Saturday, May 26, 2012

Excerpt: 'Heaven Is Too Far Away.'

                                              Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.-5. Wiki Commons.

After a thorough pre-flight of my new SE 5a, with its very own 275 brake horse-power Wolseley Viper engine, and a few other modifications, we were ready.

A wave was sufficient in daylight. Clouds of blue exhaust smoke veered off as the engines caught, one by one.

First the Biffs trundled out, bobbing and weaving as the line formed up for take-off. They started from way down at the far end. All that could be discerned were their shapes. Next it was the Camel Jockeys. There goes ‘Idaho Red,’ with a little potato-headed figure complete with cowboy hat and six-gun painted on the left side of the forward fuselage.

He thinks he’s a cowboy. Pretty much every plane had some kind of crazy artwork on the side.

Someone painted a big tiger on the side of my plane, and they did a good job, too.

That man had real talent.

‘Blood and Guts,’ it said, in white cartoon lettering.

“Thank you,” was all one could say, when they proudly showed me the plane for the first time.

I was really touched. It was a moment totally irreplaceable. When you get really, really old, you wish you could recapture certain moments, certain feelings from your youth. That moment was one of them. It was with a good warm feeling; that I centred her up on the end of our runway area. The plane was pointed into the western breeze. Three-forty-five p.m. Advancing the throttle, the plane was soon airborne and the mission proceeded shortly thereafter. As CO, I tended to take a few notes and trust the boys to follow along without a lot of supervision.

If they have engine problems, they’re smart enough to return to base on their own initiative. That’s one psychological advantage to being, ‘experimental,’ there’s no question of cowardice or lack of moral fibre.

They’re under orders to use their heads.

We flew a semicircular route, relying on the northwest crosswind to help drive us to our battle position.

Right on time.


After climbing at about three-quarters throttle the whole way, I was at 19,000 feet and the boys were right there. Ahead, 4,000 feet below, were the Camel Jockeys.

The Biffs could be seen further down and further ahead.

The other, lower groups were staggered off to the left of us. The sun was up over my shoulder, on the right.

Within a few short minutes we had our first brush with the enemy, who was also up in force. The sky is a vast and empty place sometimes. You really learn to use your eyes. The great blue bowl of the sky was cloudless and clear, the light harsh and unyielding. That could be deceptive. It was still a big place, and airplanes are very small objects. The few that could be seen, were way off to the south, and I preferred to turn north, keeping the sun at our backs. There was no sense in changing the plan now.

We were still heading east. We had to go about half a mile through the expanding puffs of black Archie smoke, over the enemy trenches. Just then, and I didn’t see them coming but someone must have, were two enemy heavy reconnaissance machines, heading more or less due west. Halberstadts. Wallace and Webster separated about seventy yards to the left of the Camel formation, and then I saw the enemy planes.

Wallace, without any hesitation at all; simply put his right wing up vertical, and pulled hard around on their tail. The Camels and the enemy must have been at the same altitude. He fired away at one, and it began to smoke and then burn, as his wingman hovered behind, taking the odd pot-shot when chance permitted. If the enemy had simply reacted a little quicker, they might have saved themselves.

I couldn’t watch the whole thing. I had to watch my own sky. But it was beautiful to see, a thing well done. And it wasn’t long after that, when a whole bunch of German fighters came down from up ahead of us to engage in a vicious little dog-fight that lasted ten minutes or so; and then the Boche broke for home and dinner.

Those head-on attacks were a nightmare, but we all seemed to have followed the proper procedures. During the engagement, I observed at least three enemy machines catch fire, send out smoke, or spin down out of control, but I didn’t go down low enough to verify where each one crashed.

Sometimes a spin is merely an escape mechanism.

I had my own little duel going, with a red machine of an unfamiliar type. He had a big white something painted on the side. That plane was fast and well-handled. We first met frontally. We both missed with our head-on shots. When he turned left, as I could see over my shoulder, naturally I turned left, and at the exact same time we both started climbing up the corkscrew. We were on opposite sides, but I sensed some small advantage.

There was no time for any fear.

All I wanted to do was to kill him quickly.

I’ve noticed that before.

The corkscrew became a more vertical rolling-scissors movement, and as the speed slowed, lots of other planes in the vicinity became a threat. We decided to plummet downwards for a while, still locked in a scissors maneuver. His plane had small, wide wings, and it seemed to handle a little heavy. It’s difficult to describe, but the second it became apparent that I was gaining on him, he reversed his turn, and flicked away towards Germany. We were down to about 10,000 by then. I couldn’t catch him, being on the far side of the circle at that point. At that point I checked for unwelcome attention from other fighters by rolling and snapping as I re-oriented myself to find the western horizon. It was gratifying to see my own wingman right there, wagging his wings.

He was sticking like glue, no doubt giving the enemy pilot much food for thought.

Food for thought for me as well. That was one very quick-thinking fighter pilot, in my assessment. He knew he couldn’t win, and so he broke off as soon as he could.

No wasted heroics.

Very professional.

Hopefully we would meet again.

* * *

There are sights and sounds that can never be forgotten. A fighter plane, shedding bits, pieces and chunks, all aflame, as it turns end over end.

The screaming, banshee wail of a runaway engine, way past its limit, shaking itself to pieces as it flicks past your own machine. Little black somethings, not smoke, not people, not airplane parts. Just little black things, falling in lazy spirals, drifting down.

Three planes, chasing around in a circle. No one dares to be the first to let go. It is bedlam, it is insanity. You’re all alone, and the plane that just passed over you smoking and flaming, could be your best friend. Sometimes you line up on someone, and only at the very last second do you see the cockades, the roundels on the wings or body of the plane.

All your senses are ablaze with the passion of living at death’s door.

You feel every emotion in a battle like that, a three dimensional battle of cut, thrust, slash, and parry. You feel love, and joy, and fear and hate, and envy, and pity. There are times you laugh out loud at the absurdity of it all. Sometimes you shout, scream and curse.

Everything happens all at once, and then it’s over in a heartbeat. Then you get to shepherd your flock home again, nursing one or two wounded ducks, trailing thin smoke trails.

If you’re lucky, God smiles on you, and all your boys get to live, to fight again another day.

Wiki article on the SE-5:

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