Five Weeks in a Balloon to The Blue Max and Beyond
How the Men who Braved the Sky have been Portrayed
Every human activity has its beginnings. Flight is no different. Some day, perhaps in my life time, a man will land on Mars. And it all began with the desire people had and still have to be able to take off like a bird.
A number of movies come to mind when people talk about the early years of aviation.
In terms of ballooning there's Five Weeks in a Balloon by Jules Verne (1863) which was made into a motion picture by the same name starring Red buttons and Barbara Eden in 1962. Also memorable was Peter Lorre playing the role of a rather perplexed cut-throat in this grand adventure.
There's also Zeppelin, the 1971 spy thriller starring Michael York and Elke Sommer. In this film set in 1915 a mighty German airship is sabotaged by a Scotsman of British descent. In this motion picture both the strengths and the weaknesses of the great airships are shown.
In terms of both ballooning and motorized heavier than air flying craft there's Hell's Angels which came out in 1930. Produced and directed by Howard Hughes this film has rather strange production values. Some of this can be attributed to the fact that it was first meant to come out as a silent movie.
After The Jazz Singer made its appearance as the first talkie, it was decided by Hughes not to immediately bring out his film about World War One but to scrap some scenes and redo them with sound.This put Hell's Angels way over budget.
Other things to do with production, such as one scene in full color and other scenes either all in one particular color or in standard black and white, can't be easily explained away except to say the film had its experimental moments.
The dog fights between opposing fighter pilots were filmed with both great finesse and also, for the time, great expense. They continue to hold up well to this day and convey the dangers of air combat. Hell's Angels starred Jean Harlow and Ben Lyon and was probably the best film Hughes ever made.
In 1958 Lafayette Escadrille came out starring Tab Hunter and David Janssen. This was the World War One story of the French squadron made up of American volunteers. Some had French ancestry while others were there for the great adventure. A much weaker version of the exploits of these pilots was titled Flyboys and released in 2006 starring James Franco and Jennifer Decker.
In 1965 a rather unusual and exciting comedy that showed some of the hazards of early heavier than air flight came out. It was Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines. It had a jolly good song to push it along and, set in 1910, it showed to some degree what those early flying contests must have been like. Here production values were high and the cast was of top quality. It starred Stuart Whitman and Sarah Miles with Terry-Thomas wonderful as the dastardly rotter of a villain.
In 1966 The Blue Max starring George Peppard and James Mason was released. Though a pale shadow compared to the novel by Jack D. Hunter that goes by the same name, it still had its moments in terms of brilliant aerial combat scenes. It is the story of the German pilot during the First World War and the ultimate prize in terms of medals, The Blue Max.
Meanwhile what peaked my curiosity about the men who flew in those early fighter planes when I was very young was Snoopy Vs The Red Baron in the comic strip Peanuts.
From Airplanes Barely Able to Cross the English Channel to Airplanes capable of influencing a World War
The Pioneers of Aviation
Throughout much of human history there has been a fascination with flight. It was there in ancient times as well as in the Middle Ages. It wasn't something relegated to Europe. It has touched many cultures and many religions.
The notion of angels that can be found in the Old Testament, The Bible and The Koran points to, if nothing else, the desire among humans for flight. After all, what is an angel but a superhuman being with the appearance of a man, a woman or a child but with large wings for flight? Creatures that can fly naturally have long been envied and, to varying degrees of success, copied.
What the Wright brothers started in 1903 and what a Frenchman by the name of Bleriot accomplished in 1909 got a boost as many new inventions and ideas do when war broke out in 1914. From 1914 to 1918 airplanes went from frail deathtraps to weapons of war. After the war they came to be seen as a new way of linking up cities and nations with one another.
In Australia the timing couldn't have been better. In 1901 the colonies and territory came together as a federation. The new nation was being connected to itself via rail, telephone and shipping. Even so, after the First World War something else, something new was needed - the airplane.
There are remote properties in the Australian Outback where it is difficult for a doctor to get to in time to save lives. On 17th May 1928 The Royal Flying Doctor Service was born to aid those who live on these remote properties.Today The Royal Flying Doctors Service continues it's work.
In the late 1980s an Australian television drama called The Flying Doctors became a big hit.
And so after the First World War the world became a smaller place as increasingly safer air travel meant distances could be crossed in a progressively shorter space of time. In less than a hundred years people had gone from balloon travel to supersonic jet.
