A Description of Flight Training in World War I

[Excerpted from Hiram Bingham, An Explorer in the Air Service (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1920), pp. 126-140 ]

The plan for Issoudun was that it should be used chiefly as a place where pilots already fully trained in the United States should have a " refresher course " before being sent to the Front. Due to the lack of advanced training planes in the United States and the fact that it was practically impossible during the continuance of the war for our pilots to do much more than get their preliminary training and "acquire their wings" before coming to France, it became necessary to develop at Issoudun a complete course in advanced flying and in aerial tactics. This was also made necessary because so many hundreds of cadets had been sent to France without flying training at all, and could secure only preliminary instruction at the French schools or at our own Second Aviation Instruction Centre at Tours....

At the beginning no definite course of instruction was laid out. Most of the teachers were French pilots, who naturally used the ideas then in vogue at the French schools which they had attended. Their methods were better adapted for French than American aviators. The course at Issoudun was not thought out on paper beforehand by a theorist, but was gradually evolved under the most strenuous conditions imaginable and contained ideas derived from a very considerable number of the best American pilots in France. With a true sense of the importance of having the best possible teachers and a keen realization of the old adage that "a stream cannot rise higher than its source," it was early determined to retain only the very best American pilots for teachers and instructors. Each man that went through the school was jealously watched by those in charge of the work at the different fields, and if they saw unusual qualities in him, he was promptly requisitioned as a member of the staff....

With true American devotion to high ideals, the great majority of the first class pilots selected as instructors cheerfully gave up the chance of becoming aces themselves in order to perfect the output of the school and thus to help increase the total number of American aces at the Front. In order to prevent our self-sacrificing instructors from getting stale, a few were allowed to take turns in going to the Front for a month at a time. This gave them new ideas and new experiences. When they came back to the school they had the advantage in every case of having successfully brought down one or more Huns. This increased their prestige with their students and let them feel that they had their chance at a little real action....

With such a splendid staff as was gradually built up by following this policy, it was only necessary to show each man that his ideas would be welcomed and to allow him to put into practice his own theories of teaching in order to develop a very thorough course of study....

At some of the French schools the Rouleurs were especially built "penguins," which were guaranteed not to fly. At Issoudun, however, we were accustomed to use what we could get. In this case the best thing available was a Morane monoplane from which the ailerons had been taken, and which was equipped with a 40 to 50 H. P. Gnome motor.

Many of the boys who had learned to fly in the States could not understand why they were put on non-flying Rouleurs before being sent up in the air. Some of them, in fact, managed to get by Field I without really learning what the work there had to teach them. Later they had to be sent back from one of the advance fields because they were unable to make proper use of the rudder when taking off, taxying, or landing. They were finally ready to admit that the rudders of small fast planes, designed for successful use in the air when travelling at more than one hundred and twenty miles and hour, are not large enough when the plane is going over the ground at only twenty-five to thirty miles an hour. The pilot must use his rudder very gently in the air, but very roughly on the ground. If he does not thoroughly understand handling the small rudder of the fast scout planes, it will be almost impossible for him to make them roll straight on the ground. Most of our advanced planes were short-bodied Nieuports equipped with rotary motors. As I have already said in speaking of the troubles of our cadets, the Nieuports were extremely fond of making a violent and unexpected turn on the ground-the cheval de bois.

The lower left wing of the Nieuport has a slightly greater angle of incidence than the corresponding wing on the other side. This is in order to aid the pilot in overcoming the effect of the torque of the rotary motor. It causes the left wing to drag a bit, and this makes it more difficult to roll straight on the ground. This tendency is still further increased in landing on a field that is not quite level (and few French fields were really level). If in landing you happen to light on one wheel with greater force than on the other, the tendency of the Nieuport to turn abruptly and unexpectedly is very marked. It will readily be seen that it was very necessary for the student to understand thoroughly the use of a small rudder when operating on the ground. We found the cranky, non-flying "clipped" monoplanes very useful for this purpose.

Students were also encouraged to study the action of the motor before starting on their first ride, and to keep the application of power as steady as possible, since the slip stream of air from the propeller acting on the rudder is the force that causes the latter to become effective.

