Learning to Fly… in “The Suicide Club”

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Aviators of the First World War endured a 70% chance of being killed or wounded, and 10,000 aviators were killed in combat. Flying was inherently dangerous, and 60% of all British aircraft accidents occurred during training. The Royal Flying Corps was quickly dubbed “The Suicide Club.”

by PARAAG SHUKLA

Before 1914, most aviators learned to fly at civilian flying schools. As the RFC rapidly expanded, it lacked the necessary number of flying instructors, training aircraft, and airfields. Attempts to address the deficiencies were further complicated by combat losses of pilots, as the RFC accelerated its training timelines to keep frontline squadrons up to strength. Flyers who survived training were often posted to the Front with only rudimentary understanding of the fundamentals of flight and aircraft characteristics.

“If any of you wants to go to heaven, now’s your chance. Remember, it’s a hell of a way to fall and you only fall once….”

British men seeking a life in the clouds had two primary options: men already in uniform could request a transfer to the RFC (which was part of the army) or civilians could apply for direct entry. Initial medical and physical examinations of applicants were very “cursory,” with one pilot remembering that the “doctors seemed more concerned with my motivation than any obscure medical matters.” Early in the war a man’s skill at riding horses was a boon to applicants.

If approved, new recruits reported to one of several training depots in England. Civilian recruits first received basic military training and drill instruction from army sergeants. The time frame for this initial training varied, lasting anywhere from one to four weeks.

The School of Military Aeronautics (SMA)

Ground schooling, completed at Reading or Oxford, was described as a “concentrated university course.” Cadets were billeted together, under parade discipline at all times, and were required to salute all of their instructors, regardless of rank. Typical days lasted from 06:00 to 16:00, with evenings and weekends generally being free time.

The quality of training varied. Courses on aerial observation and wireless telegraphy were helpful and directly applicable to flying duties at the Front. However, the majority of other instruction—including learning to stitch aircraft linen, the manufacturing of engine parts, and Mess room etiquette—were considered complicated and pointless.

The lectures and instruction were learned by rote, with “no real pressure” on cadets to actually learn the information. If cadets did fail, they were given multiple opportunities to retake their exams. For most of the war, fewer than 5% of cadets washed out of SMA. The washout rate was even less by late-1917, as classes were cut short due to the demands of replacing significant casualties incurred during the spring and summer.

"When I got to France I had only about 20 hours of flying."

“When I got to France I only had about 20 hours of flying. When I was posted down to a squadron, the CO took one look at the logbook and said, ‘my God, this is murder sending you chaps up like that.’ ”
—Cecil A. Lewis, RFC

Flight Training

Cadets received elementary flight training at Primary Training Squadrons, which were located all over southern England. Upon arrival a cadet would soon start flying as passenger in a two-seater aircraft. Now it is important to bear in mind that unlike modern times, the majority of young men of this period had not even driven an automobile prior to being taken up in an aircraft. As a result their first aerial ride was often an energetic mix of frights and thrills. The ability of a young cadet to focus on the latter was key to continuing successfully through training.

On a typical day trainees were woken by 05:00 or 05:30, sometimes by trumpets. Dual-instruction flights were of short duration—usually within sight of the field and lower than 1,000 feet—and many were just take-offs and landings. The quality of a cadet’s training depended largely on the personality and experience of the instructor.

The majority of flying instructors were veteran pilots on rotation back from the Front, and they adapted a Darwinian “sink or swim” approach to training. Prior to late-1917, there was little communication between instructors and students during a flight. An instructor would often kick the student’s seat or strike him on the shoulder/head to get his attention before using hand-signals.

Early on, the mechanics of flight were not widely or consistently understood, so instructors could teach little beyond the rudiments of taking-off, turning, and simple maneuvers. Most bad accidents were caused by stalling. Many did not know how to get out of a disorienting spin (“center your controls and pray like hell!”) so many cadets were killed in feverishly, but futile, attempts to recover. The RFC’s attitude towards flying accidents was “shockingly casual.” Each day there could be up to 24 crashes at each training field, with an average of one trainee killed per day.

The instructors, most of whom had endured firsthand the brutal fighting over the Front, did not want to be killed by a clumsy cadet’s errors. Therefore they often pushed students to undertake their solo flights as soon as possible, with some students told to solo after only 2-5 hours of dual-flying and a handful of landings. The solo flights would last 15-20 minutes and were always within sight of the airfield.

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If cadets successfully completed 10-20 hours solo and over two-dozen successful landings, they moved on to higher training. They did cross-country/distance navigation, learned formation flying, and flew at higher altitudes. Their training aircraft, often the BE2 or Avro 504, were stable machines and fine for learning purposes. However, their performance and handling were vastly different from the aircraft being used at the Front. Due to the rate of casualties prior to late-1917, cadets were often sent to a squadrons without any specialty training.

A New Approach

RFC Colonel Robert Smith-Barry, an experienced pilot and squadron commander who grew increasingly frustrated by the poor quality of cadet training, developed a new regime that standardized lessons learned by frontline pilots as well as how to recover from spins and other dangerous maneuvers. Cadets were taught in Gosport, England to explore flight characteristics and fly their aircraft to their limits.

Robert Smith-Barry

Robert Smith-Barry

Smith-Barry also developed the “Gosport tube,” a set of face masks, tubes, and ear pieces which enabled instructors and students to speak during dual-instruction flights. Smith-Barry’s students were trained so quickly and to such a high degree that the RFC adopted his systematic method for all flying cadets. By October 1917 a training manual incorporating Smith-Barry’s “Gosport System,” titled General Methods of Teaching Scout Pilots, was published and distributed. It was also later adopted by the US Army Air Service.

The Gosport System helped the RFC to better teach its cadets the fundamentals flying, and its implementation directly contributed to reducing training fatalities by half. Training, however, was no substitute for experience. The students’ final test would be not in the open skies of England, but in the white-hot fire of combat in the skies over the Western Front. Many would be killed within days of arriving in France— most during their first flights over the Lines and before they even had a chance to fire their guns.

 

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1 Comment

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One response to “Learning to Fly… in “The Suicide Club”

  1. kierevansKieran

    It’s amazing how casual the RFC was regarding accidental deaths! I had the same thought when I read Unbroken and learning that even 20+ years later, countless bombers were lost due to mechanical failures and other non-combat related issues. So sad to think of how may men died needlessly in these circumstances…

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