The Wings of the U.S.A.
By William G. Shepherd
[Everybody's Magazine, May 1917]
This story of airships and air fighting, by a man who has had unusual opportunities to watch air achievement in Europe, is written to show America a great need. Mr. Shepherd has reported the war from every important battle-front in Europe. As correspondent of the United Press, he covered the destruction of Belgium; he has been at the British front in France; at the German front in Servia; with the Austrians at Przemysl; with the Italians in the Trieste district. Mr. Shepherd's interesting Confessions of a War Correspondent have been running in EVERYBODY'S.
In the article that follows, Mr. Shepherd has revealed no military secrets. He has assembled in a telling fashion facts that any American could discover for himself; and he offers a big, constructive suggestion which we believe every American should endorse.
Just after completing "The Wings of the U. S. A." he started for Petrograd, and later numbers of EVERYBODY'S will include articles by him on the Russian Revolution and the situations that may develop.—THE EDITOR.
There is a short cut which the United States can make toward mastery, in war, over enemies on land or sea. It is a recipe for victory, and it has to do with our strength in the air.
I am writing this article to show that it is superlatively important that we take this short cut: The wings of the U. S. A. will be palsied (and palsied wings, in this twentieth-century war, are far more dangerous than palsied-arms) for at least one year, if we do not. I know definitely, and every man who has seen the war in Europe knows definitely, just exactly what step we ought to take—nay, MUST take—to escape an early catastrophe in the air if war comes upon us. And a catastrophe in the air means catastrophes on both land and sea. What this one thing is which we must do, I intend to point out in this article. It is as simple and clear as day.
The long, hard road along which the nations in Europe have struggled in learning aerial warfare is not pleasant to view. But we need not take this road: we must cut across, profiting by their experiences and their lessons in how not to do things, and quickly reach the same point of excellence they have attained to-day after so much trouble.
The United States gave wings to mankind through the Wright Brothers. It also gave the idea of the war-time Zeppelin to Germany; for it was by watching the work of Union troops in spying on Confederate lines from observation balloons that Count Zeppelin first got the idea of sending an army's eyes and arms into the sky. Count Zeppelin's first ascent was made at St. Paul, Minnesota. We know how to fly in the United States, but we have before us now the duty of learning the value of properly using our wings in warfare.
It is a feverish and bloody progress that has been made in flying in Europe. In the laboratory of aerial warfare, during the last thirty-three months, human lives have been spent in experiments like the lives of animals on the vivisectionist's table; but thousands of airmen, testing every new idea, and hundreds of aerial engineers and scientists, madly struggling in their laboratories, have achieved a progress that not a hundred years of peace could have brought about.
While in peace times we find one Pegoud who shocks the world by taking his life in his hand to prove that an aeroplane can fly upside down, there have been hundreds of grim men in Europe since the war began who have lost their lives in showing how aerial warfare ought not to be conducted.
No one, for instance, knows how many lives have been lost, on all sides, in proving that the monoplane was not practicable. In England one day, early in the war, two young men of fine families went up in a monoplane to test its value as a machine for observation purposes. They fell, and both were killed. The next day two young men were sent up to try to find out whether or not the accident of the day before was due to inherent dangers in the one-winged type of aeroplane. They too fell, and both were killed. Wherefore the monoplane was wiped off the British books. No army uses monoplanes to-day.
Not half of the mechanical improvement can be told. When the world comes to, after the war madness, and takes count of the few benefits which the war has bestowed, one of the most striking of them will be the discovery that the air has become a safer sphere for travel than the land. Zeppelins have done the equivalent of transatlantic flights, and there are aeroplanes in use to-day that could fly from Ireland to Newfoundland, 1,800 miles, without any great special preparation.
"I say! You!" shouted an Englishman to me on a street in The Hague some months ago. I turned and saw a young man in the uniform of the British flyers whom I had known during the Orozco revolution in northern Mexico in 1912; he had brought a flying-machine to El Paso, intending to help Orozco upset Madero. "Come out to my house to dinner," he said. "I want to show you my home." He lived in a beautiful little suburban chateau, and he presented me to his wife, a charming American girl.
