You might remember this title from my post Jim’s Bedside Table. Well, it isn’t on the table any more. I read it over the holiday and really enjoyed it. Open Cockpit by Arthur Gould Lee (sadly we don’t own a copy of the book, however I’m working to fix that) is the memoir of a World War I pilot.
One of the most striking things about Lee’s story is just how dangerous it was to be a World War I fighter pilot. This may seem like a no-brainer but it wasn’t just that the fighting was dangerous, the whole thing was dangerous. We have a tendency to forget that flying was once an extreme sport. Heavier than air human flight had only been around for 11 years when World War I started, and all aspects of using planes in battle from how to build them to how to train people to fly them was very much a trial and error process. As Lee says, the war for most British pilots started in training. Every week or so Lee would attend the funeral of one of his fellow trainees (called “Huns” by their instructors) that crashed and died. Not too surprising really. The planes were made of wood and cloth, held together with wire, and used engines that were highly unreliable by our standards. Pilots didn’t have parachutes. On top of that, the training process was rather slap dash, with most pilots going to the front with very little flying time and trained by pilots who weren’t able to cut it fighting in France or who were suffering from what we would call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Lee actually lucked out in this regard, getting a good trainer and through a lucky accident, extra flight hours.
Once at the front, pilots were confronted by the reality that until late in the war their planes were largely inferior to the Germans. In many cases the average life expectancy of a British pilot was two weeks. Going on patrol was first and foremost an effort not to die. Pilots like Lee carried a hammer in a special holster in the cockpit for hitting their machine gun with when it jammed. When flying at high altitude in open cockpit planes without heat they wore layers and layers of clothing and smeared whale grease on their faces to try to ward off frostbite. Making the experience even worse there were no oxygen masks and they spent there time on the verge of Hypoxemia.
The writing has the feel of a story told by a guy sitting on his front porch. This is both one of the books greatest appeals and one of its downsides. Lee remains a very humble and approachable story teller. He makes flying in Royal Air Corp look like something any person off the street could do. He isn’t larger than life or a daredevil of any kind. At the same time the story is written in colloquial language. There is early 20th century English slang, Western Front slang, and a whirlwind of technical specifications of all the planes. He never explains what any of it means. That being said most of the slang can be figured out from context. It took me awhile to figure out his repeated references to Archie. It seemed to be both a noun, “We were nearly to the Archie” and a verb, “we got Archied on the way home.” Turned out Archie was slang for anti-aircraft guns. So if you like military history and you are prepared to puzzle through the slang this if a great book.