Flight has always been a huge adventure, in its early years the danger lay at the surface facing them every day. Whilst often forgiving due to low mass and the frangibility of the machines, protection for the aviator was minimal and entanglement in cartwheeling wreckage often involved hideous injuries. The attrition rate among those learning to fly from those who could barely manage the feat themselves was grievous.
As flying training establishments flowered across the United Kingdom and far into the Empire, the casualty rates rocketed. At the end of hostilities it was estimated that we had lost more young men to accidents and training than we had to the conflict. The figure bandied about is around 14,000+ total flight crew casualties, some 8000 or more to non combat losses. Had Major Smith Barry failed to convince Trenchard that there was a better, more considered way to conduct flying training, it is likely that we would have lost many, many more. He transformed the activity into a relatively safe process by training instructors in his evolved techniques for the production of aviators from callow youths without a clue.
Like many of his compatriots Arthur Keen returned from the Front to Home Establishment (the UK) to recuperate from the stress and fatigue of combat. During the interval at home he and they were used as flying instructors to bring along their replacements. Until the sweeping changes brought about by Smith Barry were introduced, tutoring the ‘Huns’ as they called them was a dangerous and low status job. One that was often loathed by exhausted young men who, having survived the tumult over France and Belgium felt ill inclined to be sent to their maker by those they resembled but months earlier themselves. It is hardly surprising that a poor job was often done, students regularly spending little time actually handling the flying controls before staggering into the air themselves for the first time.
Captain Albert Ball presents us with a fine example. He completed his service training on the 29th January 1916 and was immediately posted to Gosport arriving on 31st. He took up duties as a flying instructor with 22 Squadron and wrote in a letter home on the 6th February “… thirty officers up for instruction, and out of thirty, six off solo…” and all in a single day (Bowyer, 1977. p.49). This was quick work indeed, we would love to know how many survived the experience.
Ball scribbled a short note home on the 17th February prior to embarking for France. In the early years of the RFC, if you were a ‘brevetted’ pilot you knew how to fly and could therefore (of course) teach others to do the same.
A large part of Arthur’s story is entwined in the drama surrounding flying training. It is clear from the material that he was a talented pilot, what also emerges is the picture of the committed instructor. Someone who graduated from Smith Barry’s earlier Gosport instructor courses with ‘a final assessment exceeding all who had gone before’ (a statement taken from one of his letters that we hope to establish evidence for one day). What he might have done post conflict with that talent will never be known but he was spotted by those structuring the new Royal Air Force and given attractive options, one that he took, the rest he left behind to return to 40 Squadron at Bruay/Bryass, this time as its commanding officer.
Bowyer, C. (1977) Albert Ball VC, Manchester, Crecy Publishing Ltd.