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Eddie Rickenbacker: Fighting the Flying Circus
Eddie Rickenbacker portrait
Eddie Rickenbacker: Fighting the Flying Circus
Eddie Rickenbacker’s book, Fighting the Flying Circus is interesting for a view of World War 1 aviation from the American perspective, by a man who knew a whole lot about machines and people. His record of 26 official victories doesn’t sound impressive beside the 80 of Red Baron Manfred von Richthofen, but then America entered the war late, and Rickenbacker was grounded by a mastoid infection for a large part of the time he was at the front. For the amount of time he spent in action, Rickenbacker’s score was the greatest of any World War 1 pilot.
(Incidentally, as fun as a Rickenbacker-Richthofen dogfight could be for alternative historians, Rickenbacker’s time on the front did not overlap much with Richthofen’s. Rickenbacker arrived at the 94th Aero Squadron March 4, 1918, Richthofen died April 21, 1918. Of course, those six weeks represented about three generations of pilots, whose statistical lifetime at the front was two weeks.)
Hat in the Ring Squadron emblem
Hat in the Ring Squadron
The 94th Aero Squadron, which Rickenbacker became the commander of in September 1918, had a logo of a hat in a ring, symbolizing that Uncle Sam had finally thrown his hat in the ring and joined World War 1. The squadron had 69 confirmed victories, including the last one of the war, by Major Kirby about noon on November 10. The first official American ace, Lt Douglas Campbell, belonged to the squadron, though it is only a technical title, since many Americans had become aces before that while flying for the French or the British. (In fact, it is extremely confusing to even define the name of the group of American pilots with Allied forces before America entered the war – it kept changing depending on who wanted to officially wash their hands of the association.)
Of the American squadrons, 94th Aero Squadron had the longest service at the front, the record for enemy planes brought down, and the record for aces in a single squadron.
Aces of Aces
The Red Baron, at 80 victories, was the Ace of Aces of everyone on both sides of World War I. Rickenbacker, at 26, wasn’t even in the top 100. But even American Ace of Aces was an honored title, though Rickenbacker was quite aware “the life of a titleholder is short”.
The honor didn’t exactly mean you were the best; it meant you were good and your life and the war both lasted long enough for you to be ahead when the clock stopped. Death cut short the score of all the American Ace of Aces before Rickenbacker.
Friendship in a flying squadron.
Rickenbacker talks fondly about many of his fellow fliers, but friendship cannot afford to be too friendly when you know the statistical lifespan of your friends is short. Rickenbacker described the death in a mid-air collision of one of his close friends as “a sad day for our happy mess”. (As compared to, say, “one of the greatest tragedies of my life.”) He found that to be able to make the right decisions fast enough in battle, the mind has to be "uncluttered" with things like love and friendship.
Even friendship between nations was not to be relied upon. Rickenbacker found out the hard way an Allied, “friendly” pilot could, for whatever reason, assume he was an enemy, and “Some friends are better shots than are casual enemies.”
The land over which Rickenbacker fought the Flying Circus
Uses of airplanes in World War 1
There were bombers in World War 1. Rickenbacker refers to US bombers in his area as the Liberty “bombing machines”, which would “drop their eggs” on the enemy (a phrase also used in the Red Baron's autobiography; Richthofen started out in bombers). Rickenbacker also referred to them as “clumsy” and explained their nickname “flaming coffins” was because of a fuel system easily attacked with an incendiary bullet. In an early and limited version of fighter escorts, when Fokkers would attack these bombers, Allied pilots would attack the Fokkers.
In some cases the fighter aircraft would attack enemy ground troops, able like a knight on a horse to kill many foot soldiers using his advantages of height and speed. A well-placed attack on a single road to somewhere could tie up the enemy for hours.
Aircraft were good for observation of enemy positions. Not as good in any one place as an observation balloon, but an aircraft could get to another place faster and could get behind enemy lines. From a balloon the information could be close to real-time, since balloon observers had ground communication. Aircraft did not start out with radios, so information depended on waiting for the pilot to make a (safe!) landing. But for that era, it was amazingly quick information: “Within an hour after snapping the photographs the completed pictures were in their commanding officer’s hands!”
Rickenbacker tells of one time when the Allies did not think to use airplanes to look ahead. The Germans had pulled out of their trenches and aimed gas shells at the trenches. The Allies, not realizing this, bombarded the trenches, then went “over the top” into the gas trap. By Rickenbacker's estimate, the Allies wasted 20,000 shells and over 300 men on this attack, which could have been prevented with one airplane flight.
But powered flight had only been around for about 15 years; there was a lot to learn still about the possibilities.
