grin.
"It is not to be so rosy," he continued with a serious tone (but those damned eyes were smiling), "as I am not promoting you at the wishes of your flight leader and the Exec. You will remain a Sergeant and continue to take up the last position in the flights."
I tried to appeared admonished, but didn't care in the least. I preferred the Last Man position, keeping an eye on our flanks and rear as I am terrible at formation flying and it gave me an excuse to fly more loosely.
"Rene will also be coming along, in order to keep up the ruse should a reporter or the Ami's come around the Escadrille."
Again, this was not bad news. Rene was my mechanic, and a great friend. When my actions in the air had gained attention of the press, we had Rene give the interviews and have his picture placed in the papers; when the Americans came around on the rumor that the Ace of the 87th was from Alabama, it was Rene who put them off of the trail.
"Who else is going along," I asked.
"Rendell, as you guessed," he admitted, "The Exec is coming, the Sergeant Major is not," which explained his terrible mood, "and I might have room for Lafayette, not that you mention him.
"The morale of the 84th is dismal from the reports," he added, "and the replacement Captain they sent resigned after three days, waiting only to finish six Courts Martial for disrespect and unruly conduct before taking a position leading a equestrian supply platoon."
"Oh," is all the wit I could muster.
"There is an upside, though. You'll find out what it is this afternoon. None of this has been announced, so I will ask you to keep it confidential. I do not plan to let the men know until my replacement arrives and we perform the change of command. Dismissed."
I left the office, walking back to the hanger and the quarters I had there. Rene was in great spirits, a bucket of dope in his his hand and whistling as I sat in a chair, contemplating the changes to come.
Rene began to carefully paint over the cartoon the commander had placed on my aeroplane's fuselage, erasing it in thin layers and blending the greyish white along the length of the machine.
Now, then, I had never liked the stupid cat drawing, but ugly or not it was my
stupid cat drawing, and I had not told Rene to remove it. Neither, I was sure, had the Commander. I had dressed him down two days before for altering the appearance of Number 17 with a red star on the upper wing (which he had
removed) without my consent, and here he was doing it again.
"Rene!" I yelled, "Stop that! What are you doing?"
"Martin," he smiled slyly, "You won't need this one when you go to the 84th."
I closed my eyes, taking a deep breath. So much for secrecy.
"What have you heard?" I asked.
"Enough," he admitted, "and we are going to have a great time in Reims! I know it from before the war, and am sure many of the people and places are the same."
"What do you mean I won't need my aeroplane in the 84th? Last I checked they were an Escadrille, not a truck company."
I spent the remainder of the day with Lafayette in the infirmary, playing cards and very pleased to see that he was recovering quickly from an infected bullet wound to his leg. I whispered the news to him, swearing him to secrecy, and it lifted his spirits even higher. We listened to the sound of aeroplanes taking off and land on the other side of the large hangers, ticking off the types. Dolphins, Nieuports, and even some SPAD XIII's; Touls was a beehive of activity, and our proximity to the village of Dommartin les Touls (and more importantly, its brothel) lent itself to visits from both British Squadrons and French Escadrilles.
The next morning the weather was much improved, the clouds having moved off to reveal sunshine and scattered clouds. Oddly, I was not included in the day's sorties; the Exec had me supervise the emplacement of an anti-aircraft emplacement, as if I would know if they were doing anything wrong. The machinegun certainly was pointing upward and there were sandbags around it, so I could find no fault in the installation.
In the afternoon the Commander walked up just as the work was completed.
"Martin, come with me, I have something to show you."
I followed, and as we came to the side of one of the hangars caught a glimpse of an aeroplane within:
A SPAD! I began to be both excited and worried. As much as I had heard and seen about their great speed and durability, I had only ever flown my Nieuport 17.
It look large even from the window!
I laughed out loud as we walked forward. Damn that Rene!
As we came to the front of the hanger, I frowned again. The SPAD had an inline motor with a radiator in the front; not only could it overheat or be damaged, I had only ever flown a flying machine with a rotary engine. It was also twice the horsepower of my little Nieuport.
