That American Boeing 757 crash at Cali in 1995: should the investigation be reopened?

American Flight 965, a Boeing 757 descending at night toward its destination at Cali, Colombia, collided with an Andean mountain ridge, killing 159 crew and passengers. Miraculously, four passengers did not die.

The accident report that emerged from the investigation laid all blame at the feet of the pilots, softening the blow by citing some flight management system navigational anomalies as contributory factors.

Recently an independent re-examination of the data by a team of aviation and accident investigation experts has concluded that simply writing off the crash as “pilot error” was a bad decision. The pilots were among American’s best, yet the crew exchanges on the cockpit voice recorder, according to their peers, demonstrated a degree of confusion that was out of character.

Initially the Colombian/American investigation team believed alcohol in the pilots’ blood might have been a factor, but later forensic testing confirmed the alcohol was a product of tissue degeneration. Having ruled out alcohol as a cause of the pilots’ uncharacteristic confusion, the investigators failed to ask whether there might have been an alternative explanation for it, confining the event to history as simple pilot error.

A new feature-length documentary film about the American Airlines Flight 965 opens in the USA this week, examining the official accident report produced at the time by the Colombian authorities with the aid of the US National Transportation Safety Board. It raises questions that should have been asked at the time, but were not.

If this new investigation reveals the truth for the first time, it will shake public confidence in the commercial air transport industry.

Germany studies air navigation fundamentals

Germany’s aviation agency DLR is using a non-stop flight from Hamburg to the Falkland Islands in the far South Atlantic ocean to study the earth’s magnetic field, a navigational resource for aviation and migrating birds alike.

The same flight, operated by Lufthansa using one of its Airbus A350-900s (D-AIXQ), is enabling a crew rotation for scientists working in Antarctic waters in the German research vessel Polarstern.

Lufthansa Airbus A350-900 D-AIXQ is preparing to carry scientists to the South Atlantic

On 30 March Lufthansa’s A350 departs for this, its second non-stop flight on this route, chartered by the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) in Bremerhaven. The first such trip, which took place in February, was the longest non-stop flight a Lufthansa aircraft had ever made – more than 13,000km, with a duration of more than 15h.

This time, the A350 will also be carrying scientists from the German Aerospace Center (Deutschen Zentrums für Luft und Raumfahrt) who will be collecting measurement data to provide further insights on the influence of the Earth’s magnetic field as it affects aviation.

The surface location of the North Magnetic Pole, located at present among the far north-eastern Canadian islands near northern Greenland, is continuing to migrate in the direction of Russian Arctic waters at a faster rate than a few decades ago.

At this rate the magnetic North Pole is expected to pass the geographic North Pole moving in the direction of northern Russia in the next few years. The full significance of this increased rate of changing polarity is not understood, but the earth is – according to scientists – overdue for a polar reversal of its magnetic field. The last polar reversal is believed to have occurred about 750,000 years ago, and although the potential consequences for earth-dwellers are not fully understood, they are believed to be significant – and not only for air navigation.

In fact navigation would be the least of the problems mankind is likely to face. Marine navigation has been based on True North since the early 1970s. Aviation has had the capability to change, but is still plodding on with navigation referenced to the magnetic poles because the industry is reluctant to incur some modest, one-off costs in making the changeover.

“With the second flight to the Falkland Islands, we are not only pleased  to be able to support the AWI’s polar research expedition, but also to make an important contribution to further research into the Earth’s magnetic field,” says Thomas Jahn, Fleet Captain and Falklands Project Manager. “We have already been supporting climate research projects for more than 25 years now.”

The main reason for this second flight to the Falklands is to rotate the Polarstern crew and to pick up the research expedition team. Since the beginning of February, a team of about 50 researchers have been collecting important data on ocean currents, sea ice and the carbon cycle in the Southern Ocean, which, among other things, enable reliable climate predictions.

On 2 April, using flight number LH2575, Lufthansa’s A350 will be bringing AWI’s international research team and the DLR scientists back to Germany. The landing is scheduled for 3:00 p.m. on 3 April at Munich Airport.

Darwinian thoughts on airliner species in a pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic’s dramatic effect on air travel has accelerated aircraft retirements, particularly older long-haul types. This, of course, includes the undisputed Queen of the Skies, the Boeing 747, the withdrawal of which has been the cause of many misty-eyed moments among aviation romantics.

British Airways’ last 747-400, in retro BOAC livery, on its way to retirement

The “other jumbo”, the Airbus A380 was already suffering a crisis of its own before Covid’s arrival, and the pandemic motivated the manufacturer to put the trickling production line out of its misery.

The A380 – technically an excellent, if over-engineered aircraft – was the victim of a miscalculation by Airbus way back in the late 1980s-early 1990s about the shape of future global air transport. The A380 was to replace the 747, but the belief that a replacement would be needed at all was based on an assumption that the industry would continue to develop much as it had in the previous three decades.

Emirates, by far the A380’s biggest user, will certainly be able to continue flying many of them

That didn’t look like a bad decision at the time, but Boeing’s predictions turned out to be far more accurate. The US manufacturer foresaw the diminution of the importance of hub-and-spoke networks feeding the world’s major airports where they sit astride the globe’s air travel arteries – the traditional trunk routes. The A380 was ideal for serving these.

But the American manufacturer’s crystal ball showed smaller widebody twins taking over from thirsty quads, and carrying passengers who wanted it straight past the massive hubs directly to the secondary cities. The 767 was already showing the way in the 1990s, with American carriers on transatlantic routes, but the 777 and 787 extended the possibilities. Darwin had smiled on Boeing.

