Good stuff, Wulfe and Fullofit. You have me looking things up all the time, like refreshing my memory of Toutatis (dim recollection of Asterisk the Gaul swearing "By Toutatis"). Inspired by Lou's latest, here is the third installment of Jim Collins's memoirs. By the way, how is the Caudron? I bet it's fun to fly. I noted that Gaston Caudron died in December 1915, the 4th if I recall. Don't do like him!
An Airman’s Odyssey – by James Arthur Collins
Part Three: In which I am introduced to a Guardsman and a real war pilot, purloin a vehicle, visit a Druid site, and acquire culture, undergarments, and a surfeit of beer.
A tender met Swany and I together with four other novice pilots at the station in Salisbury and drove us to Netheravon. The forty-minute jaunt in the back of the open-topped lorry was spoiled only by the constant rain and cold, but overall we enjoyed the change of scenery. The fields here were open and wide, not unlike Saskatchewan only greener. At length we pulled into a cluster of little white buildings with red tile roofs and faux Tudor facings. It seemed like a fine holiday camp, save the disapproving eye of a sergeant-major who barked his welcome: “Well, well, well. Look at all the fine young sirs with their bleedin’ picnic hampers ready to kill their silly selves and make my hard-working men put their bleedin’ machines back together!”
He said his name was Sergeant-Major Brookings, and he took a roll call and formed us for inspection right on the roadway. A young captain appeared and the sergeant-major snapped off a salute and marched off with guardsman’s precision (we later learned he was seconded to the RFC from the Grenadier Guards). The captain introduced himself as Captain Hampton-Lewis and proceeded to assign us our instructors. We were to get our kit sorted out in our assigned huts and report to the Officers’ Mess to meet them in a half-hour.
Swany and I were assigned to a hut with a fellow named O’Brien who was nearly done his training and was awaiting his coveted wings. The fourth bed in the hut was vacant except for a trunk. Its occupant had crashed on takeoff the previous day and was to be buried that afternoon.
The mess was a nice surprise, a fine two-storey building with comfortable furniture, a piano, several good writing tables with stationery aplenty, a bar, and a lovely warm fire. Major Ganbert, the OC, welcomed us newcomers and I met my instructor, Lieutenant Thomas. He had recently returned from France where he had served with No 1 Squadron since the start of the war. Since Swaney had disappeared with his instructor, I visited the hangars on the field, which was a few hundred yards east of the camp.
The wind was blowing thirty knots and the rain fell in sheets. Flying was out of the question. I plodded back to the mess and caught up with my letter-writing. Swaney appeared shortly after and informed me that most of the pilots here were billeted outside the camp, so it was relatively easy to get permission to leave the area. In fact, he’d already discovered that the OC had access to a fine touring car and he suggested I persuade him to part with it for the afternoon. I thought in highly impertinent to ask, but had the good fortune to see the Major come into the mess for a cup of tea. Not having yet met the adjutant I approached the OC and asked how one could arrange a few hours’ leave from the camp to pick up some tea and incidentals for our hut.
“The Adj is away today, so just go. Besides, if you’re still about this afternoon, you’ll be required to carry a coffin – not good for the spirit, what? If the guard gives you a hard time of it, tell him I cleared it. Do you drive?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Then take my Crossley. You’ll find it beside my office. Be back by nine.”
I returned to Swaney, who had moved his armchair next to the fire. “We’re all set. I have the car.”
Swaney whistled and mouthed the word #%&*$#. “It’s amazing what a little money can do, Jim,” he said.
“It cost me,” I told him. “You owe me dinner.”
We made a fine day of it, driving a few miles south to see the famous stone circle of Stonehenge. We remarked on the massive amount of work the thing required and wondered why on earth it would have been built. I suggested that some Druid version of Sergeant-Major Brookings had found some warriors has misapplied their blue woad and set this thing up as punishment duty.
We headed into Salisbury. We’d caught only glimpse of it this morning and it looked like a fine place. We were not disappointed. We toured the cathedral and saw the Magna Carta. Then Swaney told me that another pilot at the camp had told him of a bootmaker and military provisioner in town and he wanted new boots. The boots were so impressive that I ordered myself a pair as well, plus a fine set of long woolen underwear for flying. Our parcels in hand, we headed next door to a storybook inn called the Haunch of Venison. Since Swaney was paying for dinner, I told him to find a place by the fire and I would get us a couple of pints of good bitter.
"Our parcels in hand, we headed next door to a storybook inn called the Haunch of Venison."
Dinner was the finest meal I’d had in England to date, and afterwards the place filled up with some RFC types, including several from 20 Squadron, which was working up on the fine new FE2 two-seaters. More ale was downed while we discussed the merits of different aircraft. The consensus was that the BE2 was unlikely to kill you unless you met the Hun, and then you were dead. The FE2 was superb. The little DH2 pusher scout was lovely to fly until it spun. You couldn’t get out of a spin in one, so you were dead. The Morane was to be avoided at all costs. It would kill you on takeoff, or spin, or kill you on landing. You would be too busy to worry about Hun machines.
I was in no shape so Swaney drove us home. He drove faster than I’d have wanted, but he told me that drunks really shouldn’t be on the road for long so he had to hurry.
The next day it rained again and I took ground instruction on the BE2. Unlike the Farman it has a unified control called a joystick. The training machines were all rather tired and did not give full power, but Mr. Thomas assured me it would be quicker off the mark than anything I’d flown to date.
3 December 1915 dawned drizzly and wet, but the wind had died and Thomas told me I was going up to do circuits and landings. He went over the instructions one last time and I nervously atammered through the starting procedure, waved away the mechanics, and trundled out to the east end of the field. I said a quick prayer and opened the throttle fully. The Renault engine roared and the machine bumped over the wet grass. In a few seconds the bumps stopped and, without my really noticing it, the BE2 climbed easily into the grey sky. It was wonderfully stable. I leaned over to check my height compared to the slight rise and row of trees at the far end of the field. Rain stung my face like needles. I hunched behind the triplex windscreen and adjusted the mixture. At a thousand feet I began a turn to the right. Although the wind was negligible at ground level, at this height it buffeted the machine and I kept the throttle fully open. Coming around to land I throttled back to idle and adjusted the mixture again. The machine skimmed the treetops. Ahead loomed a telephone or telegraph wire. I opened up and staggered over it at the edge of a stall, and then nosed down and throttled back, just skimming over the crest of a low hill by a farm at the east side of the field. I wallowed in and touched down.
"In a few seconds the bumps stopped and, without my really noticing it, the BE2 climbed easily into the grey sky."
Thomas stood in the open door of a hangar, smoking his pipe. My machine came to a stop and he signalled to take off again. The second and third circuits were both to the right, each one better than the one before. One of the biggest differences I found between this machine and the old “Rumpety” or Avro was in the bracing. The BE had Royal Aircraft Factory streamlined wires which did not hum and sing like the regular type does. Two circuits to the left followed. On my last landing I touched down mere feet from the near end of the field and rolled up to the hangar, where the Ack Emmas caught the wings and prepared to wheel the machine inside. The driven rain had removed most of the varnish from the propeller. Thomas took out his pipe, spat on the ground, and said “Not bad, Collins. Same again tomorrow.”
The next day we saw the sun for a few minutes and I got in my five circuits again. This time I set myself a goal to land slowly enough that I would not pass a small building halfway down the field. I succeeded on four out of five tries. It was absolutely topping to be flying a true war machine at last!