"I was shot down, after over a year of flying at the front," he explained, "but I just managed to soar across the Dutch border. If I had had two minutes less time I'd have been a prisoner in Germany to-day. But, as it was, here I am. The Dutch don't lock us up. They give us freedom in The Hague on parole. I met an American girl who was visiting here, and we fell in love and were married. And now we're waiting for the war to end."
When we got to talking of old times in Mexico, he drew a photograph of his old flying-machine from a writing-desk. It had been taken in the baseball park at El Paso in 1913.
"By Jove! Just to think that I ever went into the air in a thing like that, made of bamboo fishpoles! We didn't know any better then, and that was only forty months ago. I've been all through every kind of danger a man can have in air-fighting, but I've never been in so much danger, here on the front, as I used to be just riding in that old machine at El Paso. And I flew over a moving freight-train in that thing and let a movie operator drop from it to the top of a box car. Ugh! It gives me the shudders!"
"The machines you use to-day must be pretty good," I suggested.
"Good!" he exclaimed. "It's a beastly bore to fly in them. It's just like sitting on a log. You get your levers set and then you can take your hands off them and not touch them. There you sit, just like a man alone in the woods on a log, thinking about everything on earth, and bored to death. Believe me, flying-men weren't bored in the machines we had two years ago. Flying then was like walking a tight rope: your mind had to be on it every second."
The stork was settling down over this British flying-man's home when I left the Hague; a tiny human being was coming into the world who would owe his existence to the fact that one day, in the sky, a man who was flying amid shrapnel had just the necessary margin of two minutes in which to fly out of the enemy's country on to neutral soil.
"And I hope it's a boy," said the flying-man, "because I want him to be able to boast that his daddy flew across the Atlantic Ocean. I've got my machine all picked out for the job."
The United States will not be behind in this matter of mechanical perfection. No danger lies in that direction. We will take every short cut in the matter of mechanical improvement that the experience of the European air-fighters has suggested. A census of the eleven aeroplane factories in the country will show that we are able to produce any sort of a machine that the war has demanded. Not long ago an American factory sent to Europe a hydro-aeroplane which had a stretch of wings a third of a block long. It carried two tons of weight besides itself, and in addition to the two 400-horse-power engines for the air propellers, there was a 30-horse-power engine in the boat which operated a water propeller. The steering-gear was operated by electricity. Up to now, it is the last word in aeroplanes. And more of this type are being built.
This is the first public mention that has ever been made of this fact.
Any short cut in the method of getting young men to control the wings of the United States in war, as compared with the system of training flying-men in Europe, will be impossible. Can we outdo the following example, for instance?
A young Englishman, leading a bulldog and carrying a grip, walked casually into the lounging-room of a chateau in France which was being used as a billet for flying-men and said in a worried way: "I've been told to report to Captain –––––. Is he here?"
The captain, who was present, rose and shook hands. "How'd you come?" he asked.
"Oh, I flew across, dog and all," explained the young man.
"There's an Oxford chap who has flown only three weeks," the captain said to us, after the youth had gone to the room which had been set aside for him. "He'll be looping within two weeks."
As a matter of fact, within two weeks he was looping.
The war was a year old when this incident occurred, and a saner light, has dawned on the war departments, at least on the Ally side, since that time. Pilots in those early days were looked upon in England as mere chauffeurs for trained military observers. Any man who could fly a machine at all was sent to the front and was expected to take the observers into the sky whenever observation was necessary. Observers, next to spies, were considered the bravest men in warfare in those days, for, though none of them had ever been trained to fly an aeroplane, they risked their helpless necks many times daily in machines which were operated by young men who had qualified as pilots with only a few weeks' training.
The pilots in those days and the pilot of to-day can not be compared. Into the barroom of the Savoy Hotel in London, at lunch-time and just before dinner every evening, a tall young British flying-man used to saunter on a quest for a cocktail appetizer. He always had the latest tell-tale gossip from the front, because it was his job to fly from London to the British headquarters in France every morning and every afternoon with a new aeroplane. And he always flew back to London in a broken aeroplane. He called the broken machine a "dud," and his skill as a pilot was so great that by skilful flying he could bring almost any machine across the Channel if the motor would pull it. There are scores and scores of pilots as good as he in the European armies of to-day, and we in the United States ought to have at least five thousand of them at this very moment.