Although Airbus was also ready for many of these long-haul twin opportunities with its flexible A330 twin series (and now the A350), in the mid-1990s the four-engine A340 had initially become much more popular than Airbus had predicted. Europe, culturally less of a risk-taker than the USA, was not yet ready to fly twins over extended oceanic routes, or over endless Arctic and Siberian wildernesses. In a quad, an engine failure raises the crew’s blood pressure a bit, but they can elect to continue to destination. In a twin, it means an instant diversion.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, in July 1995, Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration were ready to gamble on bringing a brand-new big twin, the 777, into service with pre-cleared permission to fly over oceanic or wilderness regions where the nearest diversion airport could be up to three hours away at single-engine flying speed. That extension from the previous 2h meant there were hardly any routes a twin couldn’t fly. Boeing and its FAA partner went for it; and what’s more they got away with it. A single early-days disaster would have put paid to that policy, but it didn’t happen, and now everyone takes 180min ETOPS (extended twin engine operations) for granted. Darwin had smiled on Boeing once more.

Today, in the pandemic, the Airbus A340 is suffering a fate similar to the 747’s, but there will be fewer tears simply because it could not have achieved the iconic status the 747 had won through its status as the world’s first jumbo jet, its sheer longevity, and its unique shape.

Among today’s widebodies, Darwin will continue to smile on the newer big twins, and the few remaining tri-jets and the older big twins will be parked or converted to freighters before their time would normally be up. Meanwhile, the marketplace that the new big twins have had to themselves for some time is to be invaded by what may turn out to be a particularly timely product: Airbus’ single-aisle venture into long-haul, the A321XLR.

Another anomaly brought by the pandemic is that air cargo has been the saviour of many airlines during the pandemic, because unlike passenger traffic, cargo has hardly been affected. For example, Taiwan’s China Airlines has just announced an operating profit for 2020 on the back of cargo, and recently took delivery of a new 777F.

Short-haul – and thus the single-aisle fleet – has not been hit as hard as long-haul simply because domestic air travel is free of the border restrictions that nation states impose on travellers when they fear the spread of infection from abroad.  But as in their long-haul fleets, airlines are still disposing of the earlier versions of their 737s, A320s and regional aircraft.

Exceptionally on a global scale, the US domestic carriers are forecasting break-even levels of passenger business by June, with strong demand from the leisure travel market, although there is slightly less confidence in a business travel rebound. Domestic carriers elsewhere, in less geographically large countries – particularly those with mature high speed rail networks – will take longer to recover than the likes of American, Delta, United and Southwest, and may not have had the government injection of survival cash the US airlines have had – plus the boost from the fact that the USA has successfully accelerated its Covid vaccination programme. Is that Darwin smiling on America again, or just on big, prosperous nations? He may well be smiling on China too.

No-one can be sure of the post-Covid shape of the world’s commercial air transport industry. Truisms, abound, like the contention that the strongest carriers will survive, and that the pandemic’s result will be further consolidation and fewer airlines. One of the unknowns is whether people’s travelling priorities will have changed, especially in the light of growing concern about climate change. Will long-haul, in particular, be a victim of such a concern?

But at present, whenever there is a hint that lockdown may be eased, people are rushing to book holiday travel. Air travel will indeed survive, the question is: what will it look like?

Leonard’s War, episode 9: the Battle of Cambrai, Christmas, and a blighty for the boss

(For previous episodes scroll down)

The weather at Estrée Blanche worsened as the season dipped into a wintry December (1917), and fog made reconnaissance in the whole area extraordinarily difficult. 22 squadron was tasked with finding out what the enemy was up to around Cambrai, information which headquarters badly needed.

A and B Flights of 22 Squadron with a Bristol Fighter early in 1918.

Reconnaissance sorties were fraught with risk. Crews transited to the Cambrai area at about 3,000ft, then descended gingerly through the fog as low as they dared, hoping to get sight of the ground and evidence of enemy movements without colliding with church spires or rooftops.

One crew failed to return, and the news came back that he had flown smack into a coal slag heap near Lens on his way home. So another Brisfit crew was sent out in an attempt to get the essential intelligence but, as Whitehouse reports, “We never did hear what happened to them.”

This patch of grass was the location of the Estrée Blanche mess buildings in the corner of the aerodrome, looking south west over the village. This was an agricultural and coal-mining area, and the now-grassed-over coal slag heaps are visible in the middle distance. Mounds like them took the lives of low-flying airmen when the weather was foggy.

With two aircraft and crews lost because of fog, the squadron was getting low on resources, so they called it a day.

The Cambrai offensive ground to a halt about 7 December, and there was a lull because the weather was so bad and Christmas was approaching. Whitehouse wrote: “The patrols were dull…compared with the hair-raising experiences of the summer. But I was feeling the strain. I did not sleep well and went off my food completely. It was only when we settled down to put on a show for Christmas Eve that I forgot my troubles.”

Whitehouse described the festive preparations: “We got up a programme that was a honey for wartime humour. Among the mechanics we had a wealth of talent, so we could put on a show worthy of any outfit out there!” They rigged up lights powered from a dynamo lorry and searched out decorations to put up.

Finally, the Christmas dinner: “The officers, led by Major Learmount, came in and served the Christmas Eve dinner, bundled up in aprons and mess jackets and suitably armed with towels and napkins. We sang and gave cheers for everyone we could think of. There never was such a dinner or so much fun!”

Learmount in his RAF uniform. The RFC, a corps of the army during most of the war, became the nation’s autonomous air arm on 1 April 1918.

Then they put on the show, with “the inevitable slightly bawdy female impersonator”, tricks, recitations and plenty of songs accompanied by piano. Marie, Annette, and their mother were guests, along with quite a few other “puzzled-looking” civilians from the village, and they were given seats at the front near the piano. It all ended with God Save the King and the Marseillaise.

