The Aircraft Museum near Blenheim on the South Island of New Zealand is well worth a visit. We only had time to do one war and we chose to do World War 1. It was well set out and displayed planes that looked so ancient it brought home just how brave these pilots were.
The displays included scenes from the day and inside the workshops that repaired the damaged planes that had managed to limp home. In WWI, unlike the German pilots, British pilots weren’t issued with parachutes. The rationale of the British Government was that the pilots may not be quite as focused on carrying out the task at hand and might bale earlier, ditching expensive aircraft that potentially could limp home. It took them some time to realise that trained fighter pilots were a more valuable commodity than the plane. Once they realised this parachutes became standard issue.
The US Navy had 22 Curtiss MF Flying Boat delivered before the contract was terminated due to Armistice in 1918. However, it was found to be an excellent trainer so 80 more were ordered. It was later used as a rum running plane during prohibition and in the filming of the Amazon in the Alexander Hamilton Rice Expedition 1919-20. This is one of only four known to exist in the world.
A piece of flash fiction written in 2018 in response to the story that went with this plane.
The night before the mission Squadron 74 threw back their beers and cuddled their girls They knew there would be empty seats and some broken-hearts the following night.
1100 hours the bugle sounded. A quick briefing. No longer carefree, they ran to their planes. Commander Keith ‘Grid’ Caldwell headed out with his men. “On your bikes, chaps” he ordered.
The formation crossed the line at 1330 hrs. Soon they ferreted out some enemy planes. Bratatattat. Bratatattat. Sparks flew from the machine guns. Grid, in his element, attacked, then spiralled, righting his plane to appear from nowhere shooting the German out of the sky. He dipped away. His plane shuddered. He had collided with one of his own at 7000 feet. The plane with it damaged wing spun downward another 2000 feet. Without a parachute Grid had a choice of death. He decided to jump. He leant out over the wing and the plane steadied, flattening out. Holding the right rudder with his left foot he kept his weight on the wing and managed to fly his crippled aircraft to safety.
In the WWI exhibit I learnt about this NZ pilot who had a narrow escape and was one of the few pilots to survive WWI where the average lifespan of these young men was two weeks from commencing flying missions. Grid went on to become a Air Commodore in WWII. He gained the nickname Grid as it is NZ for bicycle and this is what he called the planes.
No record of planes in WW1 would be complete without the Red Baron, Capt Von Richthofen who shot down 80 aircraft in his wood and fabric plane. He was shot down by Capt Brown – an Australian. The looting of the downed plane was immense with people taking trophies back to memorialise the day, with pieces being found in Darwin.
If you are ever in Blenheim, make sure you take a trip out to the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre – it is well worth a visit.