The war offices in Europe got off on the wrong foot at the beginning of the war in their use of aeroplanes, and it has cost many lives to set them right. On all the fronts, for example, as soon, as the fixed trench warfare began, the military leaders on both sides attempted to systematize aerial observation. The results were deadly to the flying-men. At certain hours every day flying-men were sent over certain fixed routes. They ran on stated schedules, and at stated heights over these routes, and it was not long before the artillery on both sides knew exactly when and where to expect an enemy aeroplane.
"We used to call 'em the bus routes," an English flying-man said to me recently. "They were deadly, but we had orders to follow them and it had to be done. The Huns had our ranges to a 'T' and it got so bad at last that only a few of us ever got clear around the route. The Germans had their bus routes, too. But both sides stopped this scheduled flying after a while. The generals found out that the best thing was to give a flying man his head and let him fly in his own way, as long as he got the results they wanted."
It required imagination to use the aeroplane in warfare and the military men didn't have it. It was the flying-man and not the old-time military men who discovered how to use the aeroplane in war. It was in the air and not in the offices of the "gold-hat boys" that the full use of wings in warfare was developed.
Some of the tricks which the flying men learned for themselves went contrary to the books, and even contrary to the theories of the flying-men themselves. The things which it seemed a flying-man ought to do were discovered to be the very thongs that he ought not to do.
Under shrapnel fire, for example, it seemed to be the proper thing to climb out of range. And yet the flying-men learned, by deadly experiences, that the best way to avoid shrapnel was to drop, instead of climb, because climbing lessened the speed and afforded a slower target, while dropping increased the speed and spoiled the enemy's range. No doubt our army experts know this trick, although I have never seen an American flyer, except those who have served in the European war, who knew it.
To get above an enemy flyer and in front of him was the early-war idea of plane-to-plane fighting in the air, but experience proved that the best way to bring down the foe was to get below and behind him.
Air-fighters who tried to fly without goggles, on the theory that they interfered with sight, discovered that in fast movements they could not always keep their faces behind their screens. The wind got under their eyelids and puffed them up like little balloons, blinding them.
And the biggest discovery of all was that, if you get into trouble in the sky by an enemy's hit, the best thing to do is to do nothing. "If you're hit, just leave your controls alone," is the extreme motto of men who have had the experience. "If your machine has got anything left, and you're far enough from the ground, she'll right herself. If she doesn't, there's nothing you can do to right it."
The improvements in the flying-machines and in the methods of using them in warfare came from the flying-men themselves. In England Lord Northcliffe made one of the stiffest of his stiff fights against the Government with the cry, "Listen to the flying-men and let them tell us what we need." Too many theoretical old gentlemen in comfortable offices were theorizing about how the aerial department of modern warfare ought to be conducted, while the flying-men themselves, out of their own rich experiences, had gained an adequate knowledge of the possibilities of the aeroplane." These possibilities outdid the most sanguine theories of the chair-warmers.
This may be illustrated by the development of the use of bombs. The British flying-men learned for themselves that to drop a huge weight from an aeroplane would not disturb its equilibrium, provided the weight fell from the exact center of gravity of the machine. Having proved this to their own satisfaction, they demanded eight-hundred-pound bombs. And they got them. And after experience in dropping these bombs they began to demand improvements in the bombs themselves.
"I was flying over a town behind the German lines," said a British flyer one day in the "Flyers' Chateau," "when I let go my eight-hundred-pound bomb. For some reason or other it wobbled through the air all the way down, and when it struck, it landed on its side. It blew down a whole row of houses. It reminded me of a hose washing away a sand-pile. What we need, now, is a bomb that will always fall on its side. We're wasting too much ammunition in blowing holes in the ground."
Reliable information runs to the effect that the Ally flying-men now have bombs that will drop on their sides instead of their noses. The European flyers, with their new bombs, now speak of "fanning down" a railroad station, instead of "blowing it up."
