“Struggle for the Sky” by Mr. Terry M. Mahoney
This informal essay has been written in response to the experiences of 2nd Lt. Machin, an RFC / RAF pilot-in-training in preparing for the 1917 - 1918 air war over France. The “Flight Training Notes” of J. E. Machin as recorded in his Royal Flying Corps (RFC) issued notebooks as compiled by the Biddulph and District Genealogy and Historical Society (BDGHS) acted as the primary source. The effect on pilots-in-training of what turned out to be a toxic mix of selection, instruction and aircraft characteristics is discussed against the backdrop of the desperate measures taken to turn around an almost lost air war. The intent is to present not so much of a ‘revisionist’ glance at RFC training but to illustrate the bravery of a young man who attempted to beat, but sadly did not overcome, the odds to fly for his country.
Major General Hugh Trenchard, Commander of the RFC in France, demanded replacements daily for his front-line fighter squadrons and rigidly enforced a ‘no empty chairs’ policy. He was determined to expand his force to shoulder equally with the army the burden of their 4:1 loss rate against Germany. In September 1915 the RFC fought the battle of Loos with only 161 aircraft but by July 1916 had engaged the enemy in the first battle of the Somme with a force quadruple that size. The RFC were so desperate to find pilots to fill available seats that entry was eased significantly and transfers encouraged from other units. The requirement for a Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) pilots licence was dropped, entry age was lowered from 19 to 17¾ years old and medical examinations focused on motivation rather than health. There were instances of front line pilots suffering blackouts being sent back as instructors and many candidates deemed unfit for Army service being accepted into the RFC.
However it was evident that by November 1916 the RFC flight training scheme was broken. Commanders reported that new pilots were unwilling to fly above 8000 feet, had no idea how to operate the Vickers and Lewis machine guns in the air and exhibited poor signalling skills. Pupils named aircraft parts by rote, spent many hours studying instrumentation in minute detail, but were not taught how to handle their aircraft safely or operate equipment in the air. Major Robert Smith-Barry, himself a Central Flying School graduate who had experienced these failings first hand, became a champion to these under-trained pilots. He became a thorn in the side of Trenchard who regarded him as an irritating hindrance to RFC expansion. Nonetheless it was finally agreed to overhaul the training scheme.
From late summer 1916 to mid-1917 many appeals were made by the RFC to cavalry, infantry and artillery regiments for transfers. The RFC viewed Horsemanship akin to airmanship, infantry sharpshooters akin to air gunners and artillery men as potential observer-bomb aimers. However senior Army officers on the ground reacted badly to these initiatives, holding their best men back for the ongoing Somme offensive, and only offering those that ‘did not fit in’ or were considered ‘disreputable’ as RFC candidates.
The RFC still had an 800 shortfall on a requirement for 5,841 pilots in summer 1917 as casualties rose and the service expanded. Few skilled and experienced front-line pilots could be sent back to train others, and the battle-weary who returned resenting these ‘rest periods’. Therefore cadets faced de-motivated or inexperienced instructors. Some of which were so embittered, exhausted by months of teaching dawn until dusk and the pressure to push cadets through, that they falsified records. Many retrospective testimonies show hours on type and cross country flights which were never performed were added to student reports and incredibly less than 5% of trainees failed what were acknowledged to be tough written examinations. Subsequently those pilots, scoring undeserved average to good grading at flight school, were easily caught out by squadron commanders at the front witnessing their poor performance. Consequently 27% of the 500 pilots per month reporting to squadrons were either grounded or returned home for re-training. Records also indicate some, along with others who failed to graduate, were even recycled as instructors to reduce strain on the schools.
By mid-1917 the systematic approach of Smith-Barry developed at the school of special flying at ‘Gosport’ had only been introduced on a trial basis to a few Training Depot Stations (TDS). The ‘Gosport’ approach standardised on dual control aircraft types, introduced offensive tactics into the cadet programme and initiated a mandatory one week instructor course. The TDS taught cadets the basic flying skills and included role related training, such as day bombing, before posting graduates on as replacements to the operational squadrons. Cadets were required to operate both the Vickers and Lewis machine guns, fly 20 hours solo including two landings, undertake a cross country flight of not less than 60 miles, climb to 8,000 feet, descend land and stop the aircraft within 50 yard circle before earning their wings.
The ‘Gosport” training scheme was effective in forcing pilots to manage dangerous situations in the air. Pre-‘Gosport’ trainees wrecked 9.75% of aircraft on a given day with 1 fatality per 790 flying hours. Subsequently wrecks per day reduced to 3.11% and fatalities reduced to 1 per 1340 hours for the same 20 hour solo requirement. Significantly only 55% of ‘Gosport’ trained pilot’s successfully qualified, the first of which joined combat squadrons in November 1917 during the battle of Cambrai. Notwithstanding these improvements relationships were still poor due to the Edwardian school master distance between instructor and pupil in the segregated mess halls of these training establishments. Unlike the Canadian camaraderie British instructors did not share their experiences or socialise with pupils. Personal grit, determination to succeed, the will to survive and pure luck got pupils through training alive even at the end of the war.