Then back to business.

On 20th January 1918 Archie Whitehouse, whose ambition all along had been pilot training and a Commission, was sent back to England to achieve both, wearing the ribbons for his newly-awarded Military Medal and a chest-full of campaign gongs. He reported in his memoire: “I lived to wear pilot’s wings and fly a single-seater fighter. I lived to see the Armistice.” He clearly felt lucky. He definitely was.

The squadron commander who had bid Whitehouse farewell was now the very last of the aircrew left from January 1917, but he had his work to keep him sane. He still had to lead 22 Squadron’s mechanics, armourers, stores-wallahs, cooks and caterers whose names he knew well, and to encourage the new, barely-trained young pilots and observers to believe in their roles and in their ability to carry them out.

Through the remainder of the winter, the war of attrition continued, and reconnaissance never stopped. From March 1918, No. 22 Squadron was going to have to deal with German preparations for the massive, ostensibly successful but short-lived Spring Offensive that eventually began in April. Preparatory raids for this counter-attack forced 22 Sqn north to Treizennes, where losses were high. The Geman air force was venturing more over the Allied lines than they had been accustomed to do, seeking intelligence for planning purposes. The intention of the Spring Offensive was to drive the British to the Channel coast and cut them off from French forces before the newly-arrived Americans were able to put their full weight behind the Allies.

It was on a patrol from Treizennes, on 9 March, in his Bristol Fighter that Learmount got his blighty while attacking a German aircraft that was being far too successful at artillery spotting. Although losing blood fast, his remarkable luck still held, and he got his Biff back to base. He was stretchered away from his mount.

France awarded him the Croix de Guerre avec Palme.

The RFC shipped him back to England, where he was sent to St Bartholomew’s hospital, London. At “Bart’s” he met “Peggy” Ball, a young nursing auxiliary charged with looking after him. Less than two months later he married her in a church in Muswell Hill, north London, where her parents lived.

It was early May, the war was still raging, and victory was certainly not in sight. Nevertheless, the couple took a few days off to honeymoon at a pub on the south bank of the River Thames, near Staines – very rural in those days – and they went rowing together. Wedding photographs show Learmount left the church still using a walking stick.

A cutting from the Daily Mirror. Learmount, leaning on a walking stick, is leaving St James’s Church, Muswell Hill, London with his bride. He was 28 then, but looks much older here. Convalescence would have to continue on honeymoon.

Until his demob in 1919, Learmount continued to serve in the newly-formed RAF on training, tactics and intelligence duties. On discharge, he returned to his trading job in the Far East. His new wife and baby son joined him there a few months later.

The marriage lasted a lifetime.

Author and son at the British Air Services Memorial, Saint Omer aerodrome in June 2015. The memorial was erected by the First World War Aviation Historical Society in 2004. None of the buildings in view were in place during the Great War. The hangar on the left was built by the Germans in the Second World War and today is occupied by the Aéro Club de Saint-Omer. The Club keeps a museum of Great War aviation history at Saint Omer in their hangar, and visitors are welcomed.

Learmount’s decorations. From Left: Distinguished Service Order, Military Cross, 1914-15 Star, British War Medal, Victory Medal,Colonial Auxiliary Services Long Service and Good Conduct Medal, Croix de Guerre avec Palme
Learmount did keep flying, but for leisure. Here he is – in the late 1920s – with a De Havilland Cirrus Moth float-plane at Seletar Creek, Singapore, where he was one of the founder members of what was then called the Royal Singapore Flying Club. He also founded what was known as the Royal Selangor Flying Club in Malaysia. Both clubs still operate today under different names.

ENDS

Click here to go to Episode One of “Leonard’s War” and read it all again!

Leonard’s War, episode 8: Delivery of a better aircraft changes the game

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No 22 Squadron’s pilots were still flying the FE2bs, but having also to learn to operate the newly delivered F.2B Bristol Fighters. These were two-seater strike fighters.

The “Brisfit”, or “Biff”, was not just faster, it was a tractor – rather than a pusher like the Fee, which made it handle very differently. Its armament gave it a formidable field of fire. There was an awful lot for the crews to learn.

The still-flying Bristol Fighter of the Shuttleworth Trust at Old Warden museum and aerodrome, Bedfordshire

The pilots – in the forward cockpit – had a machine gun with interrupter gear, enabling it to fire ahead through the propeller. The observer/gunner’s cockpit, immediately behind the pilot’s, had dual flying controls, and a Lewis gun mounted on a rotating “scarff” ring that gave it a field of fire rearward through a 180deg arc. The Brisfit was powered by a V12 Rolls-Royce Falcon engine, had an airspeed of 126mph (40mph faster than the Fee), had a better rate of climb and altitude capability, plus greater range.

This is an illustration from “Hell in the Heavens”, Whitehouse’s book about life on No. 22 Squadron, RFC. Major Learmount continued to command the Squadron until mid-March 1918.

Whitehouse caught the buzz that arrived with the new fighter: “From that day on we went to work on Jerry with the Bristol Fighters, and within two weeks the General Staff and royalty were visiting the squadron, and our pictures were being splashed over every paper in the Empire”.

One new role enabled by the Bristol Fighters’ higher performance was dreaded by the crews. This was operating as an escort for British bombers – de Havilland DH.4s – tasked to fly deep into enemy territory, their bombs targeting the new German airfield at Gontrode, East Flanders. From there, German Gotha heavy bombers were known to be taking off every day, aiming for London.

