Fighting the Flying Circus/Chapter 8
REED CHAMBERS and I often used to discuss new tricks and wiles by which we might hope to circumvent the crafty Hun. Take it all in all, this whole game of war aviation is so new that any day some newcomer may happen upon a clever trick that none of us has before thought of. I suppose the Huns are sitting up nights the same as we are, trying to devise some startling innovation in the still crude science of air-fighting. At any rate Reed and I sat up late very often and rose very early the next morning to carry into execution some little plan which had enraptured us the night before.
On the morning of May 17th, 1918, my orderly routed me out at four o'clock sharp, in accordance with orders I had the night before waked him up to give him. I sent him in to Reed's room to call him.
Over our coffee fifteen minutes later Reed and I hurriedly discussed our clever little scheme for the morning run. We intended to get away from the ground before daylight, climb clear up out of sight and out of hearing long before the Huns were out of bed. By hanging around their front yard we might pick up a stray machine venturing alone across our lines for photographs. It was a wonderful plan. We wondered why nobody had ever thought of it before.
Up over Toul and Commercy and Nancy we circled as we climbed, climbed, climbed. At nearly 18,000 feet we found we had enough climbing. It seemed about 18,000 degrees below zero at this great height. Still I hugged myself with much satisfaction over the thought that we surely had the upper hand of any twoseater that might come over; and as the visibility was good we had a tremendous range of view.
We waited and we waited. Up and down along the prearranged sector, where we expected any reasonable enemy might want to come to get photographs on such a fine morning as this, up and down, back and forth we went. At last I began to get rather fed up with the sport. Our plan had worked perfectly and without a single flaw. Yet the stupid Boches were trying to gum up the whole show by staying home this morning. I finally grew indignant at the thought of our early rising hour, our fortunate weather conditions, our high ceiling cleverly obtained without the knowledge of Archy—all these efforts and accomplishments honestly achieved, only to be nullified by the refusal of the fish to bite.
Major Lufbery used to remind us that it was impossible to get Boches by sitting at home in the billets with one's feet before the fire. I considered this sage advice as I turned back on my beat for the twentieth time and estimated I still had an hour's petrol left in my tank. I was nearly perishing with the cold and with hunger. Bitterly I contrasted the cozy mess fire in the breakfast room with the frigid heights at which I had spent the last hour. And there were just as many Boches to be shot at there as here. I felt I had been badly treated.
Where was Chambers anyway? During my preoccupation I had forgotten to keep an eye upon him. I examined every portion of the sky, but he was not in sight. Nothing was in sight. No other fool in the world was abroad at such an unearthly hour. But still, I had to admit to myself, Luf was right! It was just like going fishing. If there were no fish in the stream that certainly would be hard luck, but still one couldn't expect to catch any with his feet before his fire. I smiled to myself as I thought of the Alabama colored gentleman who spent the afternoon fishing in his water trough. A censorious white man walked by and watched him jerk his line out of the water half a dozen times. Finally the white man yelled,
"You black rascal! Don't you know there are no fish in that mud-hole?"
"Yes, boss! But it's close and handy!" replied the black.
The old story gave me an idea. Perhaps I was selecting a poor fishing place whose only merit was that it was close and handy. I pulled up my machine and started off for Metz. I knew the fishing must be good there. It was 25 miles back of the lines and claimed, besides the famous fortress, one of the best of the German aerodromes.
I was now at 20,000 feet above earth and as I turned east I saw the first ray of the sun that shone over France that day. The sun lay a huge red ball behind the distant mountains of the Rhine. I headed in that direction in order to cross the enemy's lines east of Pont-à-Mousson, where I knew lay concealed several sharp-eyed German batteries. At the extremely high altitude at which I crossed the lines that early morning the sound of my motor must have been heard by the gunners below, but I am sure none of them could have seen me, even with the most powerful telescopes. At any rate not a shell was fired at me during my entire journey to Metz.
The celebrated fortifications soon lay spread below my wings. Metz herself lies deep down within a valley—the lovely valley of the Moselle River. Practically sheer bluffs one thousand feet high rise on either bank of the river, and a sudden turn of the stream a mile below the city's walls provides almost an entire circumference of fortifications about the sheltered little city below.
