Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Soloing on a Henry Farman Shorthorn.

Henri Farman Shorthorn training aircraft. (Wiki.)

by Zach Neal

A group of us stood watching on the badly cracked paving outside the hangar. This lad by the name of Harry volunteered to be first, in fact he insisted.

He had a strong desire to prove he could fly. That’s what the rest of us thought.

We all thought we could fly, although a good number did show some signs of a very rational nervousness. The instructors had given us all about two or three hours of time in a dual-seat Farman. These planes, the ones the instructors used, had slightly more powerful motors, and they were a lot newer to boot.

When the instructor took off, we sat and watched how they moved their hands and feet as the plane responded. It wasn’t exactly dual control.

Harry was quickly strapped in. There was some nervous chatter as we patiently waited our turn.

The motor was running loudly in our ears, and the blast from its prop put up a lot of dirt and crud in the air. It stung the eyes. You could feel the grit, and it was necessary to blink and turn away.

Our classmate Harry put on the gas and she moved away. He was blasting it as hard as it would go. This was a tired old machine, and the supposedly seventy horsepower motor was marking time as it built the revs. Harry trundled along, and you could see the wing tips going up and down in some syncopated beat, a tin-pan-alley kind of beat.

The plane staggered into the air. I checked my watch again, out of habit, the man had taken so long to get going. He was waiting so long to pull up. He had taken off at ten fifty-three a.m.

We watched the back end of Harry’s plane. It bobbled in left and right bank and with wings waggling, he beat through the turbulence over the long line of trees at the aerodome’s verge.

“Hold her, laddy…”

“How high is he, sir?”

“Shush, boys!”

“Looks like about one fifty,” I murmured to tow-headed little Dicky.

Dick Littlehampton, nice fellow from Exeter. He was nineteen, I was seventeen and a half, but had lied about my height. Hah! That’s a joke. Yet I stood as nervous as anyone else as we watched Harry diminish in size over the south. Then he tried to turn.

He almost made it.

He must have been about a hundred eighty feet.

“NO-o-o-oh!” ground out the instructor. “Shit!”

Harry had turned left, and was diving into the turn, he was ninety degrees through the turn and coming back around. The top of the wings and tail were about all of the plane
that was visible, as the booms are just framework.

The tail wind. The tail wind was such that the plane had dropped out of its flying speed range…it would only go so fast, and could only go so slow without falling out of the air.

Harry smashed into the tree line after disappearing in a heart-thudding beat of time. A frozen mental image that will stick with me forever. Harry crashed at about ten fifty-four and thirty seconds a.m.

We stood quiet as the instructor slumped his shoulders and wouldn’t look at us for some long moments. We could hear a siren’s wail and the sound of engines and voices calling from three quarters of a mile off, but the voices carried on the wind.

Smudges of black smoke streamed up and over the windbreak of tall spruces or firs or something. There was a farm over there. We used to go over to the fence and talk to the horses sometimes, at least I did.

“All right, who’s next then?”

He looked at the list on the clipboard in his hand.

“Alexander.” A quiet lad of rakish slenderness stepped forward.

He snapped off a quick salute and pathetically stood to attention, and it looked as if his knees were about to give out on him. He’s ready to shit his pants.

“What did he do wrong, Alexander?” sighed the instructor. “And relax, would you?”

“He turned too soon,” said the boy. “Not enough height.”

“Do you think you can do any better?”

He didn’t want to send anyone that’s not ready. Or didn’t he care anymore? He seemed kind of burnt out to me, but then I’d seen it before.

The rest of us paid rapt attention to every word, every comment, every inflection, every nuance. We moved along the line to another machine that the mechanics were busy preparing.

Alexander took a hell of a long time to fasten up his flying suit. To get the gloves, and the fastenings just right. The poor guy was borderline hyperventilating.

“Next one better get ready,” suggested the instructor.

A boy started, flushed, and looked guilty. A lot of eager beavers here today.

Alexander was in the hot seat. The prop was flipped over and it was time for his initiation.

We watched it warm up for a while, it was a strangely subdued bunch of lads. We know this had to be done, and that it would be our turn soon. Yet we felt curiously detached from Alexander.

It’s like watching a lab rat.

His engine revved up and he was moving across the grassy aerodrome.

The plane pulled up to ten feet, and dove down five, then back up to about fifteen or twenty. The engine burbled along, and we all thought he was smart to pick up as much speed as he could.

He was approaching the tree line, and just when we expected him to pull up and out, the engine note died down suddenly and he flopped the plane down and it went sliding towards the trees.

There was a crunching sound, and there was the impression of a big heavy object, dark and limp, flung out of the machine as it hit.

“Fuck,” said the instructor.

It’s difficult to say if Alexander throttled back in panic, or if the motor just coughed at a bad time.

All right, who’s next?”

We moved along to the next Henri Farman.

It was one of our reserve machines, a spare we kept around in case a plane broke down and was taken out of service. Soon another lad strapped in and with heavily-beating hearts we watched his takeoff.

This time the man got it right. He made the turn from an altitude of at least five hundred feet, although we held our breaths when he lost a good two hundred or two fifty in the turn. His plane roared overhead as he passed down the runway at about three hundred feet.

“Yay!” some guys yelled.

“Shut up!” bellowed the instructor, but they couldn’t restrain themselves.

“Shut the hell up!” he barked in anger.

Finally the noise faded into sullen silence, a silence which became suddenly ominous with the realization…

The lad did not return. He’d gone behind us somewhere, muffled or blocked by the hangars lined up in a row. He must have made the second turn, right?