The student's first trip was straight across the field, towards a soldier who was stationed at the far end, whose duty it was to help him turn round and to start his motor in case he stalled it, as frequently happened. The student was not accompanied by a teacher in his wild ride. It was the duty of the teacher to watch carefully the cause of any difficulties and observe whether the student was avoiding trouble by going too slow, or was really learning to make proper use of the rudder. The second trip was made at a higher rate of speed, but with the control stick pulled well back and the tail held firmly on the ground. When the pilot had succeeded in making a good round trip with the tail skid helping to keep him straight by plowing through the field, he was told to get the tail off the ground for a few rods and then " make a landing."

After having satisfied the instructors at Field r of their ability to use the rudder, the students walked over to Field 2, where dual control machines, operated by experienced instructors, were ready to give them their first experience in actual flying in France....

The length of time which a student had to spend on Field 2 depended entirely on himself and his ability to learn rapidly and to demonstrate his efficiency not only to the instructor to whom he was assigned, but also to another first-class pilot known as the tester, who gave him his final examination. If he failed to satisfy the tester that he had mastered the intricacies of flying the 23-meter Nieuport, he was sent back to his instructor for further lessons. Each instructor was allowed to follow his own ideas to a very considerable extent, although all were obliged to ride in the front seat. Some used the telephone and some found that the students did better when left alone, and when they were not trying to listen to the telephone and "feel" the ship at the same time....

Since most of our students had received their preliminary training with a stationary motor, they found it difficult to understand the gyroscopic action of the rotary motor, which inclines to pull the nose of the plane down into a spin if it is not held level on a turn. In flying the JN-4 we used to be told to nose down on the turns so as to avoid losing flying speed. This tendency of the Curtiss trained pilots had to be overcome before it was safe to let them fly with a rotary motor. American trained pilots were also inclined to fly with too little rudder....

I mention these matters in some detail because many people found it difficult to understand why, after a pilot had earned his wings in the United States, it was necessary to give him instruction in a dual control machine in France. At times considerable pressure was brought to bear upon us to let the American trained pilots go directly into the fastest and smallest scout planes without giving them the instruction just described. We felt that this would be in some cases inexcusable homicide. On the other hand, some of the men who were "born pilots" needed less than an hour's instruction on Fields I and 2 before they were able to go on to Field 3....

At Field 3 he found a 23-meter Nieuport not fitted with dual controls, but intended for solo flying. The absence of the instructor in the front seat not only made the machine lighter and enabled it to leave the ground more quickly and climb faster, but also had a psychological effect in making the pilot realize that he had no one but himself to depend upon. This ship is an excellent machine to use in carrying single passengers and landing in small fields....

The work at Field 3 consisted in making the student as familiar as possible with the Nieuport 23 and giving him plenty of confidence. He was required to make a sufficient number of landings to overcome his dread of unexpected turns. His air work was carefully watched to make sure that he was equally good on both left-hand and right-hand turns. He was required to make spiral turns of more than 45° to determine whether he was able to use his elevators as a rudder and his rudders as an elevator when banking over to that extent.

His instruction in cross-country flying depended to a certain extent on what kind of planes we had.... The course was designed to familiarize the pilot with the difference between flying over France and flying over the United States. Most of our fields in America were so located that any one with average intelligence could find his way back to the field without the use of a map, or, if required to use a map, would be left in no doubt whatever as to his whereabouts. In France, however, with its large number of small towns and villages that looked very much alike from the air, its great number of straight, white roads leading in every direction, its crazy-quilt design of small cultivated fields, bewildering in their similarity and complexity, the chance of getting lost in the air even while using one of the excellent French maps was very considerable. The shape of the forested areas was the most important thing to learn. Our pilots were fond of telling the story of a champion cross-country flyer from the United States who had never had any difficulty with map reading and who scoffed at the idea that it was necessary for him to learn anything additional in this subject at Issoudun, getting totally lost on his first crosscountry flight. He flew until obliged to land because he was out of gas. He finally had to telephone from some distant point to have somebody come and rescue him. In the United States he had flown by roads and large rivers. In France there were too many of the first and too few of the second.

In addition to this cross-country work at Field 3, students were given an hour or so with an acrobacy instructor in one of our few Avros. The student was put into all sorts of strange positions in the air to test his air sense, to give him confidence in the ability of a plane to right itself when certain definite rules were followed, and to determine whether there was anything radically wrong with his power to overcome dizziness and keep his head level under trying circumstances. If the instructor found a pilot deficient at this point, he was sent over to the hospital to consult the Medical Research Board. Advanced physical tests sometimes showed that the pilot was not fully competent and should never have been passed for training as an aviator.