Observer/gunner Archie Whitehouse scripted a particularly lyrical account of a six-ship Brisfit formation taking-off for Gontrode: “They stand throbbing, wing-tip to wing-tip, their propellers glistening in the sunshine. The leader’s hand goes up, and the pilots take the alert with hands on throttles. The leader’s hand goes down and the machines seem to stiffen for the spring as the motors open up. The rudders waggle and the colours flash. The observers in their brown leather helmets snuggle down inside the scarff-ring and flick friendly salutes to each other. Then they are away in a swirl of dust, and suddenly all climb together.”

Once airborne, the Brisfits headed for Ypres, where they rendezvoused with the DH.4s, and set course for Gontrode.

Meanwhile, evident on both sides of the Front were preparations for what became the Third Battle of Ypres, the huge slugging match between the end of July and early November 1917 also known as the Battle of Passchendaele. Casualty numbers at Passchendaele, about 8km north-east of Ypres, eventually matched those at Verdun and the Somme.

The action moved to the Ypres area in summer, and then to Cambrai in November

Casualty numbers at 22 Sqn also went up at that time. Despite the successes in the air the Biff was bringing, the intense activity on the ground and in the air on both sides of the Line as the anticipated clash in Flanders approached meant a higher loss rate, and that continued once the battle itself was raging. More empty chairs in the mess was bad for morale among the exhausted fliers.

For the crews, after the relentlessness of flying under fire from air and ground, precious off-duty time at Estrée Blanche fostered friendships with the local people that would spawn a lifetime of memories for those few fated to survive – military men and civilians alike. Madame Beaussart’s was a village estaminet, and Marie and Annette who worked there knew the squadron aircraft, their markings and who flew them. Just like the men on the aerodrome, the girls watched the aircraft go, and they counted them back again. 

On 19 August, Captain Clement’s Brisfit didn’t return. “A” Flight had lost its leader, and Clement had stepped in to take a mix of A and B Flight ships out on a mission. It was his last. This was awful for the Squadron, and C Flight in particular. Clement’s younger brother Ward Clement had recently joined the Squadron as a gunner, and he and Whitehouse had become firm friends. Clement the younger was distraught and refused to believe Carl wouldn’t return. Hours later he persuaded himself his elder brother had force-landed and would make his way back. But that wasn’t true.

Whitehouse wrote: “When we went back to Madame Beaussart’s, Marie and Annette knew that ‘N’ had not come back, but they said nothing. The coffee and rum were good. I think we drank an awful lot of it.”

After an appallingly wet August, September brought drier weather and good visibility, making the RFC’s close air support in this war-torn region of Flanders highly effective. For five days from 20 September 1917, at the Battle of Menin Road Ridge, the 22 Sqn Biffs were used effectively for ground attack, air superiority, and reconnaissance. Rapid reporting of German counter-attack manoeuvres allowed Allied artillery to be directed accurately. This clash was one of many on the periphery of the Passchendaele campaign

In November came the end of the Battle of Passchendaele and the beginning of the Battle of Cambrai, an attempt by the British to break through the Hindenburg Line in a massive attack combining artillery, tanks, infantry and air power.

Whitehouse described 22 Sqn’s role: “We had the unenviable job of blowing up the enemy balloons, strafing road transport, and making a general nuisance of ourselves. We were down low, flying through our own shell-fire to hammer Cooper bombs on the German anti-tank gun emplacements. We strafed the roads and chased horse-drawn transport all over open fields, and generally played merry hell…

“We fired hundreds of rounds of ammunition and burned out our gun barrels. We returned again and again for fuel, bombs and the reviving encouragement of Major Learmount. Thank God for the Major during those days!”

This, it seems, was about the time when the air gunner and the squadron commander reached an unspoken awareness that they had become the only two remaining aircrew from what Whitehouse called “the Chipilly mob” who were still flying on 22 Sqn.

It left them with a feeling of emptiness, against which the only antidote was the adrenaline summoned up by the next sortie. Whitehouse wrote: “We flew, slept, flew, slept and flew some more. We staggered back and forth to our machines, too tired to eat. No-one spoke, no-one laughed, no-one argued. Faces were lined with weariness, pitted with cordite, and daubed with whale-oil.”

Tomorrow: Episode 9, in which the winter weather gets very difficult, the Squadron puts on a Christmas show, Whitehouse goes back to England to train as a pilot, and Major Learmount gets his blighty.

Leonard’s War, episode 7: The pressure starts to tell

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When Observer/Gunner Archie Whitehouse finally took leave back in England, he found himself feeling restless and directionless, despite giving himself plenty to do. And when leave was over, he was strangely grateful to return to 22 Squadron at Estrée Blanche.

But then, as more of his close friends “went west”, he immersed himself in tasks on the aerodrome between sorties “to keep myself from going completely mad”. He did not understand his feelings. “It suddenly dawned on me that the only time I was really content was when I was in the air.”

He talked to – and worked with – the mechanics, the riggers, the armourers, to better understand the machines he worked in and perhaps, by better understanding them, live to tell the tale. He found what solace he could in comradeship, but he had lost so many fellow fliers it felt like a betrayal to make new friends, and he found himself being unaccountably slightly hostile to young aviators just joining the squadron, who looked with admiration at their seniors’ flying brevets and just wanted to learn from them so they, too, could live.

C Flight, No 22 Sqn. This was the Flight captained by Carl Clement and with which Archie Whitehouse normally flew. (Author’s note. I have no date nor details about this photograph except the Flight and Squadron. If a reader has more detail, please add a comment after this episode)

Meanwhile Major Learmount’s wounding seemed to wake somebody at British headquarters in Armentières. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, and the citation for it reveals more about the grind of the RFC’s routine work than a dozen Daily Mirror stories of individual aces’ air-to-air victories. It describes repeated low-level aerial photography sorties by 22 Sqn Fees over the highly fortified Hindenburg Line, which the Germans had been continually engineering since the Somme offensive, and to which they had made a mass tactical withdrawal in March and April 1917.