My grandfather who was in the First World War had lived long enough to see this happen which, to me, really is something. This hub is a tribute to those brave souls who made this possible.
From Ancient Greece to the 20th Century
In the Beginning...
In Europe powered flight was a long held dream dating back to at least Medieval times. Certainly, as early as Ancient Greece, gliders were possible. They could not, however, be counted upon to be able to travel long distances and certainly not under their own power. Like kites they were entirely subject to the vagaries of the wind and, if one Ancient Greek tale holds true, also the heat from the sun.
There is the story of Icarus who donned wings made of feathers and wax in order to escape from lock-up in Crete. His father, Daedalus, warmed him not to fly too close to the sun but he was caught up in the rapture of flight. He did fly too close to the sun, the wax melted and her ended up falling and then drowning in the sea.
In his life time Leonardo da Vinci came up with some excellent ideas and drawings concerning powered flight. Unfortunately, the materials to make his ideas and plans a success were not available to him.
In China during the European Middle Ages it was possible to travel long distances via balloon. Whether this was done or not remains in the area of speculation. Even so, the balloon not only had a place in Chinese society in terms of travel, if it was ever used in such a way, it also had certain military uses. In war it could be used to observe enemy formations from on high. It could also directly affect battle. Fire crackers could be thrown down, frightening the horses of the enemy and thus breaking up enemy cavalry formations.
In the 18th Century the French experimented with balloon flight. The first recorded manned flight in a balloon was by Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier in June, 1783. It was a tethered flight in a hot air balloon. The first free flight took place in November. It was also in a hot air balloon. Around this time experiments were taking place with lighter than air gasses. Jacques Charles with the aid of the Robert brothers launched the first hydrogen-filled balloon into the air on August 27, 1783. The first manned hydrogen balloon flight took place in December, 1783.
In the 18th Century, by varying the height of the balloon, it was possible to steer it in a particular direction. Thus wind power could be harnessed and it could be argued that the result was powered flight. Like a sailing boat, however, the balloon still required the meeting of a wind by the balloonist going in the right direction for desired progress so, in this regard, it was less than dependable.
In 1785 Jean-Pierre Blanchard crossed the English Channel by balloon. The waters surrounding Great Britain were now no longer the great protectors they had once been. This would become more obvious during the First World War.
From 1794 on the French found a military use for the balloon as a way of gathering information and other nations quickly followed suit.
Observation balloons were used during the American Civil War. There is the story of a northern general that went up in one, the tether holding the balloon broke and, due to a wind blowing inn the right direction, he found himself advancing upon the enemy position a lot faster than his own troops on the ground. Luckily he was able to think fast and release just enough air to bring the balloon down in time to avoid capture.During the Napoleonic Wars the French also continued their practice of using balloons for observation purposes.
The airplane made its debut at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, USA in 1903. The Wright brothers were responsible. This was the first powered flight that had nothing whatsoever to do with ballooning. Other flights quickly followed. Yes, in the beginning the USA was ahead of all other nations when it came to aircraft with wings but this was a situation that would not last for very long.
Plane crashes were all too common
From 1903 to 1914
The military of many nations looked to the airplane to see if it had any value to them. In 1903 it could barely lift off the ground. Weight was the issue. It was possible to take on board a hand gun and even a rifle. The machine guns of the day were way too heavy. What's more, it was not possible to aim a hand gun or a rifle with any kind of accuracy while in flight. Most early models required the pilot's complete attention to remain airborne and, even when this was not such a big consideration, the airplane moved about too much in flight to offer a good gun platform.
As an observer, the airplane was considered to be second and even third class compared with the balloon. As aircraft improved in quality and the ability to climb higher and fly further this would change.
In the early years of the airplane there were many crashes. Purchasing a plane and learning how to fly seemed to many to be an expensive way of committing suicide. The planes were fragile and the engines that powered them had very little grunt. They were also temperamental and not very forgiving of clumsy beginners. Even so, flying clubs did emerge, usually situated around colleges and universities. Yes, there were daring young men willing to take their chances in this new field of human endeavor.
In 1909 Louis Bleriot, a Frenchman, crossed the English Channel in an airplane of his own design. It was a daring feat. If the wind has not been an aid to him he might not have made it. Still there was drift and gusty wind conditions meant a less than favorable landing. The undercarriage of his airplane was damaged and so was one propeller blade. Bleriot wasn't injured. This event was a second warning to the British that their surrounding waters no longer could offer the sort of protection against attack and also invasion that they once could offer.