Beautiful as Metz appeared to me, I for once regretted that I was not mounted on a bombing machine from which I might drop a few souvenirs of my visit into the crowded camps below. Doubtless Metz contained hundreds of thousands of troops and many officers of high rank, as this secure little city was the gateway between Germany and her front line on the Meuse. My machine-gun could inflict no damage from such a height. Regretfully I made a last farewell circuit over the Queen City of Lorraine and started homewards over the Frascati aerodrome, whose hangars topped the hills, and peeped down into the valley of the Moselle. No aeroplanes from there had yet thought fit to leave the ground.
But one more chance remained to me to get a Boche this morning. I knew of an aerodrome just this side of Thiaucourt, where some activity might be expected. My time was nearly gone, for my fuel must be rather far down. The thought of encountering engine trouble this twenty miles behind the lines made me accelerate my pace a bit. Germany would be a sad place for an enemy named Rickenbacker to land in for duration of the war. I stuck my nose down a bit more as I thought of this and further increased my speed. Ah! here comes the vicinity of Thiaucourt. Cutting down my motor, I glided on almost noiselessly and reached the town at about 18,000 feet altitude.
Two or three complete circles were made over Thiaucourt with silent engine. My eyes were all the while set upon the enemy aerodrome which I knew occupied the smooth field just outside the little city. Some activity was apparent there and even as I sailed above them I noticed three graceful Albatros machines leave the ground one after the other. It was evident from their straight-away course that they were going over the lines, accumulating their elevation as they flew southward. I made myself as inconspicuous as possible until the last of the three had his back well towards me. Then I returned to my course and gradually narrowed the distance between us.
By the time we reached Montsec, that celebrated mountain north of St. Mihiel, I estimated some 3,000 feet separated me from my unsuspicious quarry. I was so eager to let them get over our lines before attacking that I quite forgot I was now a conspicuous figure to the German Archies. Two quick bursts just ahead of me informed me of my error. Without waiting to see whether or not I was hit, I put on the sauce and dived down headlong at the rearmost of the three Huns. Again I saw the warning signal sent up ahead of the three Albatros pilots. A single black burst from the battery below caused the German airmen to turn about and look behind them. They had not expected any attack from this quarter.
When the leader made the first swerve aside I was less than 200 yards from the rear Albatros. I was descending at a furious pace, regardless of everything but my target ahead. Fully 200 miles an hour my Nieuport was flying. Without checking her speed, I kept her nose pointing at the tail of the rear Albatros, which was now darting steeply downwards to escape me. As the distance closed to 50 yards I saw my flaming bullets piercing the back of the pilot's seat. I had been firing for perhaps ten seconds from first to last. The scared Boche had made the mistake of trying to outdive me instead of out-maneuvering me. He paid for his blunder with his life.
These thoughts flashed through my mind in the fraction of a moment. All the while during which my fingers pressed the trigger I was conscious of the extreme danger of my position. Either or both of the other enemy machines were undoubtedly now on my tail, exactly as I had been on their unfortunate companion. And being alone I must rely solely upon my own maneuvers to escape them.
I believe I should have followed my first target all the way to the ground regardless of the consequences, so desperately had I determined to get him. So I perhaps prolonged my terrific speed a trifle too long. As the enemy aeroplane fell off and began to flutter I pulled my stick back close into my seat and began a sharp climb. The notorious weakness of the Nieuport quickly announced itself. A ripping crash that sounded like the crack of doom to my ears told me that the sudden strain had collapsed my right wing. The entire spread of canvas over the top wing was torn off by the wind and disappeared behind me. Deprived of any supporting surface on this side, the Nieuport turned over on her right side. The tail was forced up despite all my efforts with joystick and rudder. Slowly at first, then faster and faster the tail began revolving around and around. Swifter and swifter became our downward speed. I was caught in a vrille, or tail-spin, and with a machine as crippled as mine there seemed not the possibility of a chance to come out of it.
I wondered vaguely whether the two Albatros machines would continue to fire at me all the way down. Twice I watched them dive straight at me always firing more bullets into my helpless little craft, notwithstanding the apparent certainty of her doom. I felt no anger towards them. I felt somewhat critical towards their bad judgment in thus wasting ammunition. No, that was not exactly it either. My senses were getting confused. What I felt critical about was their stupidity in believing I was playing possum. They were fools not to know when an aeroplane was actually falling to a crash. The whole spread of my fabric was gone. No pilot ever could fly without fabric on his machine.
