Royal Flying Corps Pilot 1917, Bronze

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From the outbreak of War most military leaders considered that the prime role of aircraft was reconnaisance; they were used as ' aerial cavalry ' and it was not until 1915 that military planes were equipped with guns for offence or defence. Typically the aircraft were two seaters with the Pilot ( the chauffer ) seated in the front where he had always sat, and the Observer ( the officer ) seated in the rear ( where he was accustomed to sit ). Flying was considerd by everybody as jolly good sport for Gentlemen and there was a great deal of camaraderie and rules of honour even between adversaries. ( In time observers carried a pistol which was fired at opponent's aeroplanes - but only while both sides had ammunition available ); it was not until early 1915 that observers were forbidden to take their dogs on reconnaisance flights !

Development was swift, however, as planes became faster, stronger, more reliable and better armed. In 1914 aircraft had a top speed of 65mph, a range of 200 miles and a ceiling of 2000ft; by 1918 200HP, single seat fighters were fighting each other at 15,000ft using machine guns synchronised to fire between the propellor blades. Specialized planes had been developed to drop bombs, strafe trenches and take photographs. Fighting in the sky had become a nasty, serious business; in fact, flying had ceased to be a game.

Mark you flying a flimsy, draughty, flimsy aeroplane made of fabric, wood and wires and powered by a noisy air-cooled unreliable engine could never have been much of a game. Huddled in their open cockpits swathed in many layers of sweaters over a long trench coat and high leather boots, pilots were often so cold on landing that they had to be lifted bodily from their planes and carried to their quarters where they could ' thaw-out '. Safety standards were non-existent. No parchutes were carried ( they were considered too unreliable and rather ' cissy ' ) and smoking pipes during flight was common. Each plane had its tool kit which the pilot was supposed to be able to use should it be necessary to make a forced landing due to engine trouble. Engines were notoriously fickle; in 1915 one British pilot reported 22 engine malfunctions necessitating forced landings in fields during 30 missions.

In 1918 the Royal Flying Corps was combined with the Royal Naval Air Service, which had been formed in 1914, to create the British Royal Air Force - the R.A.F. What had started as a care-free amateur Gentleman's Club had been transformed into a highly trained, professional well-armed fighting force which has served Britain well over the past 70 years.