A matter of survival
Not being required for the morning’s artillery spotting detail, I decided to take a break from the aerodrome. Borrowing a squadron bicycle, I went for a ride to visit a local farm in the hope of maybe getting some fresh fruit or at the least a change of scenery from a bunk in a tent and the back seat of an aeroplane, or a conversation not revolving around the latest close shave with random Fokkers and Albatri which seem to have taken up residence in our sector.
No sooner had I got there than I heard a distinctive sound: the Peugeot tender belonging to the French scout squadron which shared the field with us. Cursing my mistake of telling one of the ground crew where I was heading as I cycled past the hangar, I could only hope that its appearance in this particular lane was purely coincidental to my presence there.
Sadly, no. “Sorry sir, there have been troop movements over the lines and HQ want someone to go over and take a look. The CO is warming his Harry Tate now and you are to fly as observer.”
Well, this isn’t quite what happened, although some of it is correct. There was an RE8 (aka Harry Tate) being warmed up and I do have a WWI Peugeot, which has circumstantial evidence of French military use, slowly being restored in my garage. I was in Masterton for the Anzac Day Vintage Aviator airshow.
As I was leaving Hood aerodrome to visit another Peugeot owner, my cellphone rang. Alex Mitchell, photographer for the Historical Aviation Film Unit. “No hurry, but get back to the airfield soon. We have a job for you.”
That was an invitation which sounded very interesting. Jumping into my much newer Peugeot I reappeared at the TVAL hangar trying not to look too expectant. My day was about to get VERY exciting.
The next film and photo shoot Alex and his offsider Allan Udy had planned was a combat scene of a RE8 being attacked by an Albatros. My job was to fill the rear observer/gunner’s cockpit of the RE8 and, if possible, stand up and operate the Lewis gun which had a camera mounted on the barrel.
At this stage it was known that the RE8 was destined for the RAF Museum in Hendon. It is unlikely it will ever fly again, and there are probably only half-a-dozen people who have been in the rear cockpit of one since the end of WWI, so I was just a little excited.
There was the small matter, however, of my extreme dislike of heights. Climbing ladders? I think not! Bungee jumping? Not if I live for 1000 years.
Aviating in the rear of a flying machine constructed from broom handles and bed sheets tied together with 400 miles of wire seemed reasonable enough, but I was not convinced that I was going to be able to leap to my feet and defend myself and TVAL chief pilot and man-in-control Gene DeMarco from the unwelcome advances of the Hun.
“Don’t worry,” Alex said as I was being dressed in the appropriate leather coat and helmet. “You won’t be the first to sit in an open cockpit frozen to the seat and unable to move.”
Still, I was shown how to operate the Scarff ring to which my Lewis gun (complete with HD video camera attached) was mounted.
Trying to get into the rear cockpit while still retaining a degree of dignity, and not marking the paint on someone else’s aeroplane, wasn’t as easy as it sounds. In the end I worked out that the easiest way was to get on the wing, clamber into the pilot’s cockpit and then clamber over the centre section into the observer’s area.
Gene was careful to point out I had only a small square of wood to stand on — not, I suspect, because he was concerned for my wellbeing so much as not wanting to have to explain to the RAF Museum why there was a Tony-shaped hole in the floor of their precious aeroplane!
My seat was a small leather upholstered disc resembling a swivelling bar stool. Sitting down, I was surprisingly well sheltered from the slipstream, looking forward over Gene’s shoulders at the V12 RAF engine sitting prominent at the front. I did have a clear view over each side of the fuselage, essential for the artillery spotting which was the main wartime role for the RE8.
We took off and, to my complete surprise, I felt perfectly comfortable standing up in the open cockpit and felt perfectly secure releasing the catch of the Scarff ring and swinging the gun around. Which was a good thing as it was not long before the filthy Hun came into sight behind us.
Swinging the gun around, I opened fire. Luckily it wasn’t loaded, as I am pretty sure that I shot our own tail off almost immediately. As the Albatros overtook us, assuming that Gene and I were not dead and going down in flames already, I think I then shot off our wings. It is just possible I got a decent burst into the belly of our attacker as he did disappear after a while, but he may have just been bored with the easy pickings!
If this wasn’t enough, and to be perfectly honest, if I had dropped dead there and then I would have died happy, later in the day I was again called into action, this time in a predecessor to the RE8, a BE2f . Readers may remember the 1970s BBC series Wings which was based around a BE2 squadron in France during WWI. It was this programme which, along with my treasured Biggles books (which I still have), sparked my lifelong fascination with aircraft of this era.
This example is a genuine WWI veteran, built in 1917 and found forming part of a barn in the UK before coming to New Zealand to be restored and fitted with a TVAL reproduction of the original 90hp air cooled RAF (Royal Aircraft Factory) V8.
In a triumph of British logic, the observer rode in the front cockpit of the BE2. Even getting to the cockpit required the dexterity of a contortionist, carefully threading my way between flying wires, landing wires, struts and various impedimenta.
Once in the observer’s seat came the next revelation. BE2 observers must have been very short, or possibly legless. My legs are not long at all, but the distance between seat and fuel tank was so small that even after only a few minutes in the air I was suffering!
I was supposedly there to spot enemy troop movements and artillery, but there were issues with this premise. Looking straight ahead, the view is of a small oil coated windscreen. Forward of that is the engine with the very reassuring sight of all 16 rockers and pushrods happily going up and down. Over the side of the cockpit and there is nothing but wing. The ground is impossible to see. How anyone could do the job of artillery spotting from there I have no idea!
Then there is the small matter of defence. As a later version of the BE2, this aircraft has two Lewis guns for the observer’s entertainment, one on each side of the cockpit, mounted on swivels.
Fire straight ahead and you will shoot off your own propeller. Too far either side and struts and rigging will be hit which will easily facilitate the premature and rather unfortunate loss of the top wing, which would ruin your day rather quickly.
Firing back puts your tail at risk, and again more struts and rigging. There is no wonder that BE2 crews were referred to as “Fokker fodder”. I was glad I was just along for the ride.
All I can say is that this was a real once-in-a-lifetime day which could never be repeated, and my thanks go to Alex for arranging this, and Gene and the TVAL crew for allowing me the unique opportunity to experience these veterans of the early days of military aviation.
The next flying day for The Vintage Aviator is 10 November at Hood aerodrome. It’s a great day out for the whole family.
- Report by Tony Haycock, photographs by Alex Mitchell
» Summer success at the Walsh
» The luxury of living in the Ivory Tower
» Comper moves swiftly
» UAV usefulness increasing
» Woodville’s even dozen
» 60th birthday party for ZK-BNL
» New airline MRO facility
» Hands across the Southern Alps
» Praise earned in tough place