But we never saw him again. The next two guys seemed to do better, and made a successful take off and circuit. They both made a successful landing. Then it was lunch.

After lunch, it was a couple of more boys, with one more crash, then it was my turn.

Well. I must say, it had in fact been quite educational. Watching all them other guys, man, if I have to fly a dozen miles, I don’t plan on doing that. My guts flipped over a few times when he pointed at me, but then the calm came. I noticed a new sticker on the side of the engine casing, and it somehow reassured me. A little.

When you stand beside a plane, you can hear certain things in the engine noise, when you sit right in it, it’s pretty loud and anonymous.

Tweaking the throttle a few times, I waved the men away from the front of the wings.

As she idled, I pulled my mask down and gave the instructor a big smile.

“Relax, you’ll live longer,” I told him in a shout.

He didn’t smile, just nodded.

“Make us proud, boy,” he mouthed at me.

I could barely hear him. I had my motivation, as the actors say.

They really are just children, aren’t they.


I checked the windsock, advanced the throttle gently, firmly and in a linear fashion.

Not jerky. Feel the power and watch the little clumps of grass begin to pass by under me.

At some point the breeze begins to tug at your clothing. Watch the speedometer.

Hmn. I should have asked the mechanics if it was a good one. No time for thinking, things are beginning to happen.  She felt light, and I wanted to hold her down till she reads forty-seven on the dial, if not even a little more. But she was definitely up now.

The wings rocked but it’s insignificant. I don’t even try to steady it, for the plane has dipped first one way then the other. But it almost corrects itself. The plane is a smooth four feet up from the grass, and so I took it back another notch on the elevator. Smoothly, yet pretty slowly she picks up more altitude. At this point I was looking at treetops about one hundred yards away, and realized the thing has made it up to about twenty five or thirty feet. I risked taking a look down and over the side.

It was deceptive. I certainly wouldn’t like to fall from even this low height. Yet it was also clear to me that I would in fact clear the trees. The speed picked up a smidgeon, and the trees passed below me. The thing bucked a little. My heart skips, but no problem.

I already knew there’s bumpy air here.

The altimeter wasn’t even registering, so I just held the throttle tight against the stops and waited some more. The speedometer registered an even forty-eight, so I nudged just a tiny little bit of up elevator out of it.

The engine roared. Sitting there, I risked a backwards glance. I wondered if those other guys felt this sense of triumph. My altimeter showed about two hundred feet, and so for a moment I studied some houses below me. What an odd perspective. And how small they get so quickly. The buildings seem flat from above, a two-dimensional world.

The plane achieved an altitude of about three hundred feet. The village was coming up. Without even really thinking about it, just a touch on the rudder pedals. Zoom directly down the full length of the High Street, past the church steeple. I wished I had more throttle, it would be nice to make more noise if possible. It was possible to see a number of people coming out of doorways and looking up at me. Children in a lane-way, under a line of trees, waved and shouted. I could see them jumping up off the grass as if to reach out and touch me.

Glance at the clock, forty-nine knots, four hundred feet, two-fifteen p.m. The village is about two miles down the road from the gate. We walked it once or twice.

“Focus, Mister!”

I felt like God up there. I knew I could do this, everyone else showed what not to do. The plane seemed strong, and the Henri Farmans weren’t known for their neck-snapping acceleration. The key thing is not to panic. To stay ahead of the plane. To anticipate that it stalls if you go too slow, or turn too tight…

The altimeter said six hundred, better keep an eye on that thing. Yet I had a full tank of fuel. I knew exactly where I was. There was a girls school up there somewhere, where the little stream went under the trees and entered the forest.

They were out playing field hockey and I wished I could tip my hat to them, but it was too tightly strapped on. I waved and a couple of girls waved back, and I could see the matron sternly stride forward with her mouth opening up. Nothing wrong with my eyes.

I’ve been up for what seems like ten minutes. I doubt the instructor will give me shit if I bring it back in one piece.

At this point, it might just make his day...

A gentle turn, wide, maybe a quarter of a mile wide, as I centred up on the road that led to camp. Soon the guardhouse and the gate were in view. On my left the aerodrome proper, with its long line of hangars, and a small and intense group of individuals standing in front of a row of aircraft just like this one.

I gave the rudders a kick and waggled at them briefly. Hope they saw me.

I put down and then up into it, and bucked like a steer being roped or a horse being broken. I put in left rudder and did a circle over the field, and came out of it again right over the guard houses. To be honest, I was delaying my landing for some reason.

I just didn’t want to come down. And then to have to stand there, and watch the others fly. One at a time, will he live or will he die? Very depressing, very hard on the back and legs. Your feet just ached sometimes.

Finally it was time to reduce the throttle. With a thrill I recognized that she responded like any other machine. She does what should be expected. She began to gently and slowly descend, and I stared at the throttle lever, trying to memorize just where it should be set.

Might need that information tomorrow. And ‘we’ touched down about seventy yards from the class watching on the concrete. I throttled way back, there was no sense in crashing into them or the hangars. I brought her gingerly to a stop, only ten yards from where it had started.

And that was my first flight in a Farman Shorthorn. Ultimately it turned out to be a very dangerous plane, for our side, anyway. I think the Germans should have pitched in and bought us a lot more of those trainers. They might have won the war.

The first Canadian Division loaded up thirty thousand men and sailed across the Atlantic. And due to training accidents and a lot of sickness, they had suffered ten percent casualties, more than ten per cent, before they even got to France.

The Allied flying services took about fourteen thousand casualties during the war.

They say about eight thousand of those casualties were in training. I’m just glad I wasn’t one of them. 

Judging by what I saw, the figures seem accurate enough.


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