These new “oblique photography” missions were especially dangerous because they had to be flown low and very steadily, about 600ft above the ground. This made the Fees sitting ducks, putting them within range of small arms and machine gun fire from the ground, let alone archie, and attacks from German fighters. To enable them to do their work without attack from the air, the Fees were escorted by Sopwith Pup fighters of No 54 Squadron flying at a safer height from which they could dive on any attackers.

According to accounts in Peter Hart’s book “Bloody April”, chronicling the period of appalling RFC losses in that month of 1917, Captain BF Crane, a photographic officer attached to 22 Squadron reported on the results obtained on sorties that were mostly led by Major Learmount or Captain Clement: “An average of 2,000 photos daily were being turned over, all from plates exposed by 22 Squadron.”

Part of the Hindenberg Line heavily fortified trench system photographed by the RFC (Pinterest).

About two days before the flight on which Learmount was injured, he was flying with a cool-headed young Canadian observer, Lieutenant PHB Ward, whose steady nerve in charge of the camera – aided by Learmount’s rock-steady flying under fire – obtained particularly sharp pictures that converted well to stereoscopic prints, according to Crane, who reported that “about 50 exposures were made and excellent results obtained, the machine returning safely to the aerodrome bearing much evidence of the heavy fire experienced.” 

On the 10 May flight – also with Ward – on which Learmount was injured, the purpose was to complete a multi-mission photographic task. This was achieved. Ward was killed nine days later on another mission.

The skies were indifferent to merit and courage.

Part of Learmount’s DSO citation reads: “On nearly all the other occasions on which this officer took oblique photographs, his machine was literally shot to pieces and his escape from injury really miraculous.” It concludes: “This officer as a Squadron Commander sets a splendid example to his Squadron, leading them on patrols, bomb raids and reconnaissances [sic] and instilling in them that fearlessness with which he himself is imbued.”

Tomorrow, Episode 8: No. 22 Squadron receives its new Bristol Fighters, and takes the Germans by surprise. But the crews get new and demanding missions made possible by the Brisfits’ extra performance.

Leonards’ War episode 6: The chaos of airborne encounters

(For previous episodes, scroll down)

The No. 22 Squadron duty armourer issues Lewis guns to crews (Imperial War Museum)

Shortly after landing from his maiden flight with Capt Clement, Air Gunner Second Class Archie Whitehouse was called out for another flight, this time with Lt Brooks. It was a patrol with a formation of C Flight Fees. They gained height over the airfield, joined up and headed east over the German lines.

After surviving fierce “archie” [anti-aircraft fire], the flight was bounced by German machines from above. It turned out to be one of those encounters where the two formations pass through each other firing wildly, then disengage.

On the return leg, Whitehouse caught sight of a German aircraft above and behind his own that neither his pilot nor any of the others had seen. He grabbed the aft Lewis gun and let fly over the top wing. Describing the result, he wrote: “I saw a blaze. I heard a low explosion and something went hissing past our wing-tip…I saw struts flickering in the afternoon sunlight, a long, greasy trail of smoke.” Brooks looked at him with disbelief, which Whitehouse interpreted as disapproval. He began – with dread – to believe he had shot down one of the C Flight Fees by mistake. He huddled into his tub, and waited fearfully for the landing.

Once on the ground, Capt Clement grabbed him exclaiming: “Best damned gunner on the Front! He’s mine! Got a Hun first time up…Judas!”

Within minutes Whitehouse was airborne again, but with Clement. This time C Flight bounced three German machines from above, encircled them, and destroyed two. But then: “The archie barrage increased in venom. There was a tremendous crash and I saw one of our planes disintegrate. The planes fluttered away lightly, the nose and the engine seemed to hover for a few seconds and then plunged forward, the bamboo tail-booms fluttering like silly sticks.” He then described how horror became catastrophe: “I watched it and saw a man fall away, all arms and legs. The wreckage gathered speed and hurtled down – smack on top of the ship nearest to us.”

Clement and Whitehouse watched helplessly as the remains of the two Fees spun earthward in a death embrace. Seconds later Clement pointed ahead at a German Albatros, and Whitehouse went to work. “It twisted and jerked and I heard [Clement] yell…[then] we dove on it with a fierce hatred. I gave it the rest of my drum, and saw it start a tight spin.” Then, incredibly, another disaster: the wreckage of the Albatros collided with another of the Fees, and down it spiralled too.

By the time Whitehouse got back to No. 22 Squadron’s Chipilly base at the end of his first day as an aviator, he had logged eight hours airborne and shot down two German aircraft.  

In that single day he had also seen a fatal aircraft structural failure over his new base before he even got airborne; witnessed a rare but catastrophic “archie” [anti-aircraft fire] hit on his formation; and seen one of his own kills collide with – and destroy – a C Flight FE.2b and its crew.

There were going to be many more days like that.

Between March and May 1917, 22 Squadron moved base three times in a northerly direction, as the offensive focus for the British-led ground forces moved northward from the Somme toward Ypres and Passchendaele, Flanders.

In late spring they ended up for some months at Estrée Blanche, an aerodrome on a low hill not far south of St Omer, in gentle farmland disfigured by coal mine slag heaps. On 10 May Whitehouse took off with Captain Bush and C Flight for a patrol which got very busy. Having brought down one German machine, Whitehouse copped a load of shrapnel in one of his shoulders and his arm stopped working. Bush realised what had happened and headed for base.

