An Airman’s Odyssey – by James Arthur Collins

Part Seven: In which I sprout wings in ways reputable and otherwise

With each day, I became more confident with the BE. No longer did I have to check off in my head all the steps of the starting procedure. No longer was adjusting the mixture a conscious operation. The wind on one’s cheek, a change in the note of the engine’s hum, or a slight looseness in a control told me volumes and the machine simply responded to my thoughts. Perhaps, gradually, I was becoming a pilot.

My first cross-country came up on the 14th and I flew northwest in a frigid, cerulean sky over the downs, past the spires of Oxford, and picked up the shimmer of Draycote Water off to the west. I found Rugby and settled gently onto the small field at Lilbourne, just east of the town, where a superannuated recording officer noted my logbook and I returned to Netheravon, quite pleased with myself.

I’d developed a throaty cough and medicated it with whiskey and lemon. It’s an old family remedy. You place the lemon at the foot of your bed and open the bottle of whiskey as you lie down. When you see two lemons, you’re well again. This time, however, it didn’t work. Instead it developed into a bronchial infection and by the 16th I was ordered into the infirmary as the doctor feared it would develop into pneumonia. Fortunately, the weather turned bad again so I did not miss as much flying as I could have. It bothered me that Jerciho was already in France and Swaney was nearing the end of his training, while I had several more hours to put in.

Swaney visited several times, but it was a lonely Christmas. The infirmary was nearly empty as, I was told, most young pilots simply kill themselves and do not need long caring-for! The sleet drummed on the windows and the skeleton crew of attendants was preoccupied elsewhere. I read several poor novels and played chess with myself (losing badly every time). Finally, on the 27th, I was cleared to fly and in two days completed the remaining elements of my course, which included two mock bombing runs all the way to Thetford. My machine performed flawlessly and I added six hours to my logged time.

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First night flight

On 28 December 1915 the day I’d been dreaming of arrived as Captain Hampton-Lewis strolled into the mess and informed those gathered about that Second Lieutenant James Collins was no longer provisional and had earned the right to put up his wings. He then informed me with a wink that, as I was not wearing the wings he had in his hand, I was improperly dressed and would have to buy a round for the officers present. Swaney, I learned, had received his wings that morning and was bound for France as there was an urgent need for pilots. In fact, he was already posted to No 3 Squadron – a Morane crowd. I ribbed him mercilessly and demanded he buy me a drink now for I was not likely to see him alive again. The Captain then informed me that I had been slotted for 3 Squadron as well, but because of my health another had taken my place.

I was sad not to be joining Swaney and Jericho at No 3, but happy that, unlike Swaney, I had been forced to forego my embarkation leave. So I was heading for London as a freshly-minted flying officer. And I was on my own until 3 January, when I was to report to Masons Yard [1] at 9:30 in the morning for further orders.

The train trip to Paddington was long and crowded. I shared a compartment with two majors and an outsized lady who snored. Quite full of myself, I opened my greatcoat enough to let the newly-sewn wings show. After a long time the balder of the majors leaned forward and peered at them.
“A pilot? Really? How old are you?”

“Nineteen, sir,” I replied.

“Damned foolish thing to do,” he said.

“Quite,” added his companion.

And so the rest of the trip passed in silence. Except for the snoring woman.

I took a taxi to Mayfair and booked myself into the Cavendish, because Captain Hampton-Lewis had recommended it and because it would be a short walk to Mason’s Yard on the 3rd, and I did not intend to be late. Being alone in a strange and wonderful city was a new experience and as soon as I was settled in, I went out and wandered about as in a trance. There was tea to be taken at Fortnum’s [2], and I found Hawkes & Co. on Savile Row, where I got measured for two proper tunics, breeches, and slacks.[3] The issued maternity jacket made me look like a Bohemian waiter. I dined alone at Wilton’s [4] and returned to the hotel to find a gay party underway, populated by RFC officers and beautiful young ladies and presided over by the Cavendish’s proprietress, the daunting Miss Rosa Lewis.

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Rosa Lewis in 1914

I am not used to social occasions, and my experience with young ladies is negligible, but Miss Lewis had me smoking an actress’s Sobranies and learning the foxtrot within the hour. Of course, for the record, I retired later to my virtuous couch. Or that is what I’ll swear to.

I was determined to go to war comfortably and spent several hours in Dunhill’s pipe shop on St. James’s [5] and, just a few feet away, I discovered Berry Brothers, the wine and spirit merchants. There I first tasted the ginger cognac that they had devised for King Edward [6], and by the time I left I’d not only ordered a case (with the promise I’d wire them where to send it to me in France) but I’d secured the rights to sell the product in Canada through Collins’ Distillery. They were rather amused to hear of Collins Yukon Gold Whiskey, but declined the offer of a sample case. Their loss.

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Berry Bros., 3 St James

Most evenings I joined some of the pilots from the hotel for dinner or shows. And before I knew it, the week was gone and I was sitting on a bench at Masons Yard. When my name was called I reported to a captain with one arm, saluted, and accepted a manila envelope with my orders and travel documents. I was to take the train to Farnborough, report by noon on the 4th, and ferry a BE2c to St-Omer where I was to report to the pilot pool.


[1] The RFC despatch office off Duke Street.

[2] Fortnum and Mason, across the street from the Cavendish, has been a purveyor of fine foods since the 1700s.

[3] Hawkes (now Gieves and Hawkes) is still at 1 Savile Row.

[4] Wilton’s is a fine seafood restaurant that had its origin as a shellfish merchant in Haymarket in the 1740s.

[5] Dunhill’s pipes began as a motoring accessory, having been designed to be used in a stiff breeze.

[6] Berry Bros. & Rudd still sell the King’s Ginger, and it’s highly recommended!

Attached Files First night flight.pngRosa Lewis 1914.jpgBerry bros.jpg