‘Into the Wild Blue Yonder’

A certain Colonel Henry H. Arnold, stationed in Washington, would one day write that the American air arm of May, 1917 possessed ‘130 so-called pilots’, of whom ‘only 26 were really qualified’, and ‘55 airplanes, 51 of them obsolete, 4 obsolescent, and not one of them a combat type’.19,20 Pilots and observers usually received basic training in the States in two-seater Curtiss JN-4 series (‘Jenny’) biplanes. France furnished the United States Army Air Service with combat planes, notably Nieuport and Spad fighters. (The latter popular name derives from the manufacturer SPAD , the Société Pour l’Aviation et ses Dérives). Both were armed with British twin Vickers 0.303 inch calibre machine guns. Captain Edward (‘Eddie’) V. Rickenbacker’s famous 94th. Pursuit (‘Hat-in-the-Ring’) Squadron used Nieuport 27s at first. These biplanes (Fig. 7) were powered with an air-cooled 160 horsepower Gnome Monosoupape rotary engine21 that had tricky carburation and gave a gyroscopic effect during flight. During a steep dive with this plane, the doped linen fabric on leading edges of the upper wings could sometimes detach and, under extreme stresses, the wings could fold like a fan. In later stages of the war most American pursuit squadrons were equipped with the sturdier, more manoeuvrable Spad XIII which was powered by a 235 horsepower Hispano-Suiza engine and capable of 134 mph. Although the idea of aerial dogfights between hordes of fighter planes has always appealed to popular imagination, the primary function of fighter squadrons was to protect the vulnerable balloons and two-seater observation planes which provided vital information for the artillery and ground forces.

Fig. 7 – Twenty-six Nieuport 27s lined-up for inspection at 3rd. AIC, Issoudun, April 1918. (Courtesy of the US National Archives: 530721)

By the end of the war, the US Army Air Service in France had 740 planes operating and had reached a strength of 7,726 officers and 70,769 men: American pilots shot down a total of 753 enemy planes at a cost of 357 of their own planes. Many airmen of the AEF received their advanced training at the 3rd. Aviation Instruction Center (AIC), Issoudun, 250 km due south of Paris. A Major ‘Tooey’ Spaatz was posted to Issoudun by Pershing in September 1917. As base commander, Spaatz introduced rigorous flying schedules and swiftly put an end to a lax regime of accidents, poor living conditions, slack discipline and low morale. Eventually the Center would have 11 active flying fields and 91 hangars and spread over an area of 50 square miles. By October 1918, just one year after its first classes, 560 machines were in daily use and it had sent out 1,751 fully-trained pilots and observers.22 It was staffed by 7.500 men and women. The enterprise reputedly formed the largest flying school in the world.23

  1. Frank Freidel, Over There: the Story of America’s First Great Overseas Crusade (Boston, Toronto: Little, Brown & Co., 1964) 148. []
  2. Arnold learned how to fly from the pioneering Wright brothers: in World War II, as its first five-star General, he commanded the United States Army Air Force (USAAF). []
  3. The stationary crankshaft was mounted on the airframe. The whole engine and its nine radially-disposed cylinders rotated with the propeller. []
  4. The Stars and Stripes (Paris, France) Vol. 2/ No.08 (March 28, 1919): AEF newspaper produced by men from the ranks. []
  5. Bernard Gagnepain, Les Américains à Issoudun (Editions Alan Sutton, 2007) ISBN 978-2-84910-686-0 []