On the ground, Whitehouse carefully extracted himself from his Fee with Bush’s help, and they saw a commotion around one of the other machines. The duty flight sergeant explained that Learmount had been hit. Bush asked him how bad it was, and Whitehouse’s account of the reply is rendered in East London vernacular: “Mostly ‘is feelin’s, sir. One came up through ‘is tank and spoiled ‘is trousers. You ought to ‘ear ‘im aswearin’! The Major carn’t arf say it!”

Watching this scene, Whitehouse remarked: “He just looked just angry, not hurt. I didn’t blame him. You can’t go home with a blighty in the breeches and expect to get any sympathy.”  Actually, Learmount had returned from a low-level “oblique photography” sortie, which explained the nature of his injury. For these missions, the crews have to fly so low above the battle lines that they are within easy range of small arms fire.

This painting by aviation artist Tim O’Brien depicts Learmount’s FE2b at Estrée Blanche aerodrome, preparing to depart on 10 May for a low-level aerial photography using new oblique sighting techniques. The trip was one of a series of missions the objective of which was to obtain images of activity in the Germans’ highly fortified Hindenberg Line. Learmount returned wounded by small arms fire from the ground and with his aircraft extensively damaged.

As it turned out, neither airman had got his “blighty” [a wound that gives the damaged man a ticket home]. They recovered with some attention from the camp medic, and a few days off active duty.

From then on, Learmount and Whitehouse flew together a lot more, but increasingly in the new F2b Bristol Fighters that were just beginning to be delivered to 22 Sqn. Whitehouse explained: “After that, whenever the Major wanted to try any tricks [test new equipment or procedures] he usually came and rousted me out. And I loved it. He was a gallant gentleman!”

Tomorrow’s episode 7: The personal cost of aerial photography, and No. 22 Squadron gets the RFC’s new hot ship, the Bristol Fighter.

Leonard’s War, episode 5: Learmount takes command of No. 22 Squadron

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Learmount with one of No 22 Squadron’s FE2bs at Chipilly aerodrome, south of Albert, France, near the Somme river.

In the middle of the snowy January of 1917, Leonard Learmount was promoted to Acting Major and given command of No 22 Squadron at Chipilly, close to the Somme river a few kilometres south of Albert. In his promotion from Lieutenant he had leapfrogged the rank of Captain and gone straight to Major. Wars accelerate military procedure.

It was equipped with FE.2b pusher biplanes – dubbed the “Fee” by its fliers and mechanics. The Squadron’s main roles when Learmount joined it were aerial photography and reconnaissance. At 27 he was older than most of his fellow pilots, and equipped with all of 22 months’ experience of military aviation since his first flying lesson at Brooklands.

A farmer’s field near the River Somme, the former site of Chipilly aerodrome. The gentleness of the countryside and the beauty of the River Somme itself belies the horrors perpetrated here.

Meanwhile a new young American volunteer, AGJ (Archie) Whitehouse, who had just transferred from the army to 22 Squadron as an Air Gunner Second Class, brought to his first squadron a useful familiarity with firearms he had won both as a soldier and back at his childhood home in the USA. He was about to put that skill very successfully to use in the air, in charge of a Lewis light machine gun mounted above the front edge of his slipstream-blasted, canoe-like work-space in the nose of the Fee. His “foot-bath”, as he called it, was immediately forward of the pilot’s rather deeper cockpit. About ten years later Whitehouse, who kept a diary at the front, was to publish a memoire of his time on No 22 Sqn called “Hell in the Heavens”. Some of the experiences recorded here are from Whitehouse’s book.

The Fee itself was stable, reliable, could take a lot of damage and still fly, but rather slow. Its strong point was that the pilot and observer/gunner had a completely unobstructed view forward, laterally, above and below, which was excellent for 22 Sqn’s main roles – reconnaissance and aerial photography. Also the field of fire from its two pivoted Lewis guns was excellent in all directions except in its blind spot directly behind and below the tail. The observer’s gun was on the forward lip of his “tub”. The other – on a higher mount just ahead of the pilot – could either be fired forward by the pilot, or used by the observer to fire backward over the upper wing. So the Fee, although not designed as a fighter, could defend itself.

The FE2b “Fee”. This is shown without the guns on their mounts, but it clearly shows the Observer/Gunner’s shallow forward cockpit and the pilot’s deeper aft cockpit. Two Lewis guns were mounted on raised pivots, one on the front lip of the Gunner’s cockpit, the other – behind him on the front lip of the pilot’s station – could be fired forward by the pilot or rearward over the top wing by the Gunner.

The day Whitehouse reported to Chipilly, he was walking between the mess huts and canvas Bessonneau hangars when he heard a wailing sound, looked up and saw the silver fuselage and tailplane of a No. 2 Squadron Nieuport Scout diving toward the ground, its wings torn away and flailing separately to earth. Nieuports were fast, nimble French single-seaters, but if a pilot pulled too hard the wings would come off, and this time they did. 

Unfamiliar with what he was witnessing, it took Whitehouse a moment to realise the Nieuport was coming straight at him, and he began to run for cover between the hangars. The wingless hull smashed into the hardened area just in front of them.  He must have dashed over, because he found himself pulling frantically at the fur coat containing the mangled corpse of the pilot, before somebody swore loudly at him and pulled him away.

They said the pilot was the CO of No 2 Squadron, which was co-located with No 22 at Chipilly, and speculated that he was showing his aircrew what the Nieuport could do. Whitehouse watched while a crew grabbed the corners of the fur coat and pulled the human remains clear of the wreckage so the squadron would have something to bury. Whitehouse himself was told to clear off, so he continued to the orderly room to report for duty.

