Terrific stories, everyone. As Lou said, this campaign should provide Sunday morning reading for a long time. I'm sorry CW3SF can't join us, though. Dive in any time if you change your mind.
I won't get to fly until tomorrow, but while I'm travelling I thought I'd get my pilot ready to start. Here's his second episode... An Airman’s Odyssey – by James Arthur Collins Part Two: In which I meet an American comrade, tame the Jenny, turn a tree fall into a windfall, visit the old country, and learn to fly all over again
The Curtiss School was a $2.30 taxi drive from Union Station in Toronto. Long Branch was a cluster of cottages mixed with a few stately homes along the shore of Lake Ontario some six miles west of downtown Toronto. The field was close by the lake to the south of Lakeshore Boulevard. I left the cab in front of the Long Branch Hotel, a vaguely oriental-looking pile on Beach Road, and found a red cap to carry my two suitcases and trunk into the lobby. Two small signs stood on the registration desk. One bore the schedule of the Rupert, a steamer that sailed six times daily from the hotel’s pier to downtown Toronto. The other stated “Alcoholic beverages strictly forbidden.” I recalled that my truck contained six bottles of Collins Yukon Gold Whiskey.
Once I had checked in, I browsed the newspaper for a place to rent and found a large cottage by the water for $12 a month, so I telephoned the owner and walked there. The place looked fine, although it would have benefitted from a can of paint. We agreed to a lease for two months. I got the key and explored – two good-sized bedrooms, a small kitchen, no gas and – being out of the city – no electricity. I lit a kerosene lamp and sat by the back window as the sun set over the lake. “What in God’s name am I doing here?” I thought. Being unable to answer the question, I returned to the hotel for a mediocre dinner and a fitful sleep.
Many of the veteran students, those who had already flown alone – “solo” was the term of art – were bound for the naval air service and had split their time between Long Branch and the seaplane base at Hanlan’s Point on Toronto Island. I made it clear to Mr. McCurdy, who ran the school, that I intended to fly for the Army and was disinterested in flying boats.
The school contained a wonderful collection of characters. I spent my first day in classroom instruction, learning the basic theory of what we were about to do in the air. Sitting in the back row with me was an American fellow from the mid-west, a rugged-looking farmboy named Swanson. The two of us were both bound for the RFC and chummed together from the start. We’d meet with a few of the other pilot candidates for cards at the cottage in the evenings and it didn’t take long for Swany to move out of the boarding houses where he was staying and move into the cottage. I covered the rent and he cooked. Swany chopped a split firewood for the stove, and I’d never seen anything like it. He was five-foot nine, an inch shorter than me, but the man was made of iron. He could split a day’s worth of wood in a few minutes, having virtually grown up next to his uncle’s sawmill.
We spent the still hours of the early hours around the hangars waiting to get up in the air. For the first few days, we were ferried about like sacks of potatoes by the instructors. One fellow from Toronto quit after being violently ill every time he went up.
One morning, the fellows in the hangar were complaining about a tall pine tree that bordered the field near the entrance road. It stood close by the turn-in and bore the scars of having stopped more than one lorry or wagon. We feared that one of us would soon fly a Jenny into the thing. A tall fellow from British Columbia said that for two dollars he’d take it down, and he claimed he could do it in under five minutes. Swany gave a loud laugh and claimed he could take “that twig” down in less than two minutes. Amid scoffing and jeers, he added “and with no more than 40 blows, as long as I have a good axe.” The British Columbian declared this typical Yankee boasting, adding that you’d expect a professional lumberjack to take nearly five minutes on a tree that size. I whispered to Swany that he should go along with me for a minute and I’d ensure that he’d bear no financial risk.
When the noise began to die down, I told Swany that five bucks said he couldn’t take down the tree, which was 14 to 16 inches thick, in less than two minutes and forty blows.
“It’s Canada versus the States!” I shouted. “Someone take note of the bets.”
Tim Flanagan, one of our students, took out a pocket notebook and a pen. “I have a dollar to say the Yank fails,” he shouted. “Who’s with me?”
