A trust game of extreme proportions
Airplanes in the First World War were not trustworthy by today's standards. But pilots had to fly them anyway
Trust is both crucial and fragile.
It’s hard to have relationships without it, and we can’t really organize society without it.
But it also evaporates so easily.
We know what happens when no one trusts the bank anymore. People try to take all their money out at once and the bank fails. No matter how strong, no bank can survive a loss of trust.
Neither can an airline. If you knew the flight you’re about to take had a 50% chance of crashing, would you get on it? What if it were 30%? 10%? Or 0.001%. At what point can you trust the plane will be safe? What level of risk is acceptable?
After two Boeing 737 MAX airplanes crashed in 2018 and 2019, many people said they’d never trust that model of airplane again. Eventually they re-entered service and airlines do use them today, but in addition to the technical issues, it was extremely expensive, time-consuming and difficult to restore trust.
It’s a simple concept. If you’re a passenger, you need to believe that the airplane journey won’t kill you. If you’re a pilot, you need to feel you have some control over what happens.
If airplanes from the First World War were around today, in their original condition, I doubt you’d trust one enough to climb in and go for a ride. I know I wouldn’t.1
They failed to stay airborne with staggering frequency. Not just because they were shot down, but because of mechanical and technical failure.
You can almost feel the men shrugging their shoulders as they recounted what happened.
Lt.-Col. J.E. Tennant was a British pilot and commander who spent the war in the Middle East. He wrote a book about it.2 He describes planes falling apart because the wood they were made of had rotted. Engines were rarely overhauled and got choked with sand. It nearly killed him.
I had just cleared the Baghdad aerodrome on the morning of the 11th August, when, at a low height, my engine cut out; there was no room to turn and glide back, and nothing for it but to descend straight into a quarry. I took it as slow as possible, about forty-eight miles an hour; nevertheless, the crash was complete. Fortunately there was no one in the front seat, or he would have been killed.
Earlier in the war, Tennant speaks of being on an airfield in France after it had rained heavily. He had to pierce the fabric skin of the planes so the water could drain out. They probably would have crashed on takeoff had he not done that.
Tennant went on to a career in banking, and in the Second World War he rejoined the RAF, heading up a training school for young pilots in Scotland. It was here, at age 51, where his luck ran out. He was killed in a flying accident.
An obituary in The Times, written by a friend, called him “completely fearless,” and laments that England can ill afford to lose men like this.
First World War pilots weren’t naive. They knew that flying was still a new concept, and that much was still not understood. Flying in those days was insanely risky. That’s exactly the reason a lot of them wanted to do it.
Only the adventurous need apply. Hardly anyone had much experience to draw on. Experimentation and improvisation were normal. Novel problems with no obvious solution had to be confronted in the moment.
At the same time though, these men weren’t flying for the fun of it. An airplane was a tool used to help win the war. That tool was provided to them by the air force. If my actual job is to win a battle and eventually the war, I should trust that the tool you’re giving me will work.
In a history of the British air forces written in 1922, author Walter Raleigh summarizes it better than I’ve seen anywhere else3:
An aeroplane and its engine are judged by the pilot who uses them. Every one who knows the Royal Flying Corps knows how sensitive to rumour and how contagious opinion is among pilots. This is only natural; a pilot trusts his life to his machine, and his machine, if he is to fly and fight confidently, must be...above suspicion.
It was a big issue, and it had a profound psychological effect on pilots. Whispers of an engine that isn’t reliable or some other mechanical fault could destroy a man’s confidence.
To distrust the machine is to suffer a kind of paralysis in the air. The breath of unfavourable rumour easily takes away the character of a machine, and makes it, in effect, valueless. A pilot has one life, and has to take many risks; this is the only risk he will not take gladly.
“Down with science!”
It’s difficult to overstate just how fragile trust was in airplanes generally. The first powered airplane flight was made in 1903, but the art and science of flying took far longer to perfect.
Many people simply didn’t believe this stuff was even possible. In April of 1910, pilot Lieutenant Lancelot Gibbs, an early flying enthusiast, went to Spain with the intention of showing off his airplane in a demonstration. Thirty-thousand people showed up to watch. As they waited for the show to start, they grew increasingly anxious and impatient.
Gibbs wheeled his airplane out of the shed where he had been preparing it, and the crowd gathered around. The report of what happened says they “handled it roughly” and the plane had to be taken back into the shed. Then the situation got violent.
