The first entry in my Log-book reads “29 May 1916. 5.37 p.m. M.F.L.H. 6697. Captain Scott. 19 mins. Partial Control.” Dressed in leather flying coats, wool-lined flying boots, flying helmets and goggles, my instructor and I climbed into the nacelle. Captain Scott repeated the engine-starting formula – “Switch off, suck in, contact.” The Air mechanic – they were colloquially known as “Ak-Emmas” – swung the prop, the engine fired, the pilot waved his hand – “Chocks away” – and we were off. It is not easy to recall the sensations of a first flight, sitting in the nose of the nacelle in front of the pilot, but Shorthorns only needed a short run to take off and soon we were circling the aerodrome, flying over Castle Bromwich Church, the railway, and the open fields which surrounded the aerodrome. Birmingham has now spread its tentacles, Dunlop and Pressed Steel factories cover the meadows and the aerodrome has been given over to housing.
Over the next fortnight I put in something over an hour’s flying, partly on Longhorns and partly on Shorthorns, and was allowed to hold the controls while we practised landings, flying either in the evenings or early mornings. Pilots’ training was being rushed at this period of the war and after nine brief flights and two hours and thirty-one minutes of instruction I was considered fit enough to take off on my first solo. So at 7.42 a.m. on 17th June I climbed into my seat, started the engine, taxied out onto the runway, pushed forward the throttle, and I was “off”. The flight only lasted nine minutes and on landing I was told to go off again. The plane climbed well and having reached a height of 1200 feet I found myself over Castle Bromwich Church and turned to glide in to the aerodrome. As I crossed the water meadows I realised that I was too low, so opened the throttle to give the engine a boost. But horror of horrors, nothing happened, and looking back I realised that the engine had stopped and I had “lost my prop”. There were only a few seconds to decide what to do – ahead lay the railway and a river and I was too low to turn. So the only hope was to flatten out as much as possible without losing flying speed and with a beating heart and with the wheels clipping some young trees on the edge of the aerodrome, down we came with a bounce and a bump, and my skin was saved. After three more solos I attempted the test for the Royal Aero Club Certificate which involved making two figures of eight and landing near a designated spot. All went well and after a total of three hours and fifty-nine minutes flying I had qualified for my “Ticket” which entitled me to rank as a certificated Pilot and bore the number 3099.
Three weeks after posting to Castle Bromwich I was ordered to 47 Squadron at Beverley in Yorkshire, commanded by Major J.G. Small. Beverley aerodrome had been a racecourse and was like a grassy pimple; if one flew in too low one ran the danger of hitting the rising ground; and if too high, the ground receded on the far side of the pimple and, instead of touching down, one’s wheels went higher and higher and another circuit became imperative.
No. 47 was equipped with Avros and Armstrong Whitworths, both biplanes. The Avro – later to become and for many years to remain the standard primary “tutor” of the R.A.F. – was a two seater and was equipped with an 80 horse power rotary Gnome engine, manufactured in France. The 7 cylinder engine, which revolved round a stationary crankshaft, had automatic inlet valves (which sometimes refused to open) and mechanically operated exhaust valves. There was no means of controlling the speed of the engine and before taking off it was necessary to “blip” – that is to use the button on the top of the joy-stick to switch on and off. To protect the propellor on landing a skid jutted out from and was fixed to the axle of the landing wheels. The engine was lubricated with castor oil and the centrifugal force of the rotating cylinders spewed out a thin film of oil, some of which found its way aft to the discomfort and odour of the pupil and instructor. Avros were not difficult to fly, provided the engine behaved itself, and were much lighter on the controls than the relatively heavy-handed Maurice-Farmans. We were warned to treat the controls with delicacy, as too energetic handling could put the plane into a spin; and at that time the technique of recovering from a spin had not been discovered; so we flew with caution and avoided “stunting”. In two weeks of dual instruction – eleven separate outings – I put in nearly two hours of flying and after three more trips – one with Major Small who commanded the Squadron – I was thought capable of “going solo”.
My log book – signed weekly by the Squadron Commander – bears his comment “Don’t use American slang.” “Dud engine” and “Joy ride” were not considered appropriate terms of expression by the Army Regulars seconded to the R.F.C.
In the “remarks” column of my log book the entry relating to my third solo reads: “Bumpy. Switch wire broke. Landed by petrol tap.” The Avro I was flying was a good climber and I found myself going higher and higher. So I decided to switch off the engine and lose height. But when I pressed the switch button, nothing happened! What could I do? Should I fly round until the petrol was exhausted and hope to land without engine. Then I remembered that under the pilot’s seat was a tap which regulated the petrol supply. Reaching down I twisted the handle and after what seemed a long pause the engine cut out. Turning into the wind, I set course for the aerodrome, but there was a strongish breeze blowing and I realised I was not going to “make it”. So the tap was feverishly twisted and after a wait which seemed interminable the engine picked up and disaster was avoided. Another circuit and I tried again. This time I approached at a greater height and by twisting and turning managed to hit the landing strip with several bumps and bounces. Thank goodness I had remembered the existence of the petrol tap.
No. 47 Squadron was also equipped with Armstrong-Witworths – biplanes somewhat like the standard B.E.2c. with 90 horse power air cooled engines made to Royal Aircraft Establishment design and in fact copies of the Renault. They were good, steady planes and easy to fly, but they saw little or no active service in France and were mainly used in Salonika and the Middle East.
After five minutes of “dual” I was sent up “solo” and on landing dipped a wing and damaged the kingpost of the right aileron. Looking back over fifty years it seems surprising that one should have been sent up in a strange plane with only a few minutes of “dual” experience.
After thirty minutes of what my log book describes as “Circuits. 3 landings”, I was sent off on my first cross-country flight which lasted 83 minutes and took me over the Humber to Goole and on to Doncaster. The same afternoon another cross-country covered the triangle of Market Weighton, Tadcaster and Selby. At the end of this week Major Small left the Squadron and my log book is signed “J.A. Cunningham. Captain R.F.C.”