May I just say, I'm immenseley enjoying everybody's introductory tales, and can hardly wait to see all your characters arrive in France!
I’m hoping this campaign will be a good chance to brush up on my writing skills, which are a bit ropey at the moment - good thing I have the talents here to learn from!
Sgt. Graham A. Campbell. Hounslow Heath Aerodrome December 3rd, 1915.
I awoke at 6 O'Clock in the deep, enthralling blue of the early morning, and manoeuvred my way through the rows of dozing pilot trainees, remaining as silent as I possibly could. I had very quickly found out, on my second morning, that the pilot that wakes the others quickly falls out of favour! Daydreaming of returning to France (I have neglected to mention previously that I was posted earlier in the year in the infantry, but Pneumonia scuppered me before I had managed to get near the war), I found my way to the door of the Barracks and, unlatching it, stepped out to a fantastic scene of early-morning fog, like the great wispy ghost of some immense river rolling over the heath.
I was one of the few souls awake and moving on the aerodrome, and so took the time to meander around the hangars, conducting my own personal inspections of each machine. In the hangar nearest the barracks rested the training machines, a pair of B.E.2s and one Avro 504. I marvelled at the intricate construction of these surreal new machines - the criss-crossed flying wires, the elegant slope of the propeller, the wooden spars that stretched upwards like slender arms to hold the upper planes aloft...remarkable! The Avro 504 was also a fine-looking machine, although not nearly as pretty as the B.E in my opinion. Unlike the B.E's, however, the Avro had skids protruding out from the sides of the wheels, like tusks, to prevent the uninitiated pilot from 'nosing over', that is to say, flipping the machine forwards, in the case of a rough landing. In some strange way, I felt proud that I had undergone my first 'solo' without incident, or need for the skids, for only yesterday one of my fellow trainee pilots, a frighteningly young 2nd. Lieutenant named Rowan Turner, had all but buckled the rightmost skid when he came in at slightly too steep an angle to land on his 5th trip around the heath. My, did he receive a roasting from Andrews! That was, of course, before the rain begun to spit down at us, and all further flights were cancelled by Cpt. Andrews for fear of a storm.
I snapped out of my admiration for the B.E, and slunk out of the first hangar. The next hangar along housed several other B.E's, which belonged to No. 15 Squadron R.F.C. I took a peek inside to see a rigger tirelessly inspecting each inch of canvas across the skeleton of the machine. He briefly looked up at me, grunted in acknowledgement, and went back to his work. Pulling my head back out of the entryway, I pulled out my pack of cigarettes, removing one and reaching for my matchbook. The rebellious match I'd chosen struck out the first two times, but the third time the flame held fast, and I inhaled deeply.
Blowing smoke out into the cold air, I strolled over to the third, and final, hangar. I peered inside to examine the machines, and was met with a sight that immediately made me grin with anticipation. Inside the hangar lay an assortment of Vickers”Gunbuses”, and the newer single-seat Bristol Scout machines. With the split of daybreak (the sun had begun to creep over the horizon now, casting the Heath in gold) that flooded in through the crack, I could see the foreboding black shapes of Lewis Guns, white reflections gleaming on their barrels and ammunition drums, and I suddenly fancied that I was already in France, tangling each day with the dreaded Hun!
I had not realised at the time, but these were the machines of No. 24 Squadron, headed by the famous Victoria Cross winner Lanoe Hawker. If only I had realised sooner, it should have been a wealth of invaluable information to speak to him - one of the most experienced pilots in all the R.F.C! Having concluded my inspection, I made back for the mess hall. As I did, I saw two Corporals quietly grumbling to one another while wheeling the Avro out onto the still-wet grass, beads of moisture clinging to the tyres and giving them a brilliant shine. As I passed, I offered an eager 'Good Morning!' to the two Corporals, who nodded in response. "Bloody cold morning..." I thought I heard one mutter to himself. Out ahead of me I saw Lt. Webb, another trainee, practically bound out of the barracks and come jauntily over to me. Webb was another terribly young lad, of only sixteen, and had been paid into our merry band of trainees by his aristocratic father, who had many friends within the British Army, Colonels and the like. Upon telling his father he wished to fly, Webb immediately transferred from school into the training regime. His indefatigable excitement, of course, came from the fact that he was to fly his first solo today.
"Campbell! Fine morning, isn't it?" he asked me, in a chirpy tone. I regarded his face, youthful, feminine, and markedly harmless. I wondered how this young lad was ever supposed to fight a war at his age, but such questions are for the men in the recruiting offices, and not my concern. "Aye, fine morning..." I replied, and Webb beamed, before looking hungrily at the Avro, now left alone by the Corporals to sit patiently on the airfield, awaiting its master. "I'm 'going up' today! Would you believe it!" he continued, still affixed on the Avro. The answer, of course, was that I could believe it, with us being trainee R.F.C. pilots at an aerodrome, but for politeness' sake I shook my head. "No, it's quite something! Good luck!".
Webb was about to press his emphatic offensive when Cpt. Andrews appeared on the field, beckoning the rookie pilot over. "Ah, here I go!" he said, to nobody in particular, and skipped off to answer the Captain's summons. I took the chance to return to the Barracks in order to write my diary. I told the blank pages of the stunning beauty of the early-morning Heath, to the muffled sound of the Avro starting up, before heading to the mess to have my breakfast, eggs and bacon and a bowl of porridge afterwards.
Heartily fed, I headed back outside to watch the young Webb flying his circuit. Shakily he drifted through the sky, and was halfway round the aerodrome when suddenly his engine sputtered, missed, and cut out completely. A deafening silence hung in the air, as I felt a surge of fear for the lad. In my head, I repeated the cardinal rule outlined to me by every instructor I had crossed paths with: "Don't turn back! Glide forwards and look for a good landing spot!". Fortunately, the Heath had several flat, grassy fields for the youngster to put down in, but almost as if to spite my recollection I watched in mute horror as the Avro dipped its Starboard wings and attempted to loop round for the aerodrome. The plane wobbled and shuddered, its nose dropping, and for one agonising second I thought the machine would spin, but it thankfully snapped back into a dive, and came down in a curve towards the airfield. The landing angle wasn't quite right, however, and the skids buckled, jolting the nose of the aircraft into the ground with a sickening force. The undercarriage collapsed upwards with the skids, and the aeroplane lay on its nose with its tail pointed in the air.
I watched a truck, loaded with several corporals & medics, assembled in the blink of an eye by Andrews, speeding towards the wreckage and pulling the frail young lad out. To my great relief, he was only dazed with a mild concussion, but he looked so terribly shaken, and as pale as a sheet as he was checked over by the ground crew. From my observation point I heard Andrews roaring enraged questions at the poor boy, before he was promptly whisked away.
Over the next two hours, I quietly replayed the event in my head, shuddering continuously at the thought of the nightmare situation that had played out in my head. In fact, I was so dazed by the occurrence that I didn't notice my own B.E. being wheeled out for my five laps, until Andrews came and fetched me. These five trips round the Heath bore nothing of the excitement I'd felt yesterday. Instead, each shudder, quirk, and gust of wind spelled my doom in a spin. When I'd landed for the fifth time, I was very grateful indeed. My body must have commanded my actions by instinct in the air, for Andrews said that I had done better than yesterday. Amazing, what fear can do for you...