Sitting in the cramped, open cockpit of a replica First World War biplane on display Thursday at The Rooms in St. John’s, you can’t imagine taking such a flimsy aircraft into a real dogfight in the sky.
Yet, during the war — and just 13 years after the invention of the airplane — Newfoundland and Canadian boys as young as 17 and 18 years of age were among the world’s first fighter pilots in airplanes like these.
They had only about five hours of flight training before joining the fight.
Yet, with the wind in their face and it whistling in the wires holding the plane’s wings together, they engaged in dangerous dogfights with German planes while trying to avoid gunfire from the ground.
There was little protection in the fabric-covered frames.
Pilots who were able to survive long enough soon learned tactics that fresh-in-the-sky pilots could often not match.
The world’s first dogfights in the sky evolved.
Even with the life expectancy of new pilots measured in weeks, young men continued to bravely lift off to do battle in the sky to defend their country’s rights and freedoms.
The replica Nieuport II French single seater has been at The Rooms since November, but is moving on.
The plane was one of the aircraft that flew a commemorative flight over the Vimy Ridge Memorial as part of the 100th anniversary of the battle last April 9. Seven planes were taken to France and piloted by a team of retired and active Canadian fighter jet pilots, including Larry Ricker, Dale Erhart, Peter Thornton, Allan Snowie, Paul O’Reilly, Will McEwan, Dave Wilson, Gord Cooper, Al French and Rod Erman.
Erman, who was born in Newfoundland and Labrador, led a commemorative flight over the Beaumont Hamel Memorial Park while the team was in northern France.
Ricker gave a presentation at The Rooms Thursday about the commemorative flights and the team’s subsequent cross-Canada tour during the summer months.
He said the flights in northern France were very emotional for the team members, who felt as if those First World War pilots were flying right there with them.
Team members felt it was important to tell the stories of the pilots who played such an important role during the war.
“As time goes on, the stories, the messages are getting lost,” Ricker said. “It is important to tell the story of the courage and the valour and the commitment and, in many cases, unfortunately, the sacrifices made by 17-, 18-, 20-year-olds who stepped up and did what they had to do to preserve the kind of life we have now. They were in the elementary stages of aviation and showed so much courage.”
The Nieuport II weighs about 480 pounds without a pilot and is tricky to control, Ricker said. In high winds it can be like a kite.
“You let go of the control column and it’s on its way somewhere. It’s all hands-on, and it’s a lot of fun to fly, but it can be difficult at times,” he said. “(First World War pilots) had to be brave to fly them. I’ll be honest with you, that crossing the country there were times we had to be brave, too. We said we have to have courage for this because we are representing men who had a great amount of courage. And no one was shooting at us. It’s hard for me to imagine what it was like for a 17-year-old or an 18-year-old with five hours of flight training experience to get in these airplanes and go to war. It blows my mind.”
Larry Dohey, director of programming at The Rooms, said what the Vimy Flight commemorative event, and the Vimy Flight: Birth of A Nation tour did was bridge the present with the past.
Dohey said that during the First World War, Newfoundland and Labrador wanted to ensure its pilots were equipped as well as any. St. John’s newspapers carried headlines at the time such as “Give our Boys Aeroplanes.”
In 1915 the Patriotic Association of Newfoundland led a fundraising effort to supply aircraft for the war effort. By 1917 enough money was raised to purchase five planes for the British air services to be flown by Newfoundland pilots.
Dohey also noted that aviation historians have identified at least 33 Newfoundland and Labrador fliers who served in the First World War, including “some aces, medal winners and some truly unique experiences.”
Five of the more celebrated, he said, were Ronald Ayre, Howard Vincent Reid, Roy S. Grandy, John M. Melee and Carl Frederick Falkenberg.