The flying-men have also worked out for themselves such principles of military organization and management as these: For every machine in use, two other machines must be in reserve, if a general is to expect constant aerial observation. For every pilot in the field, there should be three machines in the hangar. No engine, of any make, is to be depended upon in over-the-trench flying for more than twenty-four hours of service. After this service it must "be taken apart and thoroughly cleaned and repaired—a week's job for one man.
For every pilot in a flying-squad it is necessary to have two machinists and four handy workmen. In other words, it requires six men and three machines to keep one flying-man in the air, over the front.
There has never been a time when the flying-men in Europe have not been heroes in their own armies—and, often enough, in the other fellow's as well.
"One aeroplane is worth a thousand men," said Lord Kitchener after the progress of the war had indicated the possibilities of the aeroplane, and the fact is that the thousand men realized this as thoroughly as Lord Kitchener did. I have walked on the streets with British, German, and Austrian flying-men in various army headquarters, and I have seen soldiers, forgetting all the code of salute and deference, stand, gaping-mouthed in hero-worship, while these men passed by.
Always, the flying-men live in a camp of their own, and, outside of actual working hours, they have as much liberty as an officer of the highest rank. To call them the prima donnas of warfare is no exaggeration. In the early days of the war British flying-men were usually billeted in fine chateaus in France, considerably behind the lines. Pianos, fine pictures, beautiful gardens, daily baths, and even valets made their lives pleasant. I have known a camp of star flyers with a limousine at its disposal. In the morning the limousine would call at the chateau for the man who had to do the "early watch" on the "bus route." He would enter it and be whisked to the flying-field, where his aeroplane, tended by a mechanic whom he trusted thoroughly, would be in readiness. After receiving his orders, he would climb into the machine, and fly off to work.
Within two hours—if he ever came back at all—he would alight at the flying-field, make his report to the commanding officer, step into the limousine, and be whisked back to his beautiful "Old Chateau in France." But it was fifty-fifty in those days that a man wouldn't come back. I am not able to give the figures in regard to the early British losses of aeroplane pilots in those days of the uncertain machines and the deadly "bus route"; but French flyers say that of the first three thousand flyers in the French army one thousand five hundred were killed. Life was easy but insecure.
Every evening, on the British flying-fields, about sundown, one may see groups of young Englishmen standing about, chatting casually and with apparent unconcern. They seem to have come to the field without purpose, but, as they swish the grass with their swagger-sticks and talk of unimportant things, you will see that all of them are keeping an eye on the sky. You are beholding that tense ceremony which takes place at sundown on every battle flying-field in Europe—the ceremony of "watching the chickens come home to roost." From time to time, during the day, flyers have failed to return. Sundown is the last call, for if a flying-man can not reach his field by sundown, the chances are that he will never reach it at all.
"There's So-and-so," I heard a flying-man say, in a relieved tone, as I watched the "roosting" ceremony one evening. All he saw was a dot in the sky, and there were half a dozen pilots missing.
"How can you tell it is his machine?"
"Funny!" said the Britisher. "I don't see how I can, but I know it is." And it was.
So-and-so climbed out of the machine, and with his observer came over to the waiting group. "Everybody in?" he asked.
"No," answered the flight commander of the group. "There are five more out," and he named them.
The man who had just come down out of the gloaming joined our group and looked into the sky as anxiously as we. Another dot was identified as "Old Jimmy." When "Old Jimmy" climbed out he proved to be perhaps twenty-two. "Everybody in?" he asked anxiously. They gave him the names of the four men who were still up in the embattled skies, and he too with his observer joined the group.
One after the other, each man asking, "Is everybody in?" they came back to the field; and when the last chicken had come home they started across the fields like a lot of laughing schoolboys—as indeed they were—to dinner and the piano and singing and cards.
"Everybody chipper to-night," said the man who sat next to me at the table with the flying-men that night. "But it's mighty different when some fellow doesn't come home."
"Does that happen often?" I asked.
"Two or three times a week," he answered.
This happened in the days of the "bus routes," when flyers were ordered to hold at certain levels and were given little leeway in acting for themselves.
During the last winter's fighting, out of some three thousand flying-men on the British front the missing numbered about ten a week, the wounded about eight, and the dead about seven. The spring fighting has increased these figures, but the early-war proportion of losses has been reduced, so that a flyer's chances of returning to his roost unharmed are now about two out of three instead of even. Wartime flying in the United States, if we profit by European example, can and ought to be put on this maximum basis of loss.