And yet I had to admit it was a beautiful machine. Not much longer or wider than the Nieuport, it was a foot taller with much wider wings and two sets of braces. Everything was thicker and more substantial than my Nieuport; it would need double the engine just to get off the ground! It probably weighed 500 pounds more with all that wing, motor, and wood!
Rene had been warming the engine, and lept out at seeing us approach. Several mechanics trotted up and pushed it out into the sunshine.
"I want you to take it up after I familiarize you with the instruments," the Commander ordered, "and give me your impressions on the strengths and weaknesses."
"Certainly," I agreed. As much as I had a love affair with my Nieuport, I certainly wanted to fly this beast!
Putting on a flight coat, helmet and goggles (no need for full gear, as I was going to make a short trip at low altitudes), I was shocked at the modernity.
I had never understood the laments and accusations that the Nieuport 17 was "obsolete;" it had performed very well even for a poor pilot such as myself against the Hun! True enough, I had complained at the lack of a compass, but working out landmarks and paying attention to the map had made up for it. The tachometer was all the gauges a man really needed when it came down to it.
Sitting in the cockpit, however, the leap from one year's model to the next hit me like a sledge hammer!
A huge assortment of gauges lined themselves up around me.
On the left was an air pressure gauge for the fuel tank, a tachometer, a water temperature gauge, an oil pressure gauge, and on the floor a compass!
To the front, along with selector switches for magnetoes, fuel tanks, etc., was a clock, a slip and bank indicator (consisting of a ball in a curved tube of glass), and a fuel gauge on the floor!
To the left was an airspeed indicator and an gauge by which a man might know his altitude.
I tried to hide my shock at the huge assortment of information I would be given with a flip "what, no wireless radio?" but the Commander was all business.
"There is no 'blip switch,' Martin," he warned, "RPM's are controlled with the throttle. If you disengage the magnetoes in the air you may not get the engine to restart, or you might damage it.
"Likewise, the engine can break if you run it too high in a dive; throttle down if you point it at the ground."
I laughed, but his stare stopped me.
"Martin," he warned, "this aeroplane will not fall apart in a dive before the engine is damaged, like in your Nieuport. We will be taking it to the other side of the front, and if you ruin it and have to put down it will be in German territory."
With that he pushed off of the fuselage and made a sign for Rene to make ready for my takeoff. The engine roared into life and lept forward without any sway of the machine; I immediately missed that I would not feel the rocking of wings that blipping a rotary produces.
It took off cleanly, with the slightest of left rudder needed to keep it straight, and I leaned the engine slightly to produce a nice 2,000 RPM's.
I looked over and was shocked at the speed. It had to be broken - 200 Kilometers per hour would about 125 miles per hour - insane in my Nieuport, or at least impossible in anything but a dive!
I began a few maneuvers, and the strengths and troubles of the SPAD became immediately apparent.
I could indeed dive vertically at the ground, throttled down to avoid damaging the engine at great speed without damaging the aircraft. It climbed about the same when in a broad ascent, but not rapidly with the nose brought up quickly. It fell to the right when stalled, as expected, and did not try to spin. It is a most peculiar machine in that slipping to the right was simple and well behaved, but not to the left; I wound up in a rough right hand stall each time I attempted it. The rudder is not one piece that moves entirely like on the Nieuport, instead being attached vertically to a fin with hinges, which might explain the trouble.
Similarly, I found a barrel roll to the right very easy but the left difficult, even more difficult than in the rotary pull of my Nieuport.Turning
to the left was simple enough, it just didn't want to roll or slip that way.
Landing was rather scary, as the SPAD doesn't glide at low RPM's so much as drops out of the sky! The Nieuport drifts gently to the ground, happy to stay up, but the SPAD rushed to the turf at what must have been a thirty to forty degree angle!
Still, it was very well mannered and despite what I thought was a tremendous speed sat on the grass with barely a bump and almost imediately stopped.
Rene clapped me on the back in congratulations, thanking me for not turning a factory new aircraft into a pile of splinters and rags.
I made back to my quarters, sitting at my desk and writing up a summary for the commander.