Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Kings of the Air: Of Penguins and Men part 2

Convinced that the war would only last a few months, on the outbreak of hostilities General Bernard, the Director of Aviation, decided to close all the aviation schools. He was sacked on 10th October and replaced by General Edouard Hirschauer, who had been the Inspector of Aviation 1912-13. Hirschauer immediately reversed Bernard's decision. The school at Avord reopened in September, followed in December by the one in Pau. Further military schools followed in Chartres and Ambérieu. From February 1915, military pilots were also trained at schools run by aircraft manufacturers - at Etampes (Farman), Le Crotoy (Caudron) and Buc (Blériot). All these three schools taken over by the military in September, and further specialist schools were opened for air gunnery (Cazaux), for fighter pilots (Pau), artillery spotters (Châteauroux) and bomber crews (Avord). This growth was all rather ad hoc, and was only rationalised in September 1915 with the appointment of Major Adolphe Girod as Inspector of Schools.

Girod ensured that all aircrew candidates would undergo basic military training at the depot at Dijon, before moving to a basic flying training school (Avord, Buc, Pau, Tours, Ambérieu, Le Crotoy, Juvisy, Chartres and Etampes). Pilots who gained their wings were then sent for further training on the specific types of aircraft they would be flying at the Front. Men destined for army corps squadrons or fighter squadrons, who had trained on Caudrons or Voisins, were sent to Avord to also familiarise themselves with Sopwiths and Nieuports. The same location also contained a night-flying school. Fighter pilots were sent on to Pau to develop their aerobatic skills and then to Cazaux for further gunnery training. Army corps squadron pilots went on to Chartres, while observers and gunners went to Cazaux.

Only then would qualified aircrew be sent to the pool at Plessis-Belleville, outside Paris, to await a posting to a front-line squadron. In 1918, under normal circumstances, the whole process would take six months. In 1914, some 134 trainees passed through the system; by 1918, this had risen to 6,909. The last man to qualify as a pilot during the war was Adrien Valière, on 11 November. Altogether, some 16,546 pilots were produced during the war. Of those who qualified in 1918, 40% went to fighter squadrons, 33% to army corps squadrons, and 15% to bombers.

Flying schools were distant from the Front, and were often in less-populated regions. 'At the end of the sandy road,' ran a description of Le Crotoy on the Somme estuary, 'the beach seemed vast and grey. Planes flew back and forth, motors whined … pot-bellied Bessonneaux hangars crouched sleepily in the dunes. It's the School. Over there, on the horizon, something which could quite well be the sea … it has gone out so far that you wonder if it will ever return. A plane spirals down. Our future ace looks on, wide eyed. This evening, tomorrow perhaps, he'll be flying too. Can it [really] be possible?' Arriving at Avord, Marcel Jeanjean was unimpressed by what he found: 'everywhere a shambles. Revolting huts. Rotting mattresses on the ground, and the CO meeting the latest batch of trainees and shouting, “What do you want me to do with this lot?”'

Training consisted of a mixture of theoretical lectures and practical work. Raymond Berthelot arrived at Ambérieu on 29 June 1917 and attended lectures on: 'cross-country flying, navigation, brakes and landing, mechanics, intelligence gathering, aerodynamics, the Voisin aircraft, stability, accidents, the engines, the carburettor, lubrication, magnetos, flight safety, faults, the airfield, topography, compass work and meteorology', before making his first flight, on dual control, on 24 August.

The instructors were experienced pilots from the Front, posted there as much to give them a rest as to provide good trainers. Yet at least one man was posted to a school because he was a poor pilot: 'During his time with the squadron, from 3 August to 1 October 1916, pilot X was unable to render any effective service as a pilot, either through want of self-confidence, or because he lacked the physical qualities necessary to make a good pilot. I hope he'll be able to make himself useful at the school where he has been sent as a instructor, and that he will try hard to dispel the unfortunate impression he made with the squadron.'

The first practical stage for the novice pilot was with the 'penguins', Blériot monoplanes fitted with small 20hp engines, whose wings were cut down so they were unable to take off (there you are, you were wondering when penguins were going to come into it, weren't you?). 'They are rather difficult to handle,' confessed Charles Biddrich, 'and are designed to teach the men to steer straight. At first you go sideways and twist around in each direction except the one in which you wish to go. After you catch on to them however you go tripping along over the ground at some 35 or 40 miles an hour.' The Theory lectures at Le Crotoy took place in a hangar: 'an instructor, in a front of a plane prepared by the mechanics, picks apart his dream: a bit of steel, wood, canvas etc. – nothing very solid. … "Calm yourself my friend. Nothing like this has ever stayed up." Comforted by these wise words, [the typical student] waits for his first 24-hour leave.'

