So I was rummaging through a drawer of old photos, and I happened upon a Halloween photo from 1979 when I was a WWI flying ace and my hometown friend, Debbie, was a Maine fisherman. In my memories, Debbie was the ace and I was an overgrown girl scout, but the photo proved my memory wrong. Again! Funny how things work out though. Now, I’m a WWI fanatic, and Debbie moved to Bangor, Maine after college, although she’s not a fisherman.
It’s hard to believe that Orville and Wilbur Wright made their historic flight in 1903 and just eleven years later, airplanes were key aspect of military technology in WWI. No doubt, the war sped up their development. They were primarily used for reconnaissance early on, but by the end of the war, machine guns were mounted on them, they were used for dropping bombs, anti-aircraft weaponry had been developed, and daily dogfights were common sights.
On August 12, 1918, my great uncle Harry was in the trenches in the Baccarat Sector in France (a “quiet” sector) and wrote to his sister, Alice, “you said that you saw an airplane when in Jamestown. Well here there is one flying over my head, and it makes me stick my head down when a shell whizzes over for there is no telling when it will burst.” Seeing an airplane would have been a big event for Alice back in 1918, but Harry was already starting to get used to the daily dog fights.
Being a pilot was probably the most dangerous job in the war. The typical pilot had a life expectancy of only several weeks which didn’t increase by much towards the end of the war even though the airplanes were better and more maneuverable and parachutes were finally issued by the various belligerents. Oh, all except the Americans that is. Our military higher ups wouldn’t give them to the American pilots. They thought this might lead to too many pilots abandoning their planes at the first sign of danger. Only after the war did these geniuses realize it was a lot easier (and cheaper) to replace a plane than a skilled pilot, so they started issuing parachutes.
Probably the most famous WWI flying ace was a German fighter pilot, the Red Baron (Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen). He was only 25 when he was finally shot down and killed in France on April, 1918. He was one of the first members of the German Air Corps and flew for over two years which was a very long time for those guys.