In 1909 there was also a flying exhibition at Reims, France that drew a great crowd. In fact air displays and races leading up to the First World War were popular social events. As the song of the Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines would indicate, the pilots brave enough to be 'awfully keen' did in fact 'enchant all the ladies and steal all the scenes.' This was a time when heavier than air flyers were so new they were a wonder to behold as were the men who took them up into the sky. The Paris air show is said to have been established in 1909. In the same year there was also an air show in Berlin and an aviation show at Blackpool, England.
By 1913 a number of nations were working on the problem of fitting a machine gun to an airplane.The idea of it being fired forward between the blades of the propeller in motion was also being worked on.
The Royal Flying Corp
The Western Front 1914
The airplanes that crossed from England into France at the beginning of the war weren't much of an improvement on the plane Frenchman Bleriot flew in 1909.
The Royal Flying Corp was a fledgling outfit made up of British flying enthusiasts. It only came into existence in 1912. The men who flew were young because they had to be. Their reflexes in flight had to be sharp in order to retain control of their aircraft. They also had to be daring since the planes even when not in a combat situation were not very safe.
At the beginning of any major conflict the combatant nations look to what ever angle might give them that much needed edge over the enemy. The Generals of all the countries that went to war in 1914 were dubious as to the value of motorized heavier than air flying craft. Even so, there was the risk of the enemy getting ahead because of these fragile vehicles so time, money and effort were put forth.
According to Aces High by Alan Clark (1974): 'Of the 37 aeroplanes that went to France as the advance guard of the Royal Flying Corp...none carried armament as part of its specification.The pilot's first task was to keep the aeroplane in the air at all; second, to observe and report back what he had seen.'
Reconnaissance would be the major role of the aeroplane throughout the war. How well this task could be performed was not known in the beginning. When it became obvious that information from pilots could affect a major battle then came the question of what to do about enemy pilots given the same task.
In the early days of the war rival pilots flying their missions would wave at each other as they passed each other by. There was a bond between airmen back then that only fellow airmen could understand. They were truly the knights of the air as the papers would soon have them.
Besides waving at the enemy, what else was to be done? It would be a rare shot from a handgun that did any damage to either enemy aircraft or pilot. A rifle was more likely to score a hit but getting a good shot off would still require a lot of luck. small bombs and hand grenades could be tossed at the enemy but, thanks to a cross-draft, updraft or some other variance in the wind, could easily end up landing in the thrower's lap or on one of his wings.
It was possible though extremely difficult for one plane to get on the tail of another and force it to land. In August of the first year, three Royal Flying Corp pilots managed to force a German Taube (Dove) monoplane down. The pilot escaped capture but the Taube was set alight and thus destroyed.
Also in August a German Taube dropped bombs over Paris. Little damage was done but it was a fantastic propaganda win on the part of the Germans.
On the 5th of September Frenchman Louis Quenault, in a Voisin piloted by Joseph Frantz, shot down a German Aviatik two-seater with the Hotchkiss machine gun mounted in the nose of his pusher type. Thus the war in the air took on a more sinister aspect.
At the beginning of 1914 Germany had the most powerful air force with 246 aircraft and seven Zeppelin airships. Next there was France with 160 aircraft and fifteen airships. Generally speaking, the French also had the best airplane engines. Britain barely rated with only 113 aeroplanes and six airships.
Those with and those without Parachutes!
The men on either side who were in the observer balloons had parachutes. Once a balloon came under attack the observer could jump out of the basket to safety while men below winched down the balloon in the hope of saving it from destruction. With any luck both balloon and man might be saved from enemy fighter planes.
On both sides the men who flew the heavier than air craft into combat did so, up until 1918, without parachutes. Experiments had been carried out in designing parachutes suitable for these airplanes as early as 1916. It was, however, believed that, if issued with them, pilots would bail out of their aircraft prematurely, possibly out of cowardice, and a plane that might have been saved would be lost. In other words, the aircraft was deemed to be of more value than the man behind the controls. In reality neither could be easily replaced. What's more, the biggest fear a pilot had was burning to death in his plane. When their plane was set on fire by enemy bullets many a pilot chose to jump even without a parachute rather than burn to death.
