Somewhere in the North of France, Saturday.
Today our special delight has been a bombardment from enemy aeroplanes.
They came over about noon and roused the fearful and subdued the proud while we were all at lunch. They circled overhead for about five minutes, dropped a dozen or so bombs, then cleared off hurriedly before our own men had time to get away.
One man here had a most ingenious "funkhole " for aerial bombardment. He utilised a large stone drain-pipe for this purpose, and it was his custom when enemy aircraft were reported to be in sight to crawl into this thing, take a book with him, and calmly read until they had taken their departure. He advertised this comic shelter one day as " A novel bijou residence, completely detached, every convenience, within easy reach of the firing line. Bullets and bombs pass the door every few moments."
Figuratively speaking, our mission was targetregistering. But having previously heard that the "mother" (naval 9.2-inch gun) with which we were to have worked was incapacitated, and the afternoon being fine and sunny, we determined to seek adventure further afield, and turning her nose in a southeasterly direction kept straight on. "Am making for Dixmude to see if we can raise a Hun or two."
This latter by means of a note passed over my shoulder by the pilot. And here let it be said that a proper understanding between pilot and observer is one of the essential features of war flying. What the latter misses the former often picks up, for when flying at high altitudes of over 10,000 feet, field-glasses for observation purposes, with the excessive vibration of the engine, are at first very difficult to manipulate.
Our machine, one of the latest scouting types, was a beauty. She climbed rapidly and had a fast turn of speed through the air, concerning which latter feature there always seems to exist in the lay mind a deal of misapprehension, especially concerning the possibilities and peculiarities of the various types.
The aeroplane is a most curious and difficult machine to build up, because so many different factors have to be taken into consideration in the construction of it. If it be constructed for speed work, it necessitates a large engine, and hence more weight, and with its limited lifting capacity, some other feature has to be sacrificed, very probably petrol-tanks, thus cutting down the possible duration of flight. Similarly speed would have to be sacrificed for duration.
Thus it will be seen that an aeroplane can only specialise in one feature and cannot possess, at one and the same time, speed, lift, safety, climbing power and long durability.
The alpha and omega of the adventure was that we were within certain limits free to do what we pleased. This added a certain amount of vim and interest, especially so when compared with target registering. As we sail along the blue sky over green fields and steepled city, my eye constantly roams round in search of enemy aircraft, but thus far with not much luck.
The firing lines are now far behind us, and we are well over into the enemy's country. One would have thought that before now we should have encountered a stray Aviatik or so, or a patrolling Albatross.
Immediately thoughts of an aerial combat flash across my mind. I had never taken part in one before, but had often watched them from the comfortable security of terra frma: during that first moment I had a bad attack of "cold feet." A vision of many a hard-fought battle in midair came before my eyes. With the opposing machines darting above and below one another like two great birds, the sun glistening on the whitened planes as they turned and twisted, while all around and silhouetted against the deep blue sky were the little black and flame patches of the bursting shrapnel, it was a gloriously fascinating sight.
The uncertainty held one spellbound. Suddenly one of the machines would put down her nose and descend like a stone to earth; for a moment one's heart was in one's mouth until she would right herself and climb up again into the fray. Sometimes these wonderful battles would last as long as forty minutes or an hour, until one or the other would crash down thousands of feet to the earth below.
In a warfare of long-ranging artillery, and the scientific slaughter of an invisible foe many miles away where hand-to-hand combat was practically unknown, these duels in mid-air were a delight to friend and foe alike, for they, and they alone, were favoured with the old-time romance of war, daring and adventure.
Men in the trenches would leave their rifles, forget the enemy, and gaze with wide-open eyes at what was going on overhead; drivers of ammunition-wagons would pause on their way in the middle of the road craning their necks, the while red-hatted staff-officers would order their cars to be stopped until the fight was over.
Those two little black specks, suspended thousands of feet above were the cynosure of all eyes, and when the stricken machine came low enough for her nationality to be distinguished, if it were a black cross on either wing a shout of sheer joy would burst forth from many an anxious heart; if on the other hand, it were the three circles of red, white, and blue, a sigh would go down the lines like the rustle of the wind through the trees. She is almost up to us by this time. I let fire with the machine-gun, but she is still beyond range. Oh, those moments of expectation! Would she fight or turn tail and run?
She elected to do the former and climbed quickly above us. Her pilot opened fire with his machinegun. The bullets whizzed past our ears, dangerously near.
We climb in turn and lose sight of her for a moment or so. It is a complicated game of blindman's buff We got up with her at last and both let off simultaneously. There is a language spoken in that act, a language that has neither stops, commas, letters, characters, notes, nor images. It is the language of unbounded hate. Hate to the death. We got above her and "down-wind " this time. Luck is on our side. Another tray of cartridges for the gun quickly! That's got her. She drops sharply. Her pilot must have been hit and lost control of his "joy-stick." We are right on top of her now and let the whole tray of munitions off into her back.
Suddenly down goes her nose. She rushes earthwards with a very fair speed to waft her pilot to paradise. Faster and faster she travels. Fainter, fainter does our view of her become!
Down below the hundreds are waiting anxiously, already glorying in the prize. She's down at last! Most thankfully we turn home.
The Way of The Air
Screenshots from Rise of Flight.