In My Father’s Words
03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018
A fussy, enquiring wind whipped in over the sand dunes, bringing a North Atlantic chill to the little huddle of spectators gathered on a small hill, causing the men to shuffle deeper into their overcoats and to pull their collars around their necks. About fifty yards away, a smaller gaggle of men in overalls tended to a strange machine, a contraption of wires, wood and canvas. At last they declared themselves ready and one attempted to start the engine by hand. Several attempts were needed but eventually it fired, shrouding the machine and its attendants in blue smoke.
A ragged cheer from the hill struggled against the rising wind from the ocean; the watchers having witnessed the failure of this event too often this cold day to be truly excited. This time was different. The machine lumbered forward over the rough ground, lifted into the air, crashed down again and finally became airborne and stayed that way. The flight lasted a staggering twelve seconds and covered 120 feet. History had been made, and the world would never ever quite be the same. This was Kitty Hawk Springs in North Carolina and the date was 17th December 1903.
Orville Wright, a 32 year old cycle engineer from Dayton, Ohio, had been at the controls of the first powered flight in a machine designed by Orville and his 36 year old brother, Wilbur, his partner in the cycle business. The Wright brothers could not know the enormous power for both good and evil that their invention would unleash.
Man had long dreamed of emulating the birds by flying in the air, untethered by the restrictions of gravity. From the Icarus of legend, through the prolific, multi-faceted Leonardo da Vinci to the balloonists of France in the 18th and 19th centuries, the dream had been cherished. The Wrights were not the only people working on heavier than air flight; others in France, Germany, England and other parts of the United States were only months behind them.
It did not take very long for Governments to decide that the new toy could have a military application. British military history was well established, the Royal Engineers having operated balloons since 1863. In 1911 they took delivery of their first aircraft and the following year received their Royal Warrant as the Royal Flying Corps. The age of relative innocence, which was the Edwardian era, was soon to die in the bloodbath of the Great War.
By the time of the opening of the Battle of the Somme on 1st July 1916, Britain had nearly 500 aircraft in action in France, a number to increase several times over by the end of the War. The British, French, Germans and Austrians, and later the Americans all became deeply involved in the skies about the slaughterhouses of France, the pilots behaving with an almost medieval chivalry to their enemies. Seven Victoria Crosses were awarded to British and Empire pilots. My own particular here is Major James Byford McCuddon who had 57 victories and who died in 1918 having been awarded the VC, DSO and Bar, MC and Bar, the MM and the Croix de Guerre. He was only 23 at the time of his death. McCuddon just had time to serve in the Royal Air Force, the first independent air force in the world, but not time to exchange either his military rank, or Army uniform before he crashed to his death in Picardy.
Warfare, as it usually does, had improved immeasurably the effectiveness of the aeroplane. It also, in 1918 released thousands of young men into civilian life, young men incurably smitten by a virus, the virus of flying. There was not sufficient employment in the infant airline industry to accommodate these men, and increasingly women, who wanted to fly. And so, for a period of less than twenty years, they created their own jobs, in a circus, a flying circus, or more accurately, a series of circuses throughout the world. The phenomenon was primarily an American one; the huge, often unexplored country lending itself to aviation. Apart from the airlines, the US Post Office employed aircraft to deliver the mail. In the early days the pilots followed a road map, looking out for features such as railways, towns and rivers. Fog often meant a lonely death.
Over the high Rockies ice formed on the wings of their craft and the pilots perished.
The circus developed with ‘hoppers’, people who paid two dollars for trips around the airfields in rickety, dangerous ex Great War machines, and frequently the passengers arrived back on Terra Firma earlier than anticipated. In time, this became safer and blasé and the customers demanded more. Pilots began to perform stunts, spiralling the aircraft towards the ground only to pull up into level flight just in time. And sometimes they didn’t pull up in time. They also buzzed the airfield, doing rolls and loops as close to the ground as safely permitted and sometimes safety did not permit.
Mock dogfights were re enacted, with Sopwiths, Bristols, Spads and Fokkers reliving the days of chivalry, this time in American skies. As the parachute developed, professionals and sometimes thrill seekers jumped from perfectly airworthy machines, a practice which to this day is regarded as very strange by Air Force personnel. Wing walking was popular for a time, with stunt men and girls standing and later walking on the wings of aircraft in flight. The girls were generally very pretty, bare legged, and wearing a wide smile and flimsy clothing. I wish I had seen it. The flying circuses were much-loved features of events like State Fairs.
At the same time the infant industry was growing up and pilots turned their skills to bush flying, delivering supplies to Arctic stations in Canada and Alaska, or fighting fires in the Californian hills. The Flying Doctor Service in the Australian outback brought succour to sick people and sheep stations did the round up in their flimsy aircraft and not solely from the back of a horse.
Alcock and Brown had flown the Atlantic in 1919 in a wartime Vimy bomber, and Charles Lindbergh, a strange and tortured man, crossed it on his own. Amy Johnston ands Amelia Earhart proved that women could also perform feats of endurance. As the thirties stretched towards the forties the popularity of the circus paled. It would soon be extinguished by the Second World War when aircraft were used to bring destruction to cities and death to the citizens.
As the RAF destroyed Dresden and the USAF devastated Nagasaki and Hiroshima, it must have been difficult to recall the carefree, innocent and frankly dangerous days of the Flying Circuses, gleaming from the past like a dimly remembered glimpses of Camelot.
Written by BM