Billy Bishop VC

More than half of the RFC pilots killed during World War One died in training, not combat. So although Canadian Billy Bishop would claim 72 victories, he had to face the most dangerous part of war flying first…

I tried very hard

On November 1st, 1916, I was sent to a school for elementary training in the air. This consisted, first of all, in going up in another old machine — a steady type called the Maurice Farman,  fitted with a dual set of controls, so that the instructor could manage one while I tried to manage the other.

http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205314876
Bishop’s stalwart trainer – the Maurice-Farman MF.7 ‘Longhorn’. First flown in 1910, the Longhorn was rendered ancient by the pace of aircraft development during WW1. IWM Q 67465

Never will I forget those days of dual control. I tried very hard, but seemed to me I just could not get the proper ‘feel’ of the machine. First the instructor would tell me I was ‘ham-handed’— that I gripped the controls too tightly with every muscle tense. After that I would get what you might call timid-handed, and not hold the controls tightly enough.

My instructor and I both suffered tortures. So when suddenly one day he told me I could go up alone, I had my doubts as to whether it was confidence or desperation that dictated his decision. I didn’t worry long as to which it was; I was willing to take the chance.

The greatest day

Then followed my first solo! This is, I think, the greatest day in a pilot’s life. Certainly I did not stop talking about it for the next three weeks at least. I felt a great and tender pity for all the millions of people in the world who never have a chance to do a solo!

What the future held for many student pilots during WW1. (raf museum 003LG)
What the future held for many student pilots during WW1. (raf museum 003LG)

An ambulance stood in the aerodrome, and it seemed to me, as it has to many another student pilot, that all the other business of flying had suddenly ceased so that everybody could look at me.

I noticed with a shiver that the ambulance had its engine running. Were the doctors at the hospital expectantly fondling their knives? Everybody looked cold-blooded and heartless. But I had to do it: so into the machine I crawled, trying to look cheerful, but feeling awful lonesome.

How I got off the ground I do not know, but once in the air it was not nearly so bad — not much worse than the first time you started downhill on an old-fashioned bicycle.

I wasn’t taking any liberties. I flew as straight ahead as I could, climbing steadily all the time. But at last I felt I had to turn, and I tried a very slow, gradual one, not wanting to bank either too steeply or too little. They told me afterwards I did some remarkable skidding on that turn, but I was blissfully ignorant of a little detail like that and went gaily on my way. I banked a little more on my next turn and didn’t skid so much.

For a time I felt very much pleased with myself circling above the aerodrome, but suddenly an awful thought came to me. Somehow or other I had to get that machine down to the earth again.

Only forty feet too high

How blissful it would be if I could just keep on flying! At last, however, I screwed up all my courage, reached for the throttle, pushed it back, and the engine almost stopped. I knew the next thing to do was to put her nose down. So down it went at a steep angle.

http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205314275
A view of the Central Flying School at Upavon, In the fore is BE2 #447, with a MF7 Longhorn (#431) next in line. (IWM Q 66956)

I felt it was too steep, so I pulled her nose up a bit, then put it down again, and in a series of steps I had been told carefully to carry out, descended toward the ground.

About forty feet from the ground, however, I did everything I had been told to do when two feet from the ground. So I made a perfect landing — only forty feet too high.

Eventually I realised this slight error, and down went her nose again. We rapidly got nearer the ground, and then I repeated my perfect landing — about eight feet up. This time I just sat and suffered, while the now thoroughly exasperated old machine, taking matters into its own hands, dropped with a ‘plonk’ the intervening distance.

There was no damage, because the training machines are built for such work, and can stand all sorts of hard knocks.

A fearsome thing

After doing my first solo, I progressed rather rapidly, and in a few days was passed on to a higher instruction squadron and began to fly more warlike machines. I found that to qualify as a pilot I had to pass certain tests in night flying.

This awed me to a certain extent, but it also appealed to me, for just two months before the first Zeppelins had been brought down at night on English soil by our airmen. I was very anxious to get taken on for this work, and eventually succeeded.

Night-flying is a fearsome thing — but tremendously interesting. Anyone who has ever been swimming at night will appreciate what I mean. All the familiar objects and landmarks, that seem so friendly by day, become weird and repellent monsters at night.

It is simple enough to go up in the dark, and simple enough to sail away. But it is quite something else to come down again without taking off a chimney-pot or strafing a big oak tree.

The landing tests are done with the help of flares on the ground. My first flight at night had most of the thrills of my first solo. I taxied out to what I thought a good place to take-off from. The instructor shouted a few last words to me above the noise of the motor. I turned the machine to face down the long line of lights, opened out the engine, raced along the ground, then plunged up into utter blackness.

