The Unsubstantial Air: American Fliers in the First World War 
by Samuel Hynes.
Farrar, Straus, 322 pp., £17.99, November 2014, 978 0 374 27800 7
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The age of flight​ had barely begun in 1914 – the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk in 1903 – but it had developed swiftly. The Wrights’ airplane – in the shape of a big box kite, made of spruce and muslin – flew at a speed of about seven miles an hour, not much faster than a man walking briskly beside it. By 1908 an improved version went forty miles an hour, and a year after that Blériot, in a plane of his own design, flew across the English Channel. When the war broke out airplanes were being used primarily for reconnaissance, but soon started firing at one another with small arms, and then progressively machine guns appeared. The planes were still just wood and fabric and were relatively fragile. Sometimes they came apart in the air. Parachutes were not yet in use; aviators lived and died with their plane. If it caught fire, which was a distinct danger in combat, the occupants either jumped or burned to death. Sometimes the fire could be put out by diving. These were the hazards, but there were soon heroes among the fighter pilots, pilotes de chasse. Georges Guynemer and Jean Navarre had their names in American headlines, having shot down 12 German planes apiece.

The Unsubstantial Air by Samuel Hynes is a chronicle of American pilots in the war, some who fought early on but the far greater numbers who joined the flying force, then called the Air Service. The first Americans to fly in the war had gone to France as volunteers in the American Ambulance Field Service or the Foreign Legion and from there some of them got into the French air service to train as pilots, flying for France in the Escadrille Américaine. Their written accounts were read eagerly by university men, among others. The idea of flying had caught the country’s imagination. When America joined the war in April 1917 there were many who enlisted in the hope of becoming pilots, including young men from the eastern colleges, Princeton, Harvard, Yale. The Air Service was gearing up to train them but in complete unpreparedness had only 55 aircraft, most of them out of date. During that summer and autumn the men sailed for France on troopships and some who were luckier aboard liners, the Leviathan or the Adriatic, with dance bands and swimming pools, and Hynes in essence sails with them, going along as an older companion to tutor us, so that the book becomes a history written in three persons, they, I and you.

The Unsubstantial Air follows multiple lives into and through the war, relating their story in part through their own letters, diaries and other accounts which, together with Hynes’s own voice, are woven into a history – he has previously used this form successfully in The Soldier’s Tale: Bearing Witness to Modern War. As a former Marine combat pilot himself in the Second World War, he is able to bring knowledge and a dose of nostalgia to the task. ‘Being a pilot,’ he writes of them, ‘was something like being a college athlete, something like being a fraternity man at a house party that never ended, a bit like being a young tourist in an interesting foreign country with a few of your friends. Flying was fun – it was the only kind of war making that was.’

Learning to fly by the French method with French instructors was a completely foreign experience and more so in another language. In ancient Blériots with cropped wings they raced across the field like turkeys, back and forth, to get a feeling of what it would be like to take off. When they did go up it was alone, and alone they managed to learn to turn, dive, loop and fire the guns. The descriptions of flying are exuberant, the wonder and thrill of it, over the ancient forests and fields making noise, the towns with their churches, flying over Paris itself, Sacré Coeur, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, seeing it all as God might see it and then running out of gas over the 16th Arrondissement and making a forced landing on the race track at Longchamp. Or coming down through clouds somewhere and, being lost, landing in a field. The entire local population comes out to have a look and then a grand equipage drives up with a count who lives in a château nearby and insists that the American come to the château and accept his hospitality. The countess speaks English, as do some of the houseguests. He borrows a razor and stays five days. Whenever he goes into the little town, all the children follow him around the streets.

There were accidents and deaths in training. Debutant pilots made mistakes or there were mechanical failures. Pilots went into spins. The wings collapsed or came off planes. There were mid-air collisions. Everything was for the first time. An American pilot waiting for his commission in England was sent to the Sopwith factory to ferry a plane. He was handed a logbook and told by a WAC at the desk to take the plane to Marquise.

‘Where’s Marquise?’


He said he’d never been to France.

‘Oh, as you go south from here, there are two railroads, one with green engines and the other with black engines. Stay between them. The first river you see with boats in it is the Thames, the large city is London … Then you go to Folkestone … At Folkestone a pier juts out with a crook at the end. Set your compass on the crook and the first thing you see that looks like an airfield is Marquise.’

At the beginning of 1918 still only a few American pilots were seeing action and they were with French squadrons. When they arrived they were inexperienced and were made to fly a number of practice patrols behind the lines or only up to them and not attack any Germans, should any be seen. Two Americans were in a French squadron protecting Paris, not doing much. One of them happened to meet a French lieutenant on a train, a seasoned chasse pilot named Hirsch who invited him to visit his squadron’s airfield near the front: ‘I hope some really great writer and flyer gets through this war to thrill the lives of small boys hereafter,’ the American writes.