Whitehouse had received no training for the air. He reported to stores and was issued with his sheepskin flying kit and goggles. An attempt by the stores team to wash away the blood of a former owner had not completely succeeded.  

As soon as the new gunner had carried the kit to his Nissen hut quarters, one of the flight commanders, a Canadian called Capt Carl Clement who was C Flight Commander, put his head around the door and told him to get kitted up for a sortie that would be ideal for “getting his air legs in”.

Whitehouse’s first experience of leaving the earth’s surface was to be on a post-maintenance engine test flight. Once airborne, Clement shouted at him to tell him that, on the way back, they’d pass over the aircraft-shaped practice target on the ground near the aerodrome perimeter so Whitehouse could fire the Lewis gun at it.

To direct the gun properly Whitehouse had to get on his feet, blasted by the slipstream from his knees upward. No harness, no parachute. Standing would enable him to pivot the Lewis gun widely on its mounting. He was understandably reluctant, so Clement reached forward over his cockpit coaming and yanked him by the collar to persuade him to get up. When he finally did, the Lewis gun became both his weapon and his support – the only thing he had to hold on to. “I realised how it feels to be standing on the edge of … nothing.” But then, when Clement dived steeply at the practice target, Whitehouse filled it with lead. Clement was impressed and told him so.

Tomorrow’s episode 6: Whitehouse logs more spectacular airborne time

Leonard’s War episode 4: Surviving the Somme, the BE2c, and writing propaganda for the Allies

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By mid-May 1916 2nd Lieutenant Leonard Learmount had been posted from N.7 Squadron to No 15 Squadron and promoted to Lieutenant, just 6 weeks before the beginning of the massive and deadly Somme offensive by the British army 4th Corps, allied with Canadian and Australian troops.

A general view of the Western Front 1915-16, with battle locations indicated

15 Sqn flew BE2c two-seater “tractor” biplanes in support of that five-month offensive, in which the RFC lost 600 aircraft and 252 crew. The Germans at that time were gradually introducing better-armed machines while the RFC was forced to rely on existing machinery.

BE2c (Imperial War Museum)

In 1916, No. 15 Sqn – operating out of airfields in the vicinity of Arras – was mostly using the BE2c for reconnaissance and as a light bomber, although it could be fitted with underwing-mounted rockets for attacking balloons. And unlike its unarmed BE predecessors, the BE2c observer/gunner was given a pivot-mounted Lewis gun, but more for self-defence than attack. Unfortunately, because the observer’s cockpit was forward of the pilot’s, he was positioned more or less in line with the leading edges of the wings, which limited his field of fire considerably, with the propeller just ahead and the struts either side.

Whatever the aircraft’s mission, essential on every sortie was to engage enemy aircraft to maintain as much control as possible of the skies above the battlefield. The combined aircraft fleets the Allies could field exceeded significantly the numbers of German aircraft, even if their effectiveness didn’t match that of the newer German machines. 15 Sqn also had a pair of Bristol Scouts which could escort the BE2cs in their reconnaissance role. By the end of autumn Learmount – still alive despite flying the BE2c – had been promoted to Lieutenant and made a flight commander.

Propaganda is perceived as information disseminated by the enemy, but it seems the British wanted the people at home to be told about “our boys defending our skies”, because Zeppelins were succeeding in bombing civilian targets in British cities – a development that had deeply shocked the public.

At about this time, Learmount was clearly chosen as the “right stuff” to provide the British people with a word-picture of what it was like to be an RFC pilot. So he duly wrote a story, published in the Daily Mirror, headlined “Mr Learmount at the Front – Experiences in the Royal Flying Corps”, claiming to be “extracts from a letter received from Lieut LW Learmount of the Royal Flying Corps from ‘Somewhere in France’”. When interpreted in the light of history, this “letter” seems to contain a compendium of experiences over quite a wide period.

Press cutting from the Daily Mirror in Autumn 1916, from Learmount’s family records

This is what the “letter” says:

“We are having a very strenuous time here. I suppose I put in about 5 hours every day. Not all of it is over the enemy’s lines, of course. A new duty is patrolling the town where we are stationed, as some time ago a few Huns came over and dropped bombs on us and were off again before we could get up to them, so we go up every morning and cruise around at about 10,000ft so that should any more of them venture an attack we are prepared for them.

“I had a most exciting time the other day. I was going to Ostend and just after crossing the Lines a German machine came up and attacked us with a machine gun. We soon brought ours into play, but owing to his vastly superior speed we were not altogether having things all our own way, when a little British Scout which had been patrolling somewhere near us [probably a fighter escort for the reconnaissance type] dropped from the skies and opened fire and, between us, we downed the Hun pretty successfully.

“After this we went on with our reconnaissance and on the way back we met another Hun, but on this occasion we managed to do him in ourselves, and proceeded gaily on our way, somewhat badly damaged it is true, but still we got home all right.

“These air duels are very thrilling, the sky is thick with bursting shells [“Archie”- or anti-aircraft fire] and amidst the roar of our machine guns you can hear the zip of the Hun’s bullets when they get pretty close, and all the time the two machines are circling about, dropping and climbing, each trying to get the other at a disadvantage.

“Aerial warfare becomes more and more like a sea fight as machines are improved, but unfortunately the Huns have usually got better machines than we have. I have so far flown a rather an antiquated type, a French make, but am now the proud possessor of the very latest British machine, a real beauty [BE2c?]

“We have got a most splendid lot of fellows in the RFC, and I am serenely happy among them, although I get depressed at times the way one after another of them disappears. It is so rotten to see a vacant chair at the Mess table every now and then, and to have to go and pack up some unfortunate chap’s belongings is positively horrible. It make one sick at heart to witness the slaughter, for it amounts to nothing less, of all these fine men.”