Lessons which the British and French flying-men learned for themselves in Zeppelin fighting were bloody, but rich in knowledge. In the old days in London it was little short of murder to send flying-men into the sky.
A Zeppelin night for the flying-men went something like this: A Zeppelin would be sighted over the Channel or the North Sea, heading for London. Telephones and the telegraph would carry the word to Whitehall, and from the Admiralty building the orders would go out to the aeroplane stations around London:
"No. 1, take the 7,000-foot level at 9:15 P. M., with bombs. No. 2, take the 6,500-foot level at 9:20, with bombs. No. 28, take the 3,000-foot level at 9:30, with bombs. Remain in the air until searchlights give descending signals."
At each one of these stations the flying-men would take to the air at the appointed time, covering each his own district of London. Fogs didn't matter; nor winds. One night, to my knowledge, seven out of seventeen young men who went into the sky after a Zeppelin were killed in alighting. The danger of falling and being blown up by their own bombs was incalculable. This all grew out of the unwillingness of the conservative military chair-warmers (they've all departed in England, now) to admit that a flying-man was anything more than a common soldier, with no initiative of his own. When the flying-men of England began to bring down the Zeppelins, it was because this idea had changed. Each flying-man went into the sky, his own man's man, with his night's work to be done on his own orders and with all God's sky around in which to fight wherever he could achieve the deadliest results.
While the land flyers of Europe were working out their own plans, the navy flying-men, too, found many problems to be solved. To-day, the best information runs, there is not a single ship of size in the British, French, Italian, German, and Austrian navies that does not carry its own aeroplane and flying-man. An aeroplane is as necessary to a fighting ship as a periscope to a submarine; without it, in this twentieth-century warfare, a war-ship, no matter what its strength, is as helpless as a blinded giant. With aeroplanes and balloons giving ranges to gunners it has now become possible, so navy experts believe, for fighting fleets, to hide from each other behind the horizon and to fire over the rim of the "world's edge" as artillerymen on land fire across hills or soldiers fire over the top of their trenches.
The layman will understand this point more clearly when he realizes that from a deck thirty feet above the water the edge of the horizon is only seven miles distant, and that from a spotting station on the masts it is impossible to see a ship at a greater distance than eleven miles. Without the use of aeroplanes the British registered hits on a German man-of-war in the battle of the Bight of Helgoland at a distance of eleven miles, and with the assistance of aerial observation the guns on both the British and the German ships might have registered hits at fifteen miles.
Naval guns used on land by the Germans, and more highly elevated in range than it is possible, with present construction, to elevate them on a ship, have carried shells twenty-four miles and hit their marks. If guns throw shells twenty-four miles and an aeroplane pilot can see twenty-four miles, it will be possible to register occasional hits at that distance.
During an aeroplane flight which I took over Hampton Roads within the past few weeks, I made a layman's observations under the instructions of a naval expert, which indicated to my layman's mind—and assist me to lay before the layman minds of my readers—the tremendous importance of aeroplane or balloon observation in naval warfare. At a height of a mile we were theoretically able to see ninety-six miles in every direction. By means of a wireless we could have spoken to Fortress Monroe, which lay below us, or to a battle-ship which lay in the harbor and directed a fire against enemy ships which were out of sight of the gunners, but which we in the air might, have seen as clearly as we saw the fortress or the American man-of-war.
As we circled over the historic old fortress I remembered the instructions of my naval friend and tried to picture to myself the consternation of the men in the fort or the men on the battle-ship if we were an enemy aeroplane, directing the fire of an enemy ship. Down there, below us, I knew that there was not one single fighting aeroplane; theoretically we, as an enemy plane, would be armed. One after another we might shoot down the American planes which would rise into the sky to try to give the American gunners their ranges, and in the meantime the shells from the enemy ship, directed by our wireless information, would be falling on the blind and helpless fort and battle-ship.
Everything that I imagined, there in the air, might have happened on that particular Spring afternoon in Hampton Roads if we had been at war with a European enemy. Incidentally, the possibility of our destroying an enemy ship by bomb-dropping seemed too remote for consideration; the ships that were below us appeared as small as pictures on a postage-stamp.
