The date is the ninth of July 1918 and WW 1 has barely four months to run. But the RFC is still in need of pilots for the final struggle to liberate France and end the conflict.
A young pilot taxies his SE 5a to the end of the airfield, turns into wind and carries out the final checks. He looks all around him to make sure that all is clear, opens the throttle and starts his take off run. With just enough rudder to counteract the engine torque and sufficient lift under the wings, the aircraft leaves the ground. After a few seconds the engine begins to cough and then it suddenly stops. The pilot attempts to turn back to the airfield, an elementary mistake which is nearly always fatal, and was so in this case. It is a lesson drummed into ab initio pilots from day one of their training; you never turn back in the event of engine failure on take off. Far more RFC pilots were killed in training than in combat, and this was seemingly just one more early solo pilot getting it wrong. But the facts were otherwise!
Major James McCudden, VC, DSO, MC., was one of the most experience fighter pilots and Instructors in the RFC. As an Instructor he would have spent hours drumming into the heads of his pupils the basics of safety. How did all this knowledge and experience desert him on that fateful morning?
On a pleasant evening at Southdown several decades ago a two seater K13 was approaching the field from the West and could have landed safely across the field on a diagonal run. The P1 was experienced, with many hours solo and a number of safe field landings to his credit. But instead of landing safely ahead he elected to turn onto a conventional downwind approach. From that moment the flight was never going to end in anything but disaster, which it duly was.
The question is: “what makes an experienced pilot abandon all his safety training in an emergency?”
Various answers have been suggested over the years. Is it over confidence? Perhaps a lax approach to pre flight and landing checks, after all how much checking do we do before getting into our motor cars? There is a suggestion that the desire to get back to the field is somehow linked to safety, along the lines of, ‘if only I can get home etc.” The fact remains that accidents don’t just happen to the novice, but to some of the most experienced of airmen.
By Peter Holloway