77 Scout -- That was a good capture of that "where the heck am I?" sense I know only too well! Fullofit, glad to see Gaston putting his best foot forward at his new escadrille. How long will it last, I wonder? Lou, is Swaney heading out for the blue plate special or the blue light special? Carrick, hope you're back in the air soon. Here is the next chapter in Jim Collins' tale...
An Airman’s Odyssey – by James Arthur Collins
Part Nine: In which I am held aloft by a Parasol
The Morane stood like a prehistoric insect, its wide, high wings spread out above the thin fuselage, vibrating gently with the morning breeze. The ack emmas had propped a ladder against the left side of the fuselage and I began to climb towards the cockpit when they shouted “Other side” in unison. I rounded the tail and an amused corporal pointed at the cut-out in the fuselage for my foot. The procedure had escaped me since yesterday: left foot on the wheel, right foot onto the longeron inside the cut-out, and then an athletic swing of the left leg into the cockpit – a difficult manoeuvre, especially given my height and the need to avoid putting my head through the wing overhead!
I settled in wicker seat and waited while Lieut. McCrimmond, an instructor, climbed into the observer’s seat behind me. McCrimmond needlessly reminded me how sensitive the elevator was and said to be sure that I had plenty of speed before lifting off. The mechanics fussed with the Gnome interminably, or so it seemed, pushing the exhaust valves open and priming each cylinder with a few squirts of petrol. It was necessary to lean slightly forward to reach the short control column comfortably. I had decided over breakfast to hold the stick very, very slightly forward until the tail began to lift. The last thing I wanted was to force the nose into the field accidentally while trying to bring the tail up. To avoid overcorrecting I braced my right forearm against the inside of my knee.
It was time. I confirmed the magneto switches were off and waited as the corporal pulled the prop through its cycle. I echoed the call of “Contact.” With a heave, the corporal pulled the prop down and the Gnome stuttered to life, catching until the popping and banging became a steady gurgling roar. I waved away the chocks and began bumping over the grass. Now with the machine pointed downfield, I took a deep breath and pushed the throttle lever forward. The machine rolled farther than I expected before the rumble from the tail skid grew momentarily fainter and then stopped as the tail lifted off the ground. I used the slightest flex of my wrist to level off and, in a second or two, the Morane took to the air. It was all surprisingly uneventful.
The machine climbed smoothly and I finally exhaled. But at that very instant, the slight breeze seemed to lift the right side of the wing and the whole affair listed to the left. I corrected, and the wing warping seemed to be a sluggish way to get level. And then the machine slewed to the right! I had been terrified of the balanced elevator’s sensitivity, only to find the real devil for me was lateral stability. It took lots of rudder to hold the thing level with any degree of crosswind.
I edged slowly up to 2000 feet and felt McCrimmond patting me on the shoulder. I turned and saw him grinning broadly under his goggles. He gave him an enthusiastic thumbs-up and I smiled like a small child with a good report card!
I gingerly turned to the south and made a wide arc below St-Omer as far as the Lys and back again. As the Aircraft Park and its distinctive racetrack emerged from the haze, I began bleeding off altitude, experimenting with the “blip switch” that cut the ignition and adjusting the mixture. We came in low over the trees, hangars, and sheds at the eastern end of the field. The scrubby brown grass, mixed with a thin dusting of snow, came up to meet the wheels. I blipped twice and let the tail come down for a perfect three-point landing.
But it wasn’t perfect. A gust caught the Morane under that ridiculously high wing and suddenly we were twenty feet above the field. And then the left wing dipped down and we swerved drunkenly down. I let the Gnome roar back to life and pushed the right side of the rudder bar forward. The landing gear hit the ground with a thud while we were still leaning left thirty degrees. In any other machine, the wing would have shattered, but not with the Parasol. We bounced into the air, floated unsteadily, and dropped roughly back to the field, now pointing to the right. I blipped repeatedly and brought the machine under control at last.
In front of the hangars, I switched off and fell back in my seat. “That was a bit of an adventure,” McCrimmond observed. My response was a short and very Anglo-Saxon word.
"...I began bleeding off altitude, experimenting with the “blip switch”..."
It was back again in the afternoon, and I promised McCrimmond a drink in the mess for his trouble this morning. He asked if I planned to let him live long enough to enjoy it. This time I used the same technique for locking my arm with the stick slightly forward, but I let the machine pick up more speed before lifting off. The left wing dipped again, but not as dangerously as before. I relaxed when we were up to 3000 feet and tried some sharper turns and manoeuvres, and even stalled the machine. It quickly fell out of the stall with opposite rudder and a lot of blipping with the nose down. Before I knew it, it was time to land.
Again we approached over the hangars. I kept the speed a bit higher than in the morning and more or less flew the Parasol onto the field before blipping until the tail came down. I might not always have a large enough field to use this technique, but the landing was wonderfully smooth because of it. McCrimmond said it was very well done.
I couldn’t wait to get back in the air. There were, however, others in line for our lone Morane. So instead of flying I caught up on my letters home. There was still no news of my posting. Life at the Depot was mildly depressing, with little of the good humour and camaraderie I enjoyed at Netheravon. The newly-arriving pilots were each in their own world, and it made little sense to make friends when we expected to be posted elsewhere any day. The mess food was bland and meagrely handed out, and the mess fees were exorbitant for what we get. On the 9th, I walked into the village of Longuenesse, adjacent to St-Omer. I saw the chateau that served as General Trenchard’s headquarters, and soon after encountered two Canadian doctors from one of the several hospitals that have been established in the area. They were headed to dinner in a small estaminet in the village and I joined them for a fine meal of sole, potatoes, and very good cheap white wine.
Rain started while we ate. Three days passed and it did not let up.