Where would I strike, I wondered. There were the woods of Montsec below me. Heavens! how much nearer the ground was getting! I wondered if the whole framework of the machine would disintegrate and fling me out to the mercy of the four winds. If I struck in tree tops it was barely possible that I might escape with a score of broken bones. Both Jimmy Meissner and Jimmy Hall had escaped death when betrayed through this same fault of the Nieuport. Never would I fly one again if I once got out of this fix alive! But no use worrying about that now. Either I should not be alive or else I should be a mangled prisoner in Germany. Which would my mother rather have, I wondered?
This sudden spasm of longing to see my mother again roused my fighting spirit. With that thought of her and the idea of her opening a cablegram from the front telling her I was dead, with that picture before my mind a whole series of pictures of childhood scenes were vividly recalled to me. I have never before realized that one actually does see all the events of one's life pass before one's eyes at the certain approach of death. Doubtless they are but a few recollections in reality, but one's natural terror at the imminence of death multiplies them into many.
I began to wonder why the speed of my vrille did not increase. With every swing around the circle I felt a regular jar as the shock of the air cushion came against the left wing after passing through the right. I felt a growing irritation at these monotonous bumps. But although I had been experimenting constantly with rudder, joystick and even with the weight of my body I found I was totally unable to modify in the slightest the stubborn spiral gait of the aeroplane. Fully ten thousand feet I had fallen in this manner since my wing had collapsed. I looked overboard. It was scarcely 3,000 feet more—and then the crash! I could see men standing on the road in front of a line of trucks. All were gazing whitefaced at me. They were already exulting over the souvenirs they would get from my machine—from my body itself.
With a vicious disregard for consequences, I pulled open the throttle. The sudden extra speed from the newly started engine was too much for the perpendicular tail and before I had realized it the tail was quite horizontal. Like a flash I seized the joystick and reversed my rudder. The pull of the propeller kept her straight. If only I could keep her so for five minutes I might make the lines. They seemed to beckon to me only two miles or so ahead. I looked above and below.
No aeroplanes in the sky. My late enemies evidently were sure I was done for. Below me I saw the landscape slipping swiftly behind me. I was making headway much faster than I was falling. Sudden elation began to sweep over me. I boldly tried lifting her head. No use! She would fly straight but that was all. Ah ! here comes friend Archy!
It is curious that one gets so accustomed to Archy that its terrors actually disappear. So grateful was I to the crippled little bus for not letting me down that I continued to talk to her and promise her a good rub down when we reached the stable. I hardly realized that Archy was trying to be nasty.
Over the lines I slid, a good thousand feet up. Once freed from the danger of landing in Germany, I tried several small tricks and succeeded in persuading the damaged craft to one more effort. I saw the roofs of my hangar before me. With the motor still running wide open I grazed the tops of the old 94 hangar and pancaked flatly upon my field.
The French pilots from an adjoining hangar came running out to see what novice was trying to make a landing with his motor on. Later they told me I resembled a bird alighting with a broken wing.
I had passed through rather a nervous experience, as I look back upon it now. Yet I do not recall that I felt anything unusual had happened, as I slid over the edge of my cockpit and inquired for Reed Chambers. This is one of the curious results of flying in wartime: A species of fatalism soon possesses a pilot to such an extent that he learns to take everything as a matter of course. Rarely does a pilot betray much excitement over the day's work, no matter how extraordinary it is.
So I inquired for Reed Chambers with some anger as I got out of my machine. I felt that he had deserted me. I remember that was the principal feeling that attended me across the aerodrome...
Reed hadn't been heard from. But a few minutes later he blew in, full of some cock-and-bull story about my running away from him in violation of our agreemeet. He had been back in Germany also, and in coming out he had met the two Albatros machines who were then returning home to their aerodrome, possibly to get a motorcar and hurry down to view my remains. Reed had not seen my combat nor did he notice me flying my crippled bird homewards. But his report of seeing only two Albatros confirmed my expectations that the third had actually gone down to a final crash.
Early next day the French notified us that they had indeed seen the Albatros machine crash and had noticed my crippled Nieuport staggering homewards from the fight, surrounded with Archy. They thus confirmed my victory without any request on my part. And the extraordinary part of the whole affair was that the dead German pilot—my latest victim—had so fallen upon his controls that the machine flew towards France and landed with his dead body a few hundred yards inside the French lines.