The pre-‘Gosport’ style of flying was an individual sport where cadets were encouraged to teach themselves by performing ‘stunts’ involving solo loops and rolls but advised to avoid spinning. The Royal Aircraft Establishment Farnborough had isolated the cause of spinning and developed recovery techniques as early as June 1917. However these techniques were not disseminated until the beginning of 1918 and even then many instructors did not include spin recovery in their syllabus.
Nonetheless the instructors had recognised that strong gusting winds could induce stalling and spins in under-powered training aircraft flown by novice pilots. Flying was limited to the early morning or late afternoons to take advantage of the calmer conditions. However if the wind increased above 5 mph or gusted whilst students were airborne inevitably 5 or 6 aircraft daily would crash upon landing. In 1918 one training airfield averaged 24 crashes per flying day, resulting in at least 1 fatality and several pilots seriously injured.
It is unlikely that 2nd Lt. Machin benefited from the ‘Gosport’ improvements. His RFC notebook is filled with copious detail on aircraft construction, engine and instrumentation, bombs and guns, signalling and mapping but little on aircraft handling. This rote learning appears to reflect the pre-‘Gosport’ approach. It was also noted his training included the Be2, DH6 and DH9 but not the Avro 504K standard trainer. Flight experiences and instruction style were not described.
The ‘Flight Training Notes’ source indicates that he completed elementary training at the Central Flying School Upavon near Andover Hampshire. He is said to have completed 20 hours on BE2e and ‘Airco’ DH6 bi-plane trainers before moving on to advanced training on the new DH9 light bomber with 123 Squadron. This embryonic Squadron moved to Duxford on the 1st March after its formation at RAF Waddington on the 1st February, 1918. The mission was to work up on DH9 day bombers in preparation for deployment to France on the 2nd October. However, probably due to unsuitability of the DH9 for combat and the need for fewer re-enforcements in France, the squadron was temporarily disbanded on the 17th August, 1918.
At this stage it is useful to discuss the relative flying characteristics of these aircraft and their effect on pilots-in-training. The ‘e’ model of the Royal Aircraft designed ‘Bleriot Experimental’ BE model 2 inherited its ‘inherently stable’ characteristics from previous c and d models. The c model proved sluggish in combat, and in spite of providing a stable platform to enable the pilot to simultaneously fly, spot and photograph, was too easy a prey for the Fokker Eindeker and was withdrawn. However the evolution of dual control in the d model and improved manoeuvrability of the ‘e’ model in 1917 yielded relatively lower accident rates as a lead-in trainer to the DH6.
The DH6 was a tandem single cockpit trainer manufactured by the Aircraft Manufacturing Company ‘Airco’ based on Geoffrey De Havilland’s deliberately ”safe” design in 1916. Powered, in common with the BE2 Aircraft, by the reliable RAF1A 90 hp engine and with the ability to disconnect dual control from the student it proved popular with the instructors. Critics argued however that it was ‘too safe’ to make a good trainer, being stable in improperly banked turns and able to ‘crab’ at low speed without stalling. Plainly ‘Its reaction to inexpert piloting was too gentle to prepare pilots for combat aircraft’ and was superseded in late 1917 by the Avro 504K as the ‘Gosport’ standard trainer. In contrast to his DH6 trainer which was arguably ‘too safe’ the DH9 type subsequently flown by Machin during his light bomber operational conversion at 123 Squadron, was demonstrably a ‘less than safe’ aircraft. The evolution of which will explain why.
The War office, faced with increased German raids over London in summer 1917 and an inadequate response by a hand full of short range DH4 light bombers, retaliated by doubling the size of the RFC to 200 squadrons equipped largely by bombers. Geoffrey De Havilland rose to this light day bomber challenge by offering his DH9 design. The DH9 promise was 20% longer range carrying the DH4 460lb bomb load at 20,000 feet with the benefit of common parts to shorten production time. A total of 4,630 DH9 Aircraft were immediately ordered off the drawing board entering service in November 1917. However manufacturing delays on the intended American L-12 liberty engine resulted in a switch to the readily available 300hp Adriatic engine made by Galloway Engines of Dunfries, a newly opened factory for BHP (Beardmore Engines). It was to be an Adriatic powered DH9 bomber or no bomber at all according to the ministry. However given the novelty of the aluminium Monobloc cylinder design used on the Adriatic and the inexperience of Galloway in volume production 90% of Monobloc output proved faulty. Modifications were introduced to resolve the development issues and speed up production which in turn induced further problems. Air maintenance records showed break up of con-rods right across the inspectors stamp, exhaust valve burn-out, and ongoing cylinder block defects continuing throughout service use notwithstanding the 140 modifications introduced to improve matters.