The crowd started throwing stones at the shed. A man grabbed Lieutenant Gibbs and pulled a knife on him. The man threatened to kill Gibbs, saying that aviation wasn’t real and that flying was impossible. The crowd agreed. They chanted, “Down with science, long live religion!”
Gibbs and his team escaped, still being pelted with stones. Then the horde set the plane and the shed on fire. It all burned to the ground.
Safety is not the priority here
In the years that followed, many men died testing out innovations and modifications to airplanes. But collectively their efforts started to pay off. Reliability and performance increased, a process the war greatly accelerated. In 1915, one captain noted that all the airplanes the British had at the start of the war were now “regarded as fit only for a museum.” Barely a year had elapsed.
Technical progress was rapid, but it didn’t mean the planes were any safer. In some cases, it was the opposite.
Engineers were under pressure to reduce the weight of aircraft. A plane needs an engine, obviously, but the heavier everything is (including the engine itself), the harder it is to make the thing fly. So weight was saved in every possible place. The trade-off is that fragility increases, and there are no redundancies. The breakage of a single bolt or wire could cause the plane to plunge out of the sky.
It’s not easy to trust something you’re relying on when there’s no plan B if something goes wrong.
But there was another reason why pilots had good reason to question the trustworthiness of their planes. The pressure to produce more aircraft, at an ever faster rate, was relentless.
Midway through the war, a consensus was building that winning wasn’t possible without air forces. So leaders planned to dramatically increase the number of pilots and planes.
This was like trying to run up a downward-moving escalator. A lot of planes were wrecked and pilots killed, both from battle and flying accidents. They had to be replaced before the overall size of the air force could increase.
But it did happen. In 1914, British air forces had a total of about 150 airplanes. By the time the war ended in 1918, the RAF had 22,000.
The pressure to grow this fast came at a cost, and trust was one of the casualties.
Well, it might work
The dilemma was sickening. In 1917, it was discovered that a new airplane engine made for the British was defective. Gear wheels and the propeller shaft were at risk of failing.
The British were desperate for engines though. There was a shortage due to technical delays and design problems. Engines simply couldn’t be made quickly enough. Of course, the stakes were high. If the enemy has more airplanes than us, could that make the difference between winning and losing the war?
The faulty engines were put into service, and word spread quickly that they could not be trusted. Log-books for the planes had entries in them warning ground crews and pilots that the engines had known faults with the propeller shaft, and that the only reason they were being used is because no others were available.
It’s not hard to guess what the effect of this was. Pilots had to fly these planes into battle after reading the log-books. They knew their engines could quit on them at any moment through no fault of their own. Commanders noted that it damaged morale.
This situation feels worse than some of the other technical or mechanical failures that frequently happened. This wasn’t the result of a failed attempt at innovation or a mistake that couldn’t be foreseen. The air force knew these engines were defective, and it made a deliberate decision to use them anyway.
Can you accept your fate?
It’s here where trust, or a lack of it, gives way to fate.
The pilots in the First World War were determined men. They wanted more than anything to run successful missions and win the battle, win the war.
But they also knew how little they controlled.
Here in the 21st century, we live with clichés such as “failure is not an option” and the seemingly bold advice that you should never let obstacles stand in the way of achieving your goals. But as has always been the case, humans are in control of far less than they think.
That’s where the shrug of the shoulders comes in. A willingness to accept the circumstances you’re dealt, and do the best you can with them, even if it means death.
There was nothing a pilot could do but resign himself to fate. At that point, there is no trust, but it doesn’t matter anymore. What will happen will happen.
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I should note that there are airworthy replicas of planes from the First World War that people fly today. Made from original drawings and authentic in many ways, they don’t just look the part. They also exhibit flying characteristics that resemble the originals. But they also have modern metal airframes, reliable engines and other features that make them far safer. Groups such as The Great War Flying Museum build, maintain and fly such replicas. If you’re interested, it’s worth visiting them or similar groups.
In the Clouds Above Baghdad was written by Lt.-Col. J.E. Tennant in 1920 and is full of thrilling adventure stories. During the war, Tennant was extremely busy as a commander who also flew many missions himself. The detail of his stories suggest he probably wrote a diary at the end of every day, which he then used to write the book. How he had time to do that I’ll never know.
The War in the Air, Vol.1 by Walter Raleigh. This book includes a history of human flight as well as the airplane’s role early in the war. It is part of a six-volume series that records every facet of the air war in detail. Subsequent volumes were written by H.A. Jones. (Raleigh died while researching Vol. 2.)