In the spring of 1917, eighteen-year-old Jack Morris Wright left college in Massachusetts, with several alumni, to volunteer for the Ambulance Corps in France. While certainly moved by America’s declaration of war, Jack had been raised and educated in France, so he was also going to aid the beloved home of his childhood.
As it happened, Jack ended up in the camion (truck) service, hauling munitions to the front. Frustrated, he took leave to apply for flight training and was accepted – joining the first group of American Volunteers to be trained by French officers at the US 2nd Air Instructional Centre (AIC) at Tours.
By December 1917 he had mastered the clipped-wing roleurs and geriatric Caudron G.3 trainers at Tours. Transferred to 3rd AIC at Issoudun1 for advanced training in chasse or pursuit planes – fighters, to you and I.
A gifted writer, his account of the minor trials and immense joys of becoming an aviator sparkle with enthusiasm, humour and aesthetic insight. The following letter to his mother is a prime example…
Walking towards a precipice
January 22, 1918
Just a word to tell you how my world is turning around.
It is turning around very rapidly, for I have just been doing spirals yesterday. That is to say, you’re hung up in space some three thousand feet when you cut down the motor and start.
For a second,everything is silent as the silence of night, when you’re walking towards a precipice, as the silence just before the hand strikes down to plunge in the dagger.
Just then I tried to think of my instructions — absolutely useless. I was thoroughly stage-frightened, but I was nearing the precipice, the dagger was quivering to plunge down, so I started. I pulled the plane over on a perpendicular and down; then back a little on the stick to make her spin lightly, and off she went, the clouds whirling by as in a cyclone — a war of the gods and the wind roaring at me like a continual fog-horn and pulling on me hard. Round like a top; down, down towards the earth, as in a falling merry-go-round the plane led me, like a bolt through space.
I remember vaguely acknowledging that if the bus did smash it was nevertheless a great experience, and that it was the height of the game. It was a great adventure, ‘midst the wild, invisible forces of the clouds, high up from other humans. It seemed, so to speak, like when a movie shows angels sweeping by diagonally in the heavens, with the clouds whizzing around.
In the bottom of the sky
The spiral was increasing in rapidity on my left, rather behind me, for I was turned to the right watching the needle on my tachometer, pushing with my feet accordingly, and trying to convince my hands, in spite of them, to pull back farther and over, so as to make the plane spin tighter and on a perpendicular. However, my hands refused to go far. I just couldn’t make them.
By then the wind was roaring so loudly and the plane whizzing me around so fastly and downwardly that I started to wonder whether or not I was in a vrille. (Fatal if you don’t come out of it.)
I looked over my left shoulder and saw the houses spinning around regularly and decided all was well; by chance I glanced over my right shoulder at the clouds — Ooooooh! that empty feeling; then all was funny.
I looked back inside the machine again and recovered promptly with another one thousand and one prayers to something, someone, somewhere. Looking at the sky when you’re spinning seems to create a cone with the far end in the bottom of the sky. Anyway, you can wager no sailor even of a submarine would take more than one look at it.
In the end I came out of it, ages from the circle I was supposed to reach without pulling on the motor again, so I just had to. When I felt the machine grip earth again, I felt as though I had just finished a heated debate in the Senate, and won; had just finished a complicated trial for suicide, and won; had just finished a desperate suit for a star in the Century, and won.
While you’ve still got the confidence
I was immediately sent up for my second, which is a good plan while you’ve still got the confidence left in you. My second, I felt was better, so that when I came out of it, it was as though I had held my breath under water a long time. I just burst loose and sang and shouted at the top of my voice, in English, French, and Yiddish.
On my third spiral, when coming out, I was evidently dangerously flat for my propeller just about stopped, and then did, which cut off the chance of pulling on the motor again, which I needed to, being over a forest a half-mile from where I should be. (The wind had drifted me.) So I tried to crank the propeller — not that I got out and did it —not exactly. I dove down a couple of hundred feet and the force of the wind, just as a private chauffeur, cranked it for me. I pulled on the gasoline; she winced and the motor gave a whoop and a pull and so I skimmed above the trees.
So far, I am slowly and contentedly easing into the life of orderlies and good meals and general respect of an officer and gentleman.
I might have added, too, that in between the spirals, yesterday, I saw the last twirl that was the farewell second in the life of a boy in the class next to mine. I don’t feel heart-broken for him so much as for the mother back home.
Meanwhile, Jack’s own mother, Sara Greene Wise, had begun compiling her son’s missives from France into what she’d eventually publish as A Poet Of The Air. Then, “while joyously compiling these letters (having even confided my plan to him) the official telegram came that announced his last flight on January 24, 1918.”
The letter you just read was Jack’s last. After long looking forward to flying the nimble machines de chasse, and just weeks from joining the fight he’d come so to be part of, Jack Morris Wright joined that horrendous statistic of Great War pilots killed in training.
Several weeks later Jack’s good friend Lt. Bruce Hopper2 wrote Mrs. Wise, to offer the solace of recalling her son’s achievements and early death in more detail.
My Dear Madame Wise,
Writing you has been a duty which I have long realised, and yet postponed indefinitely, thinking that a joint expression from all of Jack’s friends would be more fitting, and perhaps more representative of the feeling caused here by his death…
I first met Jack on board the Touraine, along with a few hundred other young fellows fresh from the class-room, coming to France for a share in the big fight.
