People have told me they’d rather die than lose their mind.
To descend into a world of dementia, or brain-damaging stroke, or schizophrenia, is by definition unimaginable. Similarly, depression and other forms of mental illness.
Nobody wants to even think about finding themselves in that place. Part of what makes it so scary is that it can happen without warning, and there’s often no way to prevent it.
You find yourself being pushed through a door into that demonic world. A door that only swings one way for many.
I’ve always been confused by the term, “nervous breakdown.” I never knew what it meant, and anytime I asked someone to define it for me, they were unable. Thankfully the term is used less nowadays, as it is an unhelpful euphemism for mental illness.
But for as long as I can remember, all sorts of people in all sorts of situation have “nervous breakdowns”. That includes pilots from the First World War.
Surprisingly, that vague and imprecise term wasn’t the only one used to describe what happened to the brains of pilots. This was the age of “shell shock” (what we now call PTSD). But that term wasn’t really used for for pilots and other airmen. The references sprinkled throughout official reports, personal diaries, medical examinations, memoirs and newspaper stories talk of “mental breakdown” or “exhaustion” or of brains that were simply “broken”.
Take the story of a 28-year-old Canadian pilot, hit by anti-aircraft fire while flying at 19,000 ft. He first descended, uncontrolled, to 5,000 ft., regained some control, then landed roughly. He was thrown from the airplane on impact, which then burst into flames. The man amazingly survived without any physical injury.
He walked away from the wreckage and initially he seemed fine. He even offered to fly the next day but his commanding officer said no, noting that he looked “unfit.” Within three days he had strolled through that door that only swings one way.
First the sleeplessness set in, then vivid, terrifying nightmares in which the incident at 19,000 ft. replayed in his head over and over. He was sent home from the front. Further examination back in England found him restless, talking all the time, with tremors in his fingers, tongue and lips.
The man was treated with ammonium bromide (a sedative in popular use at the time but no longer used as a medical treatment because of its toxicity). Eventually he was told he could resume “limited flying” but it’s not clear he ever did.
There was no experience to draw on
By the time the war started, flying in planes had only been happening in earnest for a few years. Pilots and other airmen were experiencing things that no human brain or body had ever been subjected to.
Reaching higher altitudes more quickly than ever before.
Extremely cold temperatures that many had never felt.
Intensely loud sounds from the engine for long periods of time, along with howling wind.
Travelling faster than most humans had ever gone.
Regularly feeling g-forces most humans had never felt.
All the while having to fly the airplane using controls and instruments that were novel, and not entirely accurate.
Add to that the theatre of war. Being shot at, having to shoot at others, drops bombs, navigate.
And then, knowing that a brief lapse in concentration could lead to losing control of the aircraft that might be impossible to recover from.
A bad judgement, even a small one that would have few if any consequences on the ground could mean certain death in the air.
How could this not break your brain?
It may have been even worse for observers than pilots. Observers were the navigators, the aerial photographers, the bomb-droppers on flights. While the pilot controlled the airplane, the observer did the other stuff. A medical doctor who was among the first to study the mental effects of flying in war, Dr. O.H. Gotch, had this chilling observation:
It is generally admitted that an observer has a far greater strain imposed on him than a pilot.
A crash (especially if the machine is falling from some height) will give him sufficient time to anticipate the fall in his imagination (whilst the pilot has his attention occupied in handling his machine).
Observers generally break down sooner and to a much greater degree than pilots.
There it is again. We talk of men who “break down,” but what does that even mean? There is the Canadian pilot mentioned earlier, who suffered from insomnia, nightmares, tremors, and from that, probably a crippling lack of concentration and confidence. He was one of the subjects studied by Gotch, whose observations are in the first book on the topic, The Medical and Surgical Aspects of Aviation1.
He notes that for most men, there is some sort of trigger. It could be a combat-related experience or a close call in the air, or it could be a mental problem that began long before, waiting to grow into a monster. Or a combination.
Gotch says that in the case of the Canadian man, it may have been alcohol addiction. While serving in France, the man had drank to excess, “to keep his end up” and to help him sleep at night. By all accounts he was fine until that incident when he crash landed. After that, he was never the same.
Gotch’s list of what airmen suffer from doesn’t make for fun reading:
depression, apprehension, extreme irritability, change of character, a morbid desire to be alone, a lack of power to concentrate on any subject at any given time, a failure of memory, lack of energy, lack of interest, loss of the natural pleasure of being alive, sleeplessness, dreams and nightmares.
The list goes on from there to include breathlessness, fatigue, heart palpitations, excessive sweating, unequally-sized pupils, and those tremors in the fingers.
These days all the medical literature on conditions such as depression is quick to point out that the experience can be different for everyone. Back in 1919, Gotch agreed. At one point he seems to wish he could offer general conclusions in order to be more helpful, but he can’t. The cases can be so different, and so complex.
Experience counts for a lot
One general conclusion Gotch does draw though, is that a more experienced airmen is more likely to recover:
An officer who has badly broken down after a few hours in France, or who has sustained a slight crash and is sent home soon afterwards as unfit, has a poor flying future, and will probably be best advised to give up flying. Whereas the officer who has done a great deal of flying and who has had a very full and varied experience of aerial warfare and who breaks down late in his flying career should make an ultimate recovery and return to flying.
His conclusion: The shorter the flying experience the worse the prognosis. The longer the experience the better the prognosis.
Now consider what happened to John Buckland Richardson (JBR), my great-grandfather, when he was forced to land in enemy territory with his two crew mates in a heavy bomber. He had flown in precisely one previous combat mission, and that was earlier the same night. Aside from his training, his flying experience was zero.
Then consider the trauma he suffered. Although not physically injured, he and his crew mates (Alfred Tapping and Jack Chalklin) were captured as POWs and held for months until after the war ended.
After being repatriated and discharged from the military, JBR never flew again as far as I can determine. Not only did he never pilot an airplane again, he never stepped into an aircraft again for the remaining 51 years of his life.
Why? No one knows exactly. But that fact strikes me. He had been keen to fly. When he joined the service, he entered the Royal Flying Corps, and started flight training immediately. It would make sense for someone like this to continue flying after, maybe even become a commercial pilot in the early days of the industry. But no.
There are no medical reports of him “breaking down”, and no specific record of him suffering from the symptoms above. But that makes sense. Since he was a POW, there was no opportunity for him to be diagnosed, treated, and considered for a return to flying and fighting.
So did he suffer from a mental illness brought on by “aero-neuroses”? For the rest of his life he avoided airplanes, was known as a heavy drinker with a short temper, and was physically violent (he beat at least one of his children).
There’s no way to say for sure. But I’m starting to think I know the answer.
Flying into the Dark is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
The book’s author is Graeme Anderson, a doctor and a pilot himself. Anderson spent the war years studying airmen, as well as airplane crashes. For the section on aero-neuroses, Anderson gets Gotch to write a significant part of it. Other sections of the book include the study of what causes airplane accidents, the physical damage suffered in them, and the surgical methods of repairing injuries.