The Adriatic was de-rated to 230hp for improved reliability with corresponding reductions in service ceiling and bomb load. Although reluctantly accepted into service this unreliability proved fatal in killing more DH9 pilots during low level manoeuvring than in combat. The author’s analysis of the 45 DH9 crashes in England during 1918 shows all were fatal due to fire upon nose down impact. The large petrol tank immediately behind the engine always burst upon impact with fuel spreading and igniting. The majority (60%) of crashes occurred due to stalling at low level when turning into land and a smaller proportion (19%) due to low level stalls at take-off. The causality was a combination of engine failure and pilot error with un-related in-flight incidents, including wing break-up during dives, accounted for the remainder. Low speed manoeuvring in heavy underpowered aircraft at low height demands keen pilot anticipation due to the effects of aircraft inertia and air turbulence. Responsive torque is also required, from an overheated air cooled engine, to quickly get out of trouble as a last resort. By mid-1918 Trenchard considered the DH9 outclassed by the enemy due to its under-powered unreliable engine and recommended its withdrawal from service.
The month of May 1918 was unusually hot (26˚C) for early summer in Cambridgeshire. Severe thunderstorms had passed over the area and ground moisture was evaporating under the hot sun making for slightly bumpy flying. On the 29th May, 2nd Lt. Machin was returning from a local training flight without his observer on board. His DH9 tail number D2803 of 123 Squadron stalled on approach to landing at Duxford, nose-diving after experiencing engine trouble and caught fire on the ground according to his RAF casualty record: ‘The cause of the accident was in our opinion probably due to the result of the pilot losing control of the machine, but from the charred state of the machine it is impossible to have any definite finding’.
Machin (age 24) was killed instantly, one of the 45 pilots who lost their lives that year, training on the DH9.
The judgement of these RFC investigators, on reflection, seems unduly harsh on the pilot given the track record of the engine that powered his aeroplane and the quality of training he received.
Notes to selected photographs in ‘Flight Training Notes’
1. Frontispiece and the later photograph shows 2nd Lt. Machin in front of a DH9 light bomber, the Adriatic engine prominent on the nose, the forward pilot’s cockpit and rear observer’s position, less Lewis gun, clearly visible. Machin at this stage is no longer a cadet but a 2nd Lt. pilot-in-training without the wings emblem which is normally worn on the left breast of the RFC jacket.
2. Harry Machin in the cockpit of ‘Wombwell’ a Bristol Fighter. Insignia ”A” (usually meaning A flight) and tail number F46xx denoting a Bristol fighter F2b. ‘Wombwell’ or Broom Hill was a standby airfield near Barnsley Yorkshire used by 33 Squadron Home Defence flying BE2 and FE2 aircraft against the Zeppelin raids. 33 Squadron was headquartered at Gainsborough Yorkshire with A, B and C Flights based at RFC stations Scampton, Kirton-in-Lindsey and Elsham Wolds respectively.
3. J. E. Machin, presumably in his class of ten, identified as cadets by the white bands on their service caps, posed as Upavon ‘C flight’ billeted in Hut 43 , they are wearing the so called RFC ‘maternity’ jacket designed with non-protruding buttons to prevent snagging on the aircraft rigging.
1. Bruce J.M., 1989, RAF BE2e: windsock data file 14 (Albatross Productions: Berkhamsted)
2. Bruce J. M., ‘The De Havilland DH9’ Flight Magazine (6th April, 1956) pp 385-389.
3. Jefford C.G., 1988, RAF Squadrons: a comprehensive record of the movement and equipment of all RAF Squadrons and their antecedents since 1912 (Airlife Publishing: Shrewsbury)
4. Mackersley I., 2012, No Empty Chairs: The short and Heroic lives of the Young Aviators Who Fought and Died in the First World War (Phoenix: London)
5. Morley Robert M., 2006 ”Earning their wings: British Pilot Training 1912 -1918” Thesis University of Saskatchewan. Saskatoon pp 8-120.
6. Outhwaite David J., 2018, Cadet J. E. Machin: The flight training notes of one of the first RAF pilots (Published by the BDGHS). The book has been created by converting 201 pages of hand written notes in exercise books written by Cadet Machin during the First World War.
7. Skeet M., 1998, RFC training Aerodrome Forum [http://www.theaerodrome.com/forum/, accessed 11th April, 2019]
8. Casualty records - story vault RAF Museum [http://www.rafmuseum/storyvault, accessed 11th April, 2019]
9. WW1 Aircraft tail numbers [http://www.airhistory.org.uk, accessed 11th April, 2019]