Much against our inclinations we went into the camion service instead of the ambulance. The work in munition convoys was always distasteful to Jack. The dust of the roads irritated him, and the humdrum work of handling the cases of shells bored him terribly. All the time at the front he seemed in a semi-trance, a sort of nostalgia, and found vent only in long walks…
Mastery of the air
So he left on permission, enlisted in aviation as you well know and, after his first difficulty was settled, became happy again in his progress in mastery of the air.
We came to Tours together, and learned to fly. Jack realised more than most of us the larger significance of flying. He came down from his second flight convinced in his mind that he never would become a pilot – flying was too tremendous in reality, so supernatural, so akin to some divine privilege…
A rivalry sprang up between him and Jack Sawhill, as to who would make the most rapid progress in winning the much-coveted French brevet. One day Jack circled the field counter-traffic, that is he turned to the right on the take-off when the two balls at the pilotage indicated compulsory turning to the left. For that error he was taken off the flying list for two or three days, much to Jack Sawhill’s delight.
Jack Sawhill, however, landed cross-wind the next day, and was given a similar punishment. This friendly rivalry continued till Jack Sawhill fell in a Nieuport and was taken to the hospital with a broken arm…
The first one killed
Our next experience was at the camp where Jack was killed. He and Jack Sawhill came down after three happy days in Paris. I had missed the two Jacks and was tickled to have them with me again, even as fellow-sufferers in the hardships of a newly constructed school. Flying was slowed up by the continuous rain; we all had colds and sore throats.
I went to the camp hospital late in December, and was about starved. Jack tried to see me, but could not, but he saved a lot of delicacies and good cigarettes from his Christmas box and showered me with such good things when I got back to the barracks.
The first one killed at our camp was a Lieutenant Paul, who went into a vrille on his first tour-de-piste [i.e. a spin on his first cross country flight] in the smallest type of plane. We were all greatly depressed by the accident, and Jack more than most of us. He said to me: “Strange to think of life as complete when a fellow is killed like Paul was …yet everything laid out for him to do has been done …he finished his work …his turn had come.”
Jack’s own turn was not far away, even though his fatalistic tendency had not prepared him fully to meet it.
Gliding short of the field
Jack and I attended all classes together at the last camp. We were ready for spirals when I received orders to go back to Tours to fly observers for a while. That was on January 16th (1918). I bade him good-bye, saying I should meet him in Paris, or at the front, or maybe behind the moon.
He reminded me of our Latin Quarter prospect apres la guerre and promised to keep the rendezvous. His rendezvous was not with me, but with Death.
The news, a few days later, of his last spiral returned me. I could not believe it, a blackness came over me, and I asked: Could it be that our Jack, our Jack was gone? My heart burned with thoughts of him – my comrade and your son.
It seems that he spiralled down from a thousand metres with a cold motor, found he was gliding short of the field, and tried to lengthen his landing angle. He flattened out at fifty metres altitude, the plane stalled, then wing slipped to the ground.
It is not for me to say it could have been averted. Jack had formed the habit of jerking off his goggles to land, saying he did so to protect his eyes should he smash. The wind would always bring water to his eyes, and he always appeared to have been rubbing them after landing. I think the dizziness caused by a spiral, heightened by water-blindness of the eyes, made him misjudge his altitude. But he is gone…
One cannot worry and fly
Like the rest of us Jack early adopted the care-free swing to life in the air. One cannot worry and fly. He had a song on his lips to the last, a smile for every difficulty, and a shrug for unpleasant situations. As he often explained to me, his emotions in line of flight ranged from supreme ecstasy in the sheer fantasy of a long glide to the panicky fear which comes to a pilot when a collision with some other sky-pilgrim seems inevitable.
Every day a pilot runs the gauntlet of human psychology, as much as a terrestrial person experiences in months. To one as temperamentally contracted as Jack, all this marvellous phenomenon of the sixth sense, the feel of flying, was an endless study. He loved it all, and made others understand it better because of his finer perceptions.
Other than his beautiful personality I think this, the appreciation of the powers of the air, was Jack’s greatest contribution to the pioneers of American aviation in France. As the dreamer of real castles in the air, Jack shall long be remembered. As the comrade of my first year of the War, he shall be enshrined in my memory…
Bruce C. Hopper
1st Lt., A.S., S.C., A.E.F.
[Air Service, Signal Corps, American Expeditionary Force]
November 11th is Remembrance Day. Remember the fallen. Remember Jack Morris, his friends and his grieving mother. And remember, 98 years on, to never EVER try and stretch your glide…
1. To placate the censor Wright never actually names Issoudun, but advanced training on fighters and a later comment about being on a newly constructed training field certainly point to the 3rd AIC.
2. Bruce Campbell Hopper would survive the War and go on a pivotal career – serving as Historian for the 8th Air Force and U.S. Strategic Air Forces during World War II, and serving as civilian member of the Pentagon Board to Select the US Air Academy Site.
Extracted from A Poet Of The Air, Jack Morris Wright and Sara Ann Wise, published by The Riverside Cambridge Press in 1918 (sourced here).
More from A Poet Of The Air will be appearing in the first airscape book (!), an anthology of first-person memoirs from the early days of aviation. I’ll keep you posted.