ARTISTRY IN THI-4: AIR
By MAJOR OLIVER STEW ART, M. C.,
SOME aerobatic pilots fill us with admiration at their skill and delicacy of touch ; others frighten us to death by the violence and recklessness of their manoeuvres but it has been given, so far as I know, to only one pilot to frighten us to death and to fill us with admiration at one and the same time. Before he died in France this pilot set a standard in aerobatics which in artistry and spectacular effect has never since been surpassed.
The aeroplane which was the medium of his unequalled displays of skill and daring would nowadays be judged slow and underpowered. It was a Sopwith Camel with a 110 h.p. Le RhOne engine. Allow me to reconstruct the unpromising scene of some aerobatic displays which outdistanced the greatest subsequent marvels of fact or film and which, had they been staged in peace time, would have drawn all London. Imagine a small aerodrome to the east of London. A few hangars of the old type flank one side ; on another side there are some trees. A narrow strip of tarmac extends in front of the hangars. There are low clouds and a slight, fitful wind.
A Camel is wheeled out of its shed and a large pilot with a red face climbs into the cockpit. Other pilots gather on the tarmac and sit on empty petrol cans which, at that time, served the dual purpose of providing receptacles for petrol and seats for pilots of the Royal Flying Corps while hanging about on their aerodromes.
The 110 h.p. Le Rhone is started by a mechanic who swings the airscrew. It splutters a moment and then hums evenly, running throttled down. The pilot tries his controls. The elevator rises and falls and he looks round and watches it. The ailerons rock and the machine rocks with them. The rudder flicks slightly to right and left. These preparations are carried out slowly and methodically; but now a change in the tempo occurs. The engine roars and fades, a hand waves from the narrow cockpit, the chocks are jerked from the wheels, the
pilot turns his head quickly to right and left, the engine roars again and, simultaneously, before the machine has started to gather way, the tail lifts.
Now watch closely. The machine jumps forward, heeling on to the left wing. The left wing tip is brushing the grass as the machine rises. The machine rises as if it were being lifted from the ground and a surprisingly large expanse of top plane exposes itself fiat to the view of the spectators on the tarmac. The machine has turned vertically across wind as it is taking off.
It flattens out and vanishes round the corner of the farthest hangar like an express train into a tunnel. The sound of its engine dies for a second then shrieks as the machine reappears two feet above the sheds. It comes down steeply towards the tarmac, turning slightly, and then, as its wheels skim the grass, it points its nose slowly upward. At that height and in that position it seems that the only possible manoeuvre open to the pilot is a zoom. But watch !
The machine goes on slowly turning its nose upwards until it is standing on its tail. Then the nose comes over on top and the large expanse of that top plane again appears horribly close to the spectators below it. It seems impossible that the machine should have room to flatten out before hitting the ground. One watches it almost panic stricken. But it continues—without a falter or the slightest unevenness—to curve round.
It curves round and its nose rushes straight for the tarmac ; its engine roars louder and louder. So close is it that the machine seems to have grown in size out of proportion to its surroundings. It curves round and with a fortissimo crash of its engine right in the spectators’ ears, it passes along over the tarmac having completed a perfect loop at slow speed, right down on the ground.
No pilot could watch one of those low, slow loops without being dumbfounded with admiration and astonishment. But more extraordinary manoeuvres are in store. The Camel zooms after its loop, then falls towards the ground in a vertical sideslip, flattens out, turns and comes across the aerodrome parallel with the tarmac, its wing tip about over the edge of the tarmac and some ten feet up.
Opposite the central hanger it lunges up and round in a quick twist. The huge expanse of top plane again flashes into view to be succeeded by a close view of the lower plane and the undercarriage wheels. The machine wriggles, as it were, turns clean over and is again flying level about ten feet up. The pilot has performed a flick roll starting and ending it some ten feet from the ground. The whole display might last five minutes but they
were minutes so closely packed with the superfine execution of difficult aerobatics that the whole technique of flying seemed to be compressed into them. And finally the machine would settle on the edge of the tarmac, placed there precisely as a man might place a piece on a chess board.
I had the pleasure of meeting the pilot—and many members of the R.F.C. will guess his name—who used to give these displays. The impression that they were the reckless work of a madman was soon dispelled when one beard his theories. Every detail of every manoeuvre had been worked out and practised with almost inconceivable care at a safe height. And then the separate manoeuvres had been put together to form a carefully constructed whole which although it did not include any of the modern aerobatics such as outward spins and bunts or even slow rolls, for sheer spectacular effect exceeded any other flying exhibition.