To my intense surprise

http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205022094
A formal portrait of Bishop, as a confident and successful Captain, in 1917. IWM

I held the controls very carefully and kept my eyes glued on the instruments that gleamed brightly under little electric bulbs inside the machine. I could not see a thing around me; only the stars overhead. Underneath there was a great black void.

After flying straightway for several minutes I summoned up courage enough to make a turn. I carefully and gradually rounded the corner, and then away off to one side I could see the flares on the ground.

I completed a big circuit and shut off the engine preparatory to landing. Suddenly, in the midst of my descent, I realised I had misjudged it very badly, so quickly put the engine on again and proceeded to fly around a second time. Then I came down, and, to my intense surprise, made quite a good landing. This was only the beginning. I had to repeat the trick several times.

On the final test I had to do a given height. I left the ground as before, and just as I did so could see the reflection of the flares on the tin roofs of our huts. It made a great impression upon me, as I climbed away into the darkness. Then my thoughts went to my engine and I realised it was as important as my own heart.

I listened to its steady beat with an anxious ear. Once or twice there was a slight kick or hitch in its smooth rhythm. No matter how many cylinders you have whirring in front of you, the instant one misses your heart hears it even before your ears do.

Several times my heart seemed to stop. The tension became very great as I toiled and struggled up through the night. The lack of anything upon which I could put my eyes outside the machine gave me a very queer feeling.

The air is very wide

One other machine was up at the same time, doing its test, and somehow, although the space in the air is very wide, I had a great fear that we might collide, so I gazed anxiously out into the darkness trying to see the little navigation lights we carried on our wings.

It is hard to look into jet blackness, and the strain hurt my eyes, but I was afraid not to look for all I was worth. I continued to fly as much as I could in a dead straight line. Whenever I had to make a turn I made a very gradual one, hardly daring to bank, or tilt, my machine at all. It is funny, this feeling at night that you must not bank, and a most dangerous instinct to follow.

The feeling that you are off an even keel upsets you, as you have no horizon or apparent ground below you to take your bearings by, and you have to go by the instruments, or tell from the ‘feel’ of the machine itself, whether you are level or not.

With a happy heart

However, at the stage of learning I had reached I knew nothing of the real feel of a machine and was entirely dependent upon the instruments. This is not a very reassuring state of mind, so when the instruments at last indicated I had attained the required height, it was with a happy heart that I throttled back my engine to come down.

I was afraid to shut it completely off for fear that it would get too cold to pick up when I put it on again. When you come down with your engine running it takes a much longer time to reach the ground. Every thousand feet or so, as I lost height, I would carefully try out the engine, and do a complete circuit.

Underneath me I could see the little twinkling flares, and kept them in sight as much as possible on the downward journey to make certain of not losing myself.

Finally, I reached the ground and made a careful landing. When I stepped out of the machine I had at last qualified as a pilot.

Commander of No.60 Squadron by war's end, Bishop stands with his Nieuport 17 at Filescamp, France. (IWM Collection via wikipedia)
Commander of No.60 Squadron by war’s end, Bishop stands with his Nieuport 17 at Filescamp, France. (IWM Collection via wikipedia)

This article is taken from Winged Warfare, by Major William A Bishop, VC, DSO, MC – the great ace’s WW1 memoirs as published in 1918. You can get a complete copy (for free) here.

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2 thoughts on “Billy Bishop VC

  1. I was so delighted to see your post sitting in my inbox this morning. I’ve been fascinated by Bishop ever since I first saw the one-man play “Billy Bishop Goes to War” nearly 15 years ago. I just assumed it had been over-dramatized, but no, he really did crash that many times, and did attack an enemy air base all by himself.

    Aviation development during The Great War was a thing to behold. The differences between his training ship and the Nieuports he flew in combat are incredible. It must have been an exciting time to be in the flying world, even if there was a war on…

    1. Yep, it’s easy to see why the early years of aviation hold such a powerful fascination for so many – this avgeek included. I’ve just finished a book about John Duigan, who built and flew his own aircraft in 1910 (without previous experience or plans) on his family farm. It was Australia’s first domestically built aircraft. Duigan went on to fly active observation as a Flight Leader with the Australian Flying Corp through WW1, including encounters with Richtofen’s Flying Circus (Jagdgeschwader 1) in RE8s. Qantas now flies an A380 named after him.

      In a perfect world, I’d have space to run huge tracts of ‘Winged Warfare’. It’s a great read. I highly recommend the link at the bottom of the article. Glad you enjoyed it!

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