For instance this lieut. Hirsch I saw was leaving for Paris that afternoon. He drops down from 2 hours over the lines packed with fights and escapes. The thing he rides isn’t a truck horse they used in King Arthur’s time (and I thought those tales exciting). But a thing that flies. His escadrille insignia, his escadre colours, his own design and the big number make his machine a gaudy sight. The eyes painted on the hood and the teeth on the radiator with those two black machine gun muzzles add to the general effect also. His plane is wheeled into its own little tent. His three mechanics sleep beside it. One of them pulls off his ‘combination’ and we walk down to the officer’s mess shack. The captain joins us for a tea. One of the lieutenants sits down at the piano. Then a beautiful Renault car appears at the door. Hirsch, meanwhile, has turned into as swell an officer as you would see on the boulevards. Someone joshes him with an ‘où allez vous comme ça?’ In an hour he will be strolling with his friends along the Champs Elysées on a beautiful spring evening.

Who would not want to wear a uniform with a Sam Browne belt from the cavalry days and a pair of wings on the left breast? After a fight one pilot flying with a French squadron wrote: It’s ‘the most wonderful sport I have ever participated in … There is a tremendous exhilarating thrill about it.’ Faulkner himself in Oxford, Mississippi dreamed of nothing more and tried to join up.

But planes went down in fights. In May one of the most admired pilots, Raoul Lufbery, jumped or fell from his burning plane. The Ace of Aces, they had called him, the most revered American aviator in France. ‘To the young pilots Lufbery flew with,’ Hynes writes, ‘he was an older and wiser friend (he was 33 when he died) with whom they could talk about the techniques and problems and fears of combat flying. One question in particular came up a lot: “If your plane catches fire in the air, what do you do?”’ He had always said he would stay with his machine.

The war of single airplanes engaging one another was giving way to pairs of planes. The Germans invented formation flying. ‘Planes working closely together could resist those one-man attacks and go on the attack themselves,’ Hynes explains. There were still volunteer patrols; two pilots or sometimes one could take off and search for action. On many flights no enemy was encountered. There were ‘contact’ patrols: flights at low altitude over the battlefield to determine exactly where the ground forces were after there had been movement or when they were in uncertain terrain.

By the summer of 1918 there were 12 American squadrons at last at the front. There is no sense of the exhaustion of the war that has been going on for four years. For Americans the air war was only beginning. In early August, a pilot wrote in his journal:

Saturday. Had my second Boche today … Holden, Bailey and Gill failed to return. At supper we learned by phone that Holden and Bailey had been driven down just inside our lines … Gill has not been heard from.

Sunday. Gill got back, wounded in the leg … We found ‘Rabbit’ Curry’s machine near Azy. He had fallen about 50 ft in a nose dive and died before they got him out of the plane … Russell is missing … Curry is buried near Azy where he fell.

The book contains chapters about the observation and bomber pilots and a portrait of Billy Mitchell, who came to France as a major and by war’s end had become a general ordering thousand-plane raids, but the heart of the book belongs to the pursuit pilots, their victories and their deaths:

Out of the 9 that came out with me to the group – 4 have already been killed … over 33 1/3 [per cent] in a month.

And in another diary:

Six of the fellows of the 27th were shot down today, and Winslow of the 94th is missing … Our squadron is just a mob without a system or method in the air. With the crack Boche outfit now in this sector, none of us will last a month.

One of the dead was Quentin Roosevelt, the youngest son of the ex-president. He had been to France before – his aunt had a house in Paris – and spoke French. He’d been kept behind the lines in supply and was frustrated at not being in action. In September 1917 he was ordered to report to the First Aero Squadron, but as Hynes relates, couldn’t go because there was no one to replace him as supply officer. ‘Colonel Bolling, the commanding officer of the training programme, promised that he’d send him up with the next draft of pilots. In December he got the same promise. At the end of the year he hoped he’d be in a French escadrille within three weeks. But the weeks ran out, and he remained at Issoudin, too good an administrator to be a combat pilot.’ Finally making it to a squadron, on his second patrol he’d become separated from his formation somehow and never made it back. Teddy Roosevelt wrote to his friend Edith Wharton:

There is no use of my writing about Quentin; for I should break down if I tried. His death is heartbreaking. But it would have been far worse if he had lived at the cost of the slightest failure to perform his duty.

In the autumn as the war drew to its end there were bigger fights, forty airplanes in one of them. There were hundreds of airplanes in the sky, everywhere you could look. The war was closing with a crescendo; then it was over. That December Hobey Baker, the most famous college athlete of his time when he was at Princeton, finished the war with three victories. He’d been commanding a squadron at Toul; he received orders to go home and was leaving the next day for Paris. He was flashing the orders around. Don’t get in another airplane, they all told him. He agreed. He was just going to fly down to Nancy to get some new pink pants.

We were all inside when he took off and when his engine quit over the edge of the field he pulled a fool stunt and tried to turn back. The SPAD stalled and he hit nose down. He split his head open on the gun butts.

One thing they always said was never try and turn back.

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