An alternative reality
A life that could have been, but most certainly wasn't
Last week I wrote about “aero-neuroses”, the fear of flying that some pilots and other airmen suffered from in the First World War. Usually the fear was triggered by a crash or a near miss in the air, or something similar. From there, it was an open question whether the affected airman would recover and return to flying.
A critical factor was experience. If a pilot or observer had flown a lot before the trigger event, they were far more likely to recover and fly again. But a man who had little experience was probably doomed. It was unlikely he’d return to the cockpit.
This may have been what happened to my great-grandfather. On his first night of combat flying, he and his two crew mates were hit by anti-aircraft fire, forced to land in German territory, captured, and held as POWs for months.
My great-grandfather, John Buckland Richardson (JBR), never flew again for the rest of his life, as far as I can tell. The same appears to be true of the observer on the flight, Jack Chalklin. His family can’t remember him ever getting into a plane following the war (he lived until 1987). True, the cost of flying in those days was a factor. These were not wealthy men.
But at least in the case of JBR, this doesn’t fully answer it. He was a qualified pilot who had been given eleven months of intensive flight training. Upon being discharged from the air force in early 1919, he had no job and no immediate plan for what he would do with his life (along with so many other vets).
At the same time, commercial airlines were starting up all over the place. First in Britain, using modified versions of the exact same heavy bombers JBR and his crew mates flew in the war (the Handley Page O/400). Then, across Europe. Over the next few years KLM got going, as did Lufthansa. Many small airlines also appeared in the U.S.
It was a turbulent time for sure. A lot of those early airlines went bankrupt. But then others started up, some merged, government subsidies helped, and the industry began to grow.
How could a pilot from the war not want to be part of this?
I keep thinking of the opportunities. As a qualified pilot and veteran of the war, surely someone like JBR could have found a job at an airline. Clearly he was willing to move. We know that in 1921 he sailed to Canada to restart his life there. Canada at the time didn’t have much of an aviation industry, but JBR could have gone anywhere.
A while ago I came across this ad in a copy of the New Yorker from 1953.
Panagra, or Pan American Grace Airways, started up in 1928, flying all over South America and from there to the U.S. Soon after, the airline was pushing the limits of what was possible, being the first to cross the Andes by air and flying at extremely high altitudes for the time. It sounds exciting. It sounds like a perfect fit for pilots who flew as young men in the war and were accustomed to taking risks, pushing limits, and improvising.
A life that could have been?
I can imagine an alternative path that JBR might have taken. War ends, discharge from the air force in early 1919, and maybe head to the U.S. to work at one of the nascent airlines there, like Aeromarine Airways in Miami, which flew wealthy people to Cuba and the Bahamas. It went under in 1924, so then maybe he bounces around to some other outfits, or works at an airport for a while.
Then word gets out that this new airline, Panagra, is starting up. It’s based in New York and is flying mail routes to