In a matter of two or three minutes more than a hundred dollars were in play. “Good,” said Swany. His slight Swedish-American lilt made it sound like go-ood. “Now I need to get a good axe. The tree goes down tomorrow afternoon at four. Bring your money, everybody.”
Swany and I scoured Toronto for a four-pound double-bit felling axe that would meet his standards. We finally found a good one at last at the giant Eaton’s department store on Queen Street. Returning to Long Branch by streetcar, Swany went into a blacksmith’s and worked on sharpening the axe for more than an hour, filing and checking, filing and checking. “It’s all in getting the right angle,” he explained.” The next day at four, Swany brought his axe to school wrapped in a blanket. At ten to four he wandered over to the tree and waited for the crowd to form. Mr. Jennings, one of the instructors, timed the exercise, and the whole crowd counted the blows. By Swany’s sixth blow of the axe, I was the only one still counting aloud, for the wiry Swede had already opened up a deep vee on the side facing the road. Without a second’s pause, he began to work on the opposite side, cutting an even deeper notch just above the first. One minute in, and the tree began to groan. By the twenty-eighth blow, it sagged, and on the count of thirty-two there was an ear-splitting crack and the tree fell neatly onto the road. We dragged it with one of the Curtiss trucks off the road to be sectioned at leisure. Swany, in the meanwhile, collected the vast sum of $143. Another American, a former cowboy named Mark Jericho, was the only onlooker to bet on Swany, and he did rather nicely too.
I soloed in a little over a week, on the same day as Jericho but a couple of weeks after our cowboy friend. Jericho was the star pupil and left the school before the end of July, bound for England. “Swany” Swanson and I got our AAeC ticket in mid-August, just before our dollar-a-minute time was up. The RFC recruiting office in Toronto arranged our travel and, as two “officer candidates”, two days after graduation and dressed in our best suits (in Swany’s case, his only suit) we boarded a train bound for the east coast. We didn’t use the seats we’d been given, since Swany booked us into first class with his newfound wealth. We dined in luxury while watching the Laurentian Mountains catch the evening sun across the St. Lawrence River as the train passed Quebec City and continued past the long strips of farmland angling down to the river and the little villages, each with its imposing metal-spired church. We had a sleeping cabin with comfortable bunks, nightcaps of Collins’ Yukon Gold whiskey, and in the morning a porter brought us breakfast as we passed Bathurst, New Brunswick and looked out on the broad Gulf of St. Lawrence. We changed trains in Moncton and by evening of the second day were in Saint John, ready to board the SS Scandinavian for England (Swany thought it wonderful they'd named a transport after him). We were glad to be aboard, as Saint John had little to offer except for its Reversing Falls, where the massive tides on the Bay of Fundy make the river run backwards half the day. Personally, I think the river takes one look at the town and turns around.
Departing on the Scandinavian
In late September we were sent to the university at Reading, west of London, for our basic classroom training, which involved lessons in navigation, engine construction and maintenance, principles of flight, meteorology, and basic soldiering topics, such as whom to salute and how to march. Marching, or drill, as it should be called, was far more complicated than I ever expected. Poor Swany had a particularly difficult time. Whenever he concentrated too hard he would “bear walk,” swinging his right arm with his right leg and vice-versa. It’s nearly impossible to do if you try, but very easy to do when you’re learning drill. The work was fairly easy and we got leave for a week afterwards. Swany headed for London and I went to Cambridge, where my mother and sister had settled.
The following week we were packed off to Castle Bromwich, near Birmingham, for flight instructions on Farman Longhorns and Shorthorns. Apparently the RFC completely ignored the fact we’d got our ticket in Canada and we were lumped in with chaps who didn’t know one end of a flying machine from the other (not that it made much difference on a Farman. Three candidates were killed while we were there. All three of them fell prey to spins, which were inevitably fatal. Towards the end we got to sport about in Avros, which were absolutely ripping buses.
Castle Bromwich aerodrome from the air
Once the course was complete, orders came to head for Netheravon, down in Wiltshire. Here Swany and I would undergo advanced training and finally get a crack at some real war flying in more modern machines.