Navigation in these early days was a matter of reading a map, spotting main roads and railways, and if in doubt, flying low over a station and reading its name on the signposts. Apart from a rev-counter and air-speed indicator, the only instruments were an altimeter, a compass, and a bubble-level.
Pilots at Doncaster played a game on the spectators who came out on Sundays to watch the flying. A two-seater took off with a dummy dressed in flying kit concealed in the cockpit. The pilot did a loop over the aerodrome and the observer ejected the dummy, which fell spreadeagled to the ground. A waiting ambulance, in which was concealed an officer dressed in flying kit and his pals, tore out over the grass and the occupants jumped out and surrounded “the corpse”. Unperceived by the spectators the live airman took the place of the dummy and soon was seen being escorted to the tarmac apparently none the worse for his fall. Meanwhile the dummy had been hidden in the ambulance and the plane was seen to land with only the pilot’s head showing and taxi back to the hangars.
My time at Beverley was now coming to an end and finished with a trip to Doncaster, where the Racecourse was used as an aerodrome, and on to Bramham Moor. Log book records “Clouds, low and misty. Bumpy.” The aerodrome at Bramham Moor adjoined a main road and the planes were housed in tents. When I set out to return to Beverley, my engine refused to start and after spending a night in the Mess I was picked up by tender and taken back to Beverley. By this time I had totted up “Total solo 10 hrs. 42 min. Total in air 16 hrs. 22 min.” and was beginning to feel that I was acquiring confidence and could find my way – weather conditions permitting – from point to point.
Two days after returning to Beverley I was posted back to Castle Bromwich and joined No. 28 Reserve Squadron. We had a few Avros but the Squadron was primarily equipped with R.E.7s built by Siddeley-Deasey and engined with the 12 cylinder 150 h.p. R.A.F. 4a engine.
The R.E.7 was a two seater with the pilot sitting aft of the observer, who occupied an enormous cockpit in the centre-section of the wings. It had a wing-span of 57 feet and at the time was the largest plane in use by the R.F.C. Designed for bombing, it was out of date before it saw active service; and only one squadron flew with it in France before the opening of the Somme offensive in July 1916. Slow to fly and clumsy to manoeuvre, R.E.s were “sitting ducks” and although they did some useful work they were soon scrapped.
After a few trips round the aerodrome in an Avro I climbed into the spacious cockpit of an R.E.7, strapped myself in, and went up with Captain Woodhouse – a racing motor cyclist and one of the early “stunters”. Later in France he was to gain distinction by landing and taking off spies behind the enemy lines. Next day we went up again and, having climbed to 1500 feet, Woodhouse put his nose down and before I realised what he was doing he pulled back “the stick” and I was experiencing my first loop. During the next week I put in quite a lot of flying, on one occasion staying aloft for over an hour, getting up to 9000 feet and for the first time flying through cloud.
No doubt because R.E.7s were being scrapped I was posted early in August 1916 to No. 49 Squadron at Dover, where there were two aerodromes – one belonging to the R.F.C. and one to the R.N.A.S. Our aerodrome was on the cliffs east of Dover Castle, where a few years earlier Blériot landed after his famous Channel crossing. When flying round the aerodrome I was surprised to see below me a Blériot belonging to the R.N.A.S., with its warping wings and open fuselage.
No. 49 was equipped with Martynside Scouts and commanded by Major Barratt – later to end a notable career as Chief of the Air Staff and an Air Chief Marshal. I remember him with thick dark hair and a large black moustache, but my log book only records his signature.
The Martynside – known in the Service as the “Elephant” – was a single-seater biplane with a 120 horse-power four-cylinder-in-line water cooled Beardmore engine. It was rather Germanic in design and, while not difficult to fly, had a nasty habit of “floating” when one levelled off to land. So long as one held back “the stick”, all was well and the wheels settled down into the grass. But it was fatal to attempt to hurry the process of landing, which only resulted in protests from the “Elephant” in the form of bumps and bounces.
Being a single seater, no “dual” was possible, so after appropriate words of advice from an instructor I taxied out and took to the air. Log book reports; “1 hour 5 minutes, 3500 ft: bad landing.” But the undercarriage was sturdy and no damage was done. I only stayed a week at Dover and put in just over five hours flying time. I had now completed my training – gained my “Wings” and flown solo for 26 hours and 37 minutes. The first thought on “graduating” was to acquire a R.F.C. “maternity jacket”, as the double-breasted, high-collared uniform was colloquially known. Rounded off with a pale coloured pair of Cavalry breeches, brown field boots, Sam Browne belt, and a forage cap, one felt highly superior to the infantry subaltern.
One night at Dover we were woken by a terrific cannonade and rushing from our hutments we saw a Zeppelin flying high and illuminated by searchlights. The harbour was full of ships including the twelve-inch gunned monitors Erebus and Terror whose normal task was to shell the German fortifications on the Belgian coast. Every ship in the harbour seemed to be letting fly and the noise was deafening. But the Zep put its nose up, turned away, and departed apparently unharmed.
Before posting to France I went home on Embarcation Leave for a few days and then crossed the Channel to Boulogne. I still have my “movement order” authorising me to proceed to Candas and marked “Report to R.T.O. Abbeville”. A Crossley tender picked me up and drove me through the pleasant countryside to Fienvillers where No. 27 Squadron was located. Fienvillers is a small village about ten miles west of Albert and some fifteen miles behind the front lines. Officers were housed in tents in an orchard and the Bessoneau hangars and Squadron H.Q. were on the edge of a near-by grass meadow. No. 27 formed part of H.Q. Wing and next to us was No. 70 equipped with Sopwith two-seater “one and a half strutters”, which had Scarff ring-mountings for the observer seated in the fuselage behind the pilot, and which were driven by Clerget radial engines.