I knew what flight I was going to be assigned at the pilots meeting. Major Mills always assigned a solo flight up to the front and back as a second test for new pilots. According to several of the senior pilots I had talked to, this was standard procedure. Imagine my shock when, after assigning missions two most of the pilots, he announced that my mission for the day would be airfield defense over Condekerque. This caused a chuckle to ripple around the room, which I couldn't quite understand until Major Mills thrust his pointer at the map. Condekerque airfield is located northwest of us near the coast and far, FAR behind enemy lines. It was immediately obvious to me that this mission was a coddling mission, something safe and easy. The Major doesn't think I am ready to be near the front lines.
Sergent White was assigned to accompany me, basically my baby sitter. He did not appear to be very happy about the assignment. As I consulted my flight map, I realized our course went well off the edge of my map. I mentioned this to Chris and he laughed. "Of course it's off the map. The old man is testing your ability to spot landmarks and follow your compass. Didn't you notice that our course is a straight northwest flight out and a straight southeast flight back? Navigation test my boy, navigation!"
So off we went, with me leading our little flight of two BE2's. I pointed my nose northwest and climbed into the mist. Ah, the bloody mist! How is a fellow supposed to find his way when the ground is mostly obscured in mist? On we droned, climbing slowly, the engine whirring steadily and reassuringly. There seemed to be a line of forests along our path; two on the right, one on the left, another on the right, and so on. If I could just remember the pattern I would be able to follow these back home. But on and on we went, with no sign of the coast, and I had soon lost track of all these landmarks. Crap!
Suddenly the coast appeared ahead. Condekerque should be nearby. Yes! There was the airfield just below and to starboard. I was shocked to have arrived exactly on target, but kept a straight face and casually qestured to Chris as if to say "there it is, exactly as I had planned". He gave me a nod and a smile.
I circled the airfield for about 10 minutes before Sergent White signaled that we should head home. I pointed my nose to the southeast, which thankfully put the sun behind Chris's body so that I could fly without the sun beaming directly into my eyes.
Things did not go well on the return trip. Nothing looked familiar. I kept the compass nailed on SE and hoped for the best but my spirits sank lower and lower as I began to see towns and forests I had not seen on the trip out. I was failing my navigation test for a second time.
Suddenly there was a river below us. A river? Oh dear. But also an airfield. Check the map, check the map ... find an airfield by a river. La Gourge airfield!! Well, I was well off course but at least I now knew where I was. I turned sharply to the north and made a beeline directly to our base. I made an excellent landing, which no one saw because they were all scurrying to avoid German bombs that were falling at that very instant. Little damage done to the airfield and hopefully a good distraction from my failure, yet again, to find my way home.