In early 1918 Germany did issue its heavier than air pilots with the compact Heinecke parachute. The use of the parachute was not always successful but at least it gave the pilot a better chance of survival than he would have had without it. In September 1918 the British issued their pilots with parachutes. France and the USA did not allow their pilots to use them during the war.
Creating the Best Fighter
The Machine Gun
The biggest drawback to using even a light machine gun that a plane was able to successfully carry was the possibility of either the pilot or the observer shooting to pieces their own aircraft whilst putting it into operation. There was the very real fear of blasting off one's propeller blades, one's struts or perhaps part of a wing or the tail in one's enthusiasm to down the enemy.
There was the French idea of fitting metal plates or wedges to the propeller blades to strengthen them against being hit by stray bullets from a forward mounted machine gun. Unfortunately there was no telling where a stray bullet fired from the machine gun might then go. It could come back at the pilot firing the machine gun. Also continuous striking of the propeller, no matter how well fortified it was, had to eventually weaken it to the point where it fell to pieces.
This problem could at first best be solved by putting the observer with the machine gun forward of the propeller or having the propeller behind the pilot rather than in front. The pusher types where the propeller is behind rather than in front of the pilot, however, were generally the slower aeroplanes and could not ever be considered fighters.
One of the early successes for the allies in December 1914 was the entry of the British Vickers F. B. 5 two seat pusher type biplane. The Lewis machine gun was positioned forward where the observer sat and was well out of the way of doing any part of the plane harm when operated. It had, however, a less than adequate engine and so tended to be too slow for downing enemy planes. Even so two men, Lionel Rees and James Hargreaves, became aces flying the Vickers F. B. 5.
The Germans took the lead When Dutch aviation pioneer Anthony Fokker came up with a synchronization device that allowed German pilots to fire forward without any fear of striking their own propeller blades with their own bullets. A push rod mechanism only allowed the machine gun to fire when the propeller was out of the line of fire. This took away much of the awkwardness of taking on the enemy in flight. It was first fitted to the Fokker Eindecker monoplane.
Thanks to Anthony Fokker, for five to possibly six months of the war on the Western Front the Germans could claim continuous air superiority. One of the airplane types to break this was the French Nieuport 11 single seater fighter. The machine gun was mounted on the top of the wing to fire over the propeller.
The Albatross class of German fighter took over from the Eindecker and also inflicted heavy losses to the allies. At the same time better classes of British and French fighters were emerging.
Great fighters produced great Aces
Classic Fighters of the First World War
The best known and respected fighter planes of the First World war include the Sopwith Camel (British), the Spad S.XIII (French), the Fokker DR1 triplane, the Albatross D.V (German) and the Royal Aircraft Factory SE5a (British).
The Camel was named after the slight hump in front of the pilot's vision caused by the positioning of the machine gun. Veteran pilots loved this biplane though for beginners it could be difficult to master. It reacted badly to clumsy handling as novices discovered to their regret. It was a thoroughbred. It was also a success when it first saw action in June 1917. By this time it was possible for the British to not only have planes capable of firing machine gun bullets between propeller blades but, in the case of the Camel, to have two machine guns set up for the task.
The Royal Naval Air Service made use of it as did its rival service the Royal Flying Corp. which was connected to the British Army. One of the aces that flew this plane was Major Barker, a Canadian who ended the war with fifty victories to his name.
The Spad series of French biplane fighters were the preferred fighters of both French and American pilots. There was one ready explanation for this. When the American pilots that had served in the Lafayette Escadrille transferred to American squadrons after the USA entered the war their love of French planes tended to transfer with them. There were also members of the British Royal Flying Corps who fought in Spads with some success.
According to the magazine Fighter Aircraft: 'The Spad S.XIII was the ultimate expression of French fighter technology in World war 1.' Most Spad S.XIIIs were armed with twin Vickers machine guns firing forward via the use of a mechanical interrupter gear to save the propeller blades. The Spad S. XIII first saw service in July, 1917.
The Fokker DR1 triplane was not the first of its kind. In 1916 there was the British Sopwith triplane. It enjoyed some success on the Western front as an extraordinary fighter. If there had been larger numbers of them they may very well have dominated the sky and done real damage to the German air force.
So impressed were the Germans with the maneuverability of the Sopwith triplane it was decided there should be a German version. It first saw service in August, 1917. Fast and equipped with twin machine guns, it was a menace to the allies. Manfred von Richthofen, who came to detest the Albatross, loved the Fokker DR1 triplane.