Rickenbacker in Nieuport
Allied aircraft – Nieuport and Spad
Rickenbacker was not that impressed with the Nieuport, which had a lot of accidents. But in early 1918 the US Government did not have much to offer its pilots, and had to buy Nieuports from the French, who already had the Spad. So the 94th Aero Squadron had to take what they got, and be grateful if it flew, sending out new pilots in used Nieuports against experienced pilots in better aircraft.
It was the Fourth of July, 1918, when Rickenbacker discovered some Spads that were for his squadron, but hadn't been moved there yet. He convinced the mechanics to let him fly one directly back to the squadron. Instead of court-martialing him for stealing a plane, his superiors actually let him keep the Spad. By August 8, the whole squadron had them, and they were very pleased, as the stronger, steadier Spad got them out of more tight spots.
The Flying Circus
Rickenbacker frequently refers to the “Richthofen Flying Circus” though it was commanded by Hermann Goering (of WWII infamy) after Richthofen’s death in April 1918. In June and October the 94th Aero Squadron ended up fighting across from the Flying Circus, and they learned great respect for these experienced pilots flying in such close formation that they could always choose when the fight started.
In one description of an encounter with them, Rickenbacker had just shot down (from behind) one pilot in a formation of four, when the others came around and Rickenbacker found himself “staring full into three beautiful scarlet noses”. He had “blundered single-handed into the Richthofen crowd”. The rest is all about how amazed he was to escape from them with his life.
Life in the trenches versus in the air
The Allied infantry and the pilots both thought the other had it good, and their relations were not always very friendly. The pilots were not living in trenches, but the infantry were not risking their lives as many times a day as the pilots. It didn't help that, on the Allied side, the infantry did not see much of what the pilots were doing, because most of the fights were above German lines. It was easy for the German infantry to see their knights of the sky battling above them, but the Allied infantry just saw the pilots living in luxury and sailing out who-knows-where whenever they felt like it.
Rickenbacker with aircraft
When a wing is not a wing
Rickenbacker tells many stories of interesting personalities; one was Jimmy Meissner. During a dogfight, Meissner had to dive hard, harder than the Nieuport would go. The fabric of his left wing and some of his right wing was torn away, changing the wing from an airfoil into an unaerodynamic bunch of ribs. With this fading lift surface, he still managed to make it back over to Allied lines before crashing gently enough that he walked away.
Some time later, Meissner set Rickenbacker up for another victory, over an Albatros that was chasing Meissner. But in the process, Meissner pulled up too sharply for the fabric on the right wing. With his previous experience at flying a de-winged airplane, he again managed to limp back over the lines, all the way to the home field. Rickenbacker had not realized until after the fight who it was, but when he saw Meissner, he decided if anyone could get back with a stripped wing, it was Jimmy.
Not too surprisingly, with his skills Meissner became another squadron commander.
The son of President Theodore Roosevelt, Quentin was a pilot with the 94th Aero Squadron, but was eventually shot down and killed by the Germans. He gained his own respect from his fellow pilots, refusing advantages based on being a President’s son. Though he was assigned to be a flight commander, he insisted that the pilots with more experience lead the flights.
He shot down his first German a few days before his death after getting separated from his formation. After a while, he thought he saw them ahead of him, and caught up with them, taking up his usual position in the rear. When the aircraft ahead of him started to turn, he suddenly noticed there was a Maltese cross on its wings and tail. For about 15 minutes he had been flying with a German formation and neither he nor they had noticed! So he shot down the aircraft immediately in front of him and headed back home as fast as he could. Rickenbacker was amused to imagine what the Germans must think of this new American trick of flying in German formations in order to shoot them down.
Rickenbacker in Spad
Sumner Sewell beats his own wheel to the ground
Then there was Lt Sumner Sewell, who was flying in the back of a formation only to discover a German right behind him, shooting at him. The rear of his aircraft burst into fire, while the other pilots went on, unaware that he had been attacked. The German kept firing on him as he went down from three thousand to one thousand feet. Since he wasn’t dead yet, and still (sort of) had an airplane, he tried dodging suddenly, and got out of range of the German, who assumed he was done for anyway, and flew off.
However, the fire had been blown out by his maneuver, and Sewell was able to crash just inside Allied lines, ending up in a shell hole. Then a thud hit the ground right next to him, and he realized it was one of his own wheels, which had been shot away, and he had beaten it to the ground. His fuel tank had a fist-sized hole in it, which had allowed his last maneuver to dump the last of the gasoline out of it.
And there's more
These are just a few of the stories out of Fighting the Flying Circus by Captain Eddie V. Rickenbacker. The book is probably in your library, and contains a lot of observations about men and machines that will never be dated.