After the penguins came the 'rouleurs'. These were Blériots that were capable of flight, but the pilots had to remain on the ground. Their object was 'to teach the pupil to steer a straight course.' From here, the student moved on to the 'décolleur' class, in which he was allowed to leave the ground to a height of a metre or so, before cutting the engine and returning to the ground. The height and length of flight was slowly increased with every successful attempt, all done under the eye of an instructor.

Jeanjean described the momentous event of a first solo: 'The trainee, rather pale, listens to the final words of advice from his instructor. “Listen! You don't have the penguin in your hands any more, but a racehorse. Don't push too hard on the joystick, the plane will dive nose first into the ground. Above all don't pull back too hard, otherwise you'll go into a steep climb that will end in a fatal loss of air speed … Take care too never to cross control or you'll end up in a spin. Be very, very careful when you're banking, feel very gently for the controls or you'll end up doing a barrel roll.'

Pupils were able to progress at their own speed, in a series of machines with ever larger, more powerful engines: 'Since Saturday,' said Biddle, 'I have passed through four classes so you can see that we are moving right along.' Marcel Thavet described these classes as follows: 'The 50s class, the first step to the stars. Then the 80s, cross-country flying and the pilot's licence. At Le Crotoy it was christened the 'clown flight' because of the trainees' involuntary acrobatics the day they first flew solo.'

The final stage consisted of a 'serpentine' and a 'spiral'. 'Both,' explained Biddle, 'were methods of losing height without gaining distance, ie to land on a spot under you.' The final test consisted firstly of two flights to a given location and back, staying aloft for a specified time, and then two triangular routes of 225km. Raymond Berthelot received his wings after a total of thirty-nine hours flight time (10 hours solo), and a total of 139 landings.


At Pau, pilots were taught simple aerobatic manoeuvres - loops, spins and rolls. As in earlier stages of their training, pilots were instructed on the ground, but they had to learn to control the plane on their own. One pilot recalled, 'In the hangar, there was a plane stripped of its fabric called “Cowkiller”, upon which [Sergeant] Fronval made us go through the manoeuvres we had to perform. From the landing strip, Lieutenant Simon [the commander of the school], with his monocle, followed the progress of the pilots who normally passed over at 1500ft. His eyes were always glued to the skies and he would cry: 'I knew it, I knew it! That one's going to crash ." And without fail, the poor sod smashed into the ground … what you have to remember about the school at Pau is that there were lots of fatal accidents, a guard of honour was permanently mustered for burial duty.'

'Finally' said Jim McConnell, 'the pilot is considered well enough trained to be sent to the reserve, where he waits his call to the front. At the reserve he flies to keep his hand in, practices on any new make of machine that happens to come out or that he may be put on in place of the Nieuport, and receives information regarding old and new makes of enemy airplanes.' The 'reserve' was the pool of qualified pilots, the Groupes de Division d'Entraînement, located in and around Plessis-Belleville (Oise), north of Paris. Carroll Winslow was billeted in nearby Ermenonville, while the CO had his headquarters in the chateau of Prince Radzivill. Winslow found, 'There were four separate camps, one for each branch of aviation, and there are over one hundred machines in each camp. We were practically our own masters, and could make flights whenever we wished. The idea is that the pilots here have an opportunity of perfecting themselves and that, if they do not fly, why, then it is their loss.' Adjudant Jean Carayon found it an 'extraordinary, colourful shambles … accidents on a daily basis, a crazy carnival of a place, spahis mingling with colonial troops, everyone making fun of the uniform with your jumper almost up to your ears, but a very pleasant atmosphere.' William Wellman was less impressed: 'It was in reality a good deal of a dump.'


Pictures: Hirschauer before the war (what a magnificent moustache!); Girod (whose moustache is not quite as magnificent); a pre-war postcard of the flying school at Le Crotoy, on the Somme estuary; a theory lecture by pilot and professional illustrator Marcel Jeanjean; 'a penguin' by Marcel Jeanjean; 'double command' by Marcel Jeanjean; 'a first solo' by Marcel Jeanjean; 'a photo for the marraine' by Jeanjean.



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