The Albatross D. V first saw combat in June, 1917. It was the best of the Albatross biplane series but was greeted with mixed reactions from the German pilots who flew her. Richthofen felt that the improvements to the Albatross which were in the D. V were not enough to counter the more advanced aircraft the allies had recently produced. Aces such as Paul Baumer, however, did well flying this aircraft. It was armed with the now standard twin machine guns.
The British SE5a first saw combat in April, 1917. It was of an unusual design for its time and most effective as a fighter. It had one synchronized machine gun that could fire through the space between propeller blade movement plus another machine gun on the top wing that could be pulled down to fire upwards. The idea was either to fire directly at an approaching enemy or get underneath the enemy and fire upwards.
Bombing raids and Bombers
During the First War what a heavier than air craft was capable of doing changed dramatically as each warring nation capable of putting new ideas to the test strove to push the envelope. In the first year the bombs the aircraft were capable of carrying were too light to mean much. They got heavier as the planes improved to where the bomber was born.
Zeppelins, great airships, were used by the Germans to bomb London from 1915 till the end of the war. Such raids had more propaganda value than anything else since the damage done was generally minimal. Even so, British fighter aircraft had to be diverted to home security and this meant less aircraft for the Western front. These airships, however, could not deal very well with bad weather.
The first of the heavy bombers was the German Gotha. The first of this series came into service in 1916. There was a Gotha raid on London in June 1917 and Gotha raids continued until the end of the war. Since the planes were slow losses tended to be heavy. Like the Zeppelins they did succeed in keeping British squadrons that were needed elsewhere in Britain. Regardless, this was the beginning of the bomber as a separate class of aeroplane.
Seaplanes also came into existence during the war plus planes capable of being launched from ships.
The Planes Continued to Improve though somewhat slower
After World War One
The Royal Air Force came into existence in 1918. The Royal Australian Air Force was formed in 1921. What is important is the fact that by the end of the First World War it was generally acknowledged that having a good air force with well trained pilots would be a necessity in any future major wars. Whether there would ever be another major war, however, became the question.
The League of Nations was formed and there was the hope that the world had had enough of death and destruction on a massive scale.
The Schneider Cup international air race made advances in aeroplane design possible between the world wars. There were also the pioneers that strove to fly further and to unite parts of the world with one another in ways they had not been united before.
In 1927 there was Charles Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic. In 1928 Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the North American Continent.
In Australia there were men such as Charles Kingsford Smith. In 1928 he flew in the Southern Cross from California to Hawaii. Then he flew from Hawaii to Fiji and from there to Ballina in Northern NSW, Australia.
In the military the notion that a plane with a powerful engine should need be a biplane hung on for far too long despite new ideas and new materials coming to the fore. (There was the fear that too powerful an engine would result in a single wing being ripped away.) Hence there were British biplanes as well as the by then more conventional monoplane fighters during the 2nd World War.
There were planes such as the Bristol Bulldog, the Gloster Gladiator and the seaplane Swordfish. It took determination on the part of Mitchell, the designer, to push for the Spitfire as being a streamlined monoplane.
I remember as a child being awed by the first landing of a man on the moon in 1969. Hence I can imagine the thrill people experienced from the early air shows and also from the barnstorming after the First World War. Then there was the daredevil wing walking while the plane's in flight and the early films such as Hell's Angels depicting dog fights in the air.
Today it is possible for an average person to fly around the world. It will be possible in the not too distance future for your average millionaire to be able to travel around the moon in a space shuttle.
Right now there are man made satellites circling the earth and unmanned space craft exploring our solar system. And it all began with the desire of humans to leave the ground under their own power way back at the very beginning of the 20th Century.
More by this Author
The Jazz Age, Josephine Baker, Ken Burns, The League of Nations, radio, the gramophone, Kangaroo, Ragtime, Ku Klux Klan, Elvis Presley, World War One, The Saint, The Great Gatsby, Pollyanna, Paris.
Bullying in the USA, Australia and France. School boy bullies. Nations throwing out democracy for dictatorship because of bullying. Religious bullies. Computer bullies. Fighting against bullying.
Standing tall and one person making a difference has long been part of the American identity. In propaganda terms it has been useful. Can one person really make a difference? John Wayne and Vietnam.