"Look for submarines when you get up there," the navy man had said, and I followed his advice. It was a choppy day, but no periscope could have left its trail anywhere in Hampton Roads that day and escaped without notice. More than that, we could see to the bottom except in certain places where the water was deepest, and there are clear days when the floor of Hampton Roads is as clearly seen by the flying-men as the farms around Hampton and Newport News. The white shape of a moving submarine below the surface—strangely enough, the darkest-colored submarine appears, when submerged, almost white to the air-pilot who sees it from aloft—could never escape a flyer's notice on such a day.
This one experience proved to my layman's mind, more than all the cries of the navy men might have done, the extreme necessity for the United States, in its efforts toward preparedness, to equip itself with enough aeroplanes—thousands of them—to patrol the waters of our vast coastline and bays. Coast-patrol boats, in these days of aerial observation in warfare, are almost as sightless and happy-go-lucky as floating mines. Eyes in the air they must have to summon them to the enemy's presence.
All of these possibilities of the aeroplane or balloons in naval warfare which I have indicated, and others upon which I have not touched, were worked out by the British Navy and flying-men during the early days of the war. To-day the aeroplane is considered so important that it is generally believed in the British Navy that both German and British submarines are being devised to carry an aeroplane.
The battle of Jutland, which is the first sea-fight that has taken place since the development of the aeroplane as an adjunct of the navy, is still hidden in mystery as to some of its chief details; but in its mists, both historical and actual, we catch the gleam of aeroplane wings and the dim outlines of the hulks of huge air-ships. It is safe prophecy that the next great seafight in Europe, perhaps the final clash between the great fleets of Germany and England, will see scores of aeroplanes and many observation balloons engaged.
What could we prophesy of a sea-fight between the United States and Germany under the very recent conditions which gave our navy thirty-seven sea-planes, with only FORTY ordered for future delivery, and THREE kite balloons?
However, the problem of a short cut to effective aerial mastery which has been mentioned does not have to do directly with the number of aeroplanes we may possess. There is little doubt, in fact, that under the urge of imminent war we should shortly become possessed of a large and even sufficient number of aeroplanes. The problem is a deeper one than a matter of mechanics.
But to return to our European land-and-sea-flyers. A harmful contest arose, at the outset of the war, in most of the countries of Europe, between the land- and sea-flying forces. To secure pilots was extremely difficult, and the army bureaus were inclined to demand that the navy sacrifice its aerial power to the land aerial forces until the latter were fully established. The land fighters in England, for instance, pointed out how aeroplanes were used in the military maneuvers in 1913, long before the navy seriously thought of adopting them.
They recounted how on this occasion the high technical plans of the most expert old generals were broken up, much to the disgust of the old generals themselves, by the fact that a fellow in greasy overalls, who wasn't even a soldier, could walk into their offices, and in a few words, perhaps ungrammatical, tell them of things that he had seen from his wobbly aeroplane during the day that would upset their deepest-laid military schemes.
A story in London goes that a famous but crusty old general in the maneuvers of 1913 kicked one of these "overalled persons" out of his office, saying, "Get the hell out of here! You're only a civilian, and you're muddling up our whole game!"
The army men pointed out that they had been the first to adopt this greasy, oily-faced chap, this "air person," this "showman," and make a soldier out of him, and for this reason they felt that the aeroplane was peculiarly the property of the army. The navy had its own strong arguments, and the contest between the two branches of the fighting forces of Britain became intense and harmful. The young men of England were inclined to favor the navy.
The flying-men themselves worked out this problem of paralleling the naval and the military flying corps and consolidating their efforts. It was along the Suez Canal, during the winter of 1914-15, that the army and navy flyers of England showed their superiors how both branches might be used at the same time. As the Turks labored across the desert toward the canal, dragging their steel pontoons over the sands and urging along their staggering camels, laden with the water and food that meant the army's very life, the aeroplanes of the British flying-men were over them almost every daylight minute. A British flying-man in Salonica told me of his experience in this desert work.
