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Kings of the Air: The Calm After The Storm

Following recent posts on injury and death, one might wonder how the survivors managed after the war. And the answer is not always very well. Many pilots carried on doing what they did best - flying, but undoubtedly, many missed the adrenalin rush of combat flying. 'Deep down, in the calm that follows the storm, I sometimes rather regret that all danger is past,' admitted René Fonck. 'Constant peril can be particularly satisfying to anyone prepared to take on the challenge. Sometimes we really miss it and that's when we embark on some lunatic enterprise or other.' 

And almost immediately, on 19 January 1919, Jules Védrines embarked on such a lunatic enterprise, landing his aircraft on the roof of the Galeries Lafayette department store in Paris in a feat of bravado and enormously skilful flying. On 21 April, whilst flying from Paris to Rome, his engine failed, and his aircraft crashed at Saint-Rambert d'Albon, near Lyon, killing him and his mechanic.

Some pilots were unhappy with the proposed representation of Aviation during the ceremonial for 1919 Bastille Day (they were simply ordered to parade on foot, rather than in a fly past). As a protest, they decided to fly a plane through the Arc de Triomphe. There was only one man both with the flying skills and who was bonkers enough to try it, and that was Jean Navarre, by this time working as a test pilot for Morane-Saulnier. Practising at the airfield at Villacoublay, he tried to land with a dead stick, came in too short, and ended up hitting a boundary wall. He died two days later, and was buried next to his twin brother Pierre, shot down in 1916, in his home town of Tartas (Landes). Jean had just turned twenty-four.

Charles Godefroy, a flying instructor, successfully took up the challenge, his Nieuport 11 giving him just three metres clearance each way. The film of his attempt is still scary, even though you know he's going to make it.

Throughout the 1920s, pilots continued to try and make a living from their military flying skills. Pierre Marinovitch (SPA94), 'the baby of Great War air aces', with twenty-five victories to his name, was killed at a flying display in Brussels in 1919, aged just twenty-one. Albert Deullin (SPA73), a leading theoretician of fighter combat, died in a crash while testing a prototype at Villacoublay in 1923; Georges Madon (SPA38) was killed at an air show in 1924 when he deliberately crashed his aircraft into a house rather than plough into a crowd of spectators. 

René Fonck, reserved as ever, declined to participate in any such hare-brained adventures, and got himself elected to the Chamber of Deputies in November 1919 for the Bloc Nationale centre-right grouping, after having bombarded villages with election material from a SPAD lent to him by manufacturer Louis Blériot. He spoke on aviation matters, but otherwise was a reluctant parliamentarian, and was somewhat relieved when he was voted out in 1924, after a national swing to the left. But perhaps with time hanging heavy on his hands, in 1926, he became attracted to competing for the Orteig Prize for crossing the Atlantic between New York and Paris. His aircraft, a specially modified triple-engined Sikorsky S35, was grossly overloaded, and crashed on take off. Fonck and his co-pilot survived, but his mechanic and wireless operator were both killed. This video presentation includes some film of the aircraft in flight from about 1.15; this newsreel shows the wreck. That was enough for Fonck, and he rejoined the Aviation Service.

The much injured Charles Nungesser earned a crust recreating some of his dogfights in displays in the United States, including work on the film The Sky Raider (in which he starred as himself, billed significantly as the World's Greatest Living Ace). He too was drawn by the idea of crossing the Atlantic to claim the Orteig Prize. He originally planned to team up with Paul Tarascon (N/SPA62), but Tarascon injured himself before he could participate. Nungesser's choice then fell on François Coli (also from SPA62), who had made a name for himself by recent long-distance flights across the Mediterranean. Their tale is better known, and I will return to it in a future post.

However, not every ex-pilot was a thrillseeker. Léon Bourjade (SPA152), the terror of the German observation balloons, resumed his religious calling after the war, entering the priesthood and served as a missionary in Papua New Guinea. And after his daredevil deeds in 1919, Charles Godefroy never flew again.

Flying, especially testing, remained so, so, dangerous. But that still didn't stop young men coming forward to join up. Léon Cuffaut was inspired by meeting former pilots: 'I spent my youth near Auxerre, in Burgundy … and used stand on valley side to watch the planes. They belonged to the flying club set up by Jean Moreau, a future minister of aviation, a colonel in the reserves and a fighter ace with five victories in the 14-18 war. I made my first flight with him. The uniform, Jean Moreau and his lace-up boots, képi a little askew, the engine noise: I was mad about flying and I used to spend entire days cleaning the aircraft windscreens.' Cuffaut naturally became a pilot, and a fighter pilot too, serving with the Normandie-Niemen Group in the Soviet Union during the Second World War.

'Flying had a bit of an aura,' said General Charles Christienne, commissioned in the Armée de l'Air in 1939, and later the first director of its Service Historique. 'Aviators were something special. They had qualities that were particularly attractive to a young man: love of danger, because the risks then were considerable, or at least the public thought they were, plus a taste for adventure. In addition, we were increasingly under threat. We all knew peace couldn't last and that one day there'd be another war. War, my God! How exciting it seemed to a boy of fifteen or sixteen.'

Another future general, Jean Jardin, gained his wings in 1921, and would serve in a reconnaissance squadron in 1940: 'At the age of sixteen I met the famous pilot Dieudonné Costes at Montpellier airfield. He'd been one of the aces in the 14-18 war. Afterwards he left the army and took on a fairly humdrum job as a pilot with Aéropostale, carrying the post. That day in Montpellier – Palavas, in fact – he caught me staring because I recognized him. “Do you want to go up for a spin?” he said. … I was absolutely thrilled to be up so high, above the clouds, with the thrum of the engine and the wind in my ears … it really opened my eyes. "I know what I want to do,” I said the very same day. “I want to be a pilot."'
Pictures: Fonck in later life; Jean Navarre; Charles Godefroy (Wikipedia); Fonck's Sikorsky tri-motor (Wikipedia); poster for The Sky Raider (from via the website of his old regiment here); Léon Cuffaut, while serving with Normandie-Niemen (from here); Charles Christienne, second from right, serving with 342 (Lorraine) Squadron at RAF Elvington during the Second World War (from here)


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