Tomorrow, Episode 5: Learmount is promoted directly from Lieutenant to Acting Major, and given command of No. 22 Squadron at Chipilly, equipped with FE2b two-seater pushers, and gets increasingly involved in aerial photography over the heavily fortified German Hindenberg Line.

Leonard’s War episode 3: Learning night bombing with the Armée de l’Aire

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In early March 1916, 2nd Lieutenant Leonard Learmount was seconded from his unit, No. 7 Squadron, to the French Bombardment Group at Malzeville, close to Nancy and not far from the France/Germany border in embattled Alsace-Lorraine. His task was to observe bombing techniques – particularly night bombing – and to write a report for the RFC.

http://www.greatwar.co.uk

Selection for this duty suggests he was being prepared for command despite the brevity of experience gained in the twelve months since he had enlisted.

Here are some extracts from Learmount’s Malzeville report:

“There are 5 squadrons stationed here, each containing 10 machines. Most of these are Voisins, and the rest double-engine Caudrons. The Voisins will shortly be entirely replaced by Caudrons. These squadrons do not work other than bomb dropping, and one of them is kept entirely for night flying, the pilots being trained exclusively for this purpose.

Caudron G4 near Verdun

“The Voisins carry 10 bombs of 10 kilos inside the nacelle. They are placed in an upright position, 5 on either side, and the opening of slides permits the bombs to fall. The Caudron carried five 20-kilo bombs under the nacelle with a release similar to our own.”

Night bombardment

Learmount’s report about night bombing operations reveals a tentative, experimental approach by the French Armée de l’Aire to this new type of operation.

“The most elaborate arrangements are made for flying by night, each machine carrying a red and blue light on the wing tips., and three powerful electric lights under the nacelle which can be made to face in any direction. The lighting Is obtained from an accumulator which is charged by a small dynamo driven by a fan fitted to the lower plane.

“There are searchlights at intervals of about 20 yards trained onto the aerodrome, and 3 or 4 forming a crescent round the aerodrome, which point into the air and guide the machines back.

“Machines bombard at night time in groups of 4, and before leaving the aerodrome they signal by means of their electric lights that they are starting, or, if the engine is running badly, they signal that they are going to land. All signals are repeated from the ground by a searchlight to show the machines that their message had been received. When the lines are reached, all lights are extinguished.”

Night navigation was basic: “Machines always fly up the right-hand side of the river, returning on the opposite side.” The report does not name the river or rivers, but Nancy is near the confluence of the Moselle, Meurthe and Marne. “Only towns or points near a river are bombarded at night time, and the machines only fly when the night is clear. When the first man arrives at the objective, he drops incendiary bombs, so that, in the event of all lights being extinguished, the next three can see their objective. The first man in the second group drops incendiary bombs in the same manner.

“Machines fly at about 6,000ft and are never attacked by hostile machines, and have never been damaged by anti-aircraft fire. The French artillery and infantry in the area which the machines fly over are always warned that a raid is taking place, so that they do not put searchlights on their own machines.” Daytime bombing raids, the report says, aim for munitions factories, and railway stations or junctions, so at night the implication is that any of these close to the river they followed for navigation are fair game.

The night bombing tactics clearly left the Germans at a loss as to how to respond. It seems at night they could not identify the machines nor precisely where they came from. “German machines seldom visit the aerodrome and never drop bombs in this district in any quantity. The aerodrome is protected by anti-aircraft guns and patrolled by Nieuport machines. The Nieuport is kept entirely for fighting, and the squadrons composed of these are stationed at Bar-le-Duc.”

Learmount added a personal postscript to the report: “I was very struck by the cheerfulness and confidence of all the French Officers and troops with whom I came into contact. The utmost confidence prevails with regard to the result of the battle around Verdun.”

Verdun was not far north-west of Nancy, and the battle of that name turned out to be the longest and most bloody single campaign of the Great War. Between its inception on 21 February and end on 18 December 1916, the French lost 400,000 men and the Germans 350,000. By Christmas 1916 it was apparent that the dogged French defence had prevailed.

In the light of history, it is instructive to see Learmount’s observations on French army morale, recorded at Malzeville, during the first two weeks of the Battle of Verdun. Despite being a very junior allied officer, he clearly knew that repelling the German push at Verdun was vital, and was also aware that the conflict was quickly developing into a particularly nasty encounter. “I understand that up to the time I left, no general reserves had been called upon, and only the Reserves of the Divisions involved being in action. I saw many troops travelling up to the firing line, and it was remarkable the cheerful way in which the men sang and joked among themselves. One or two occasions when I was noticed the men all called out Anglais, Anglais and cheered, shewing the greatest friendliness.” Learmount was witnessing to the fact that, contrary to established British folklore, sang froid – and cheerfulness too – wasn’t a uniquely British reaction to wartime adversity.

He added: “In conclusion I should like to say how hospitably I was treated by the French Officers. A car was placed at my disposal, and each day I was invited to lunch or dine with either the Commandant or the Officers. When dining with the latter I thought it remarkable that every officer at table had one, and in many cases, two medals, and when I questioned them about this, I was told that the reason was these medals had been given to them previous to joining the Flying Corps, and it was largely owing to their meritorious service that they had been chosen.”

Learmount’s report was dated 11 March 1916.

Tomorrow’s episode 4: Learmount joins No. 15 Squadron which is tasked with supporting the massive and costly Battle of the Somme. And he’s ordered by the authorities to write an article for the Daily Mirror to provide the British public with a picture of what it’s like to be a military aviator.