"It was really pathetic," he said. "We'd fly over them, and watch the poor blighters struggling through the sands. I got acquainted with the whole Turkish army, camels and all. I even got so I recognized some of the faces. We knew all. about their progress, of course, and we had weeks to get ready for them, at the canal. They didn't seem to have any aeroplanes themselves, and they were as helpless as a worm with a bird hovering above it."
Some of these flying-men who followed the Turkish advance and retreat were flying-men from ships in the Mediterranean; others came from the land forces at the canal. For the first time, on this occasion the British flying forces of land and sea worked together, and to-day this alliance is being brought in England, France, and Italy to the top notch of efficiency. The flying-men themselves have shown the British Government, and all the other governments, in fact, that land-fighting is one thing, sea-fighting another, and air-fighting still another; the army for the land, the navy for the water, and the "avry" for the air.
To-day, in England, there is a minister for the air forces, just as there is a head of the navy, and another head of the army. Lord Cowdray, who holds this new twentieth-century office, has taken over the Cecil Hotel in the Strand, and there he holds forth with all the aerial activities of the British flying forces, both land and water, under his hand. He has army and navy advisers who work with him, but Great Britain's victory in the air is the one job he has to achieve. He must find the air pilots and develop and train them. He must give the navy the aeroplanes and pilots it needs, and he must also satisfy the demands of the army. In addition, he must secure the funds for these purposes. Neither the army nor the navy controls his department any more than either the army or the navy controls each other.
It was in a contest to secure a similar independence of the aviation forces in France that General Lyautey, Minister of War in the French Cabinet, was forced to resign some weeks ago.
The present arrangement in England marks the short cut to aerial mastery which, in the event of war or even in the progress of mere preparedness, we can make in the United States to-day. The establishment of a Department of the Air will bring about the speediest progress in the realm of military aviation, and such progress is of supreme importance. Progress along all the other lines we are fully prepared to make. I find that our flying-schools, which are being utilized by the Government, are turning out flyers in three months; four hundred minutes of actual flying qualifies the average young man as a pilot. We have eleven aeroplane factories, five of which are capable of immediate and unlimited enlargement. In some of these factories to-day they are producing better and stronger machines than any of the European nations are capable of creating without our help. Machines that will carry a ton, with planes so wide and strong and stability so certain that men can move about on their wings and adjust their engines while in full flight or sit at a machine-gun and do the work of a soldier—I have seen these in our factories in the United States.
We can do more, in the way of mechanical perfection of aerial war aids, than any other nation in the world to-day; our past assistance given to European nations is proof of that. Our needs are plain before us. In actual war we must have thousands of aeroplanes; fifteen or twenty thousand. We must have at least five thousand flying-men. We must have aerial torpedoes for land use, built like small aeroplanes, that can be "herded" through the air by a "driver" who sits at a radio key in a master aeroplane and directs their movements by wireless electric impulses, sending them where he will. We must have torpedoes that can be dropped from aeroplanes on to the sea and sent against the sides of enemy ships. We must have an aeroplane equipment on every big ship and an aviation ship with every fleet.
We have more ideas, in regard to perfected aviation, I learn, from conversing with American army and navy men and American aeroplane builders and flyers, than I have ever heard put into words in all the capitals of the warring countries in Europe.
The United States gave the world its wings. We know best how to make wings. But how to get enough of them for war purposes and how to use them in war with the least waste of effort, is a brand-new problem in war management and in war itself. We can learn these things for ourselves if we are willing to lose time following the long road which the nations have followed in Europe. Or we can take the short cut of establishing a Department of the Air, which will work with the army and navy as they now work with each other. Flying-men know more about air-fighting than do generals and admirals. Eventually, the flying-man will have his say and, more or less, his way, just as he has to-day in Europe. Our short cut is to put him into a job at Washington as soon as possible. We want no white-haired old admirals or set-in-their-way generals for this job. This is a brand-new thing, and we must have men with brand-new minds in charge of it.
To-day the Signal Corps, a branch of the United States Army, has to fight for whatever money it can get out of the army appropriations for army aviation. The navy begrudgingly lets go a small part of its appropriation to air-craft. If we want the best and quickest-results in this supremely important field of preparedness, we must have a separate department that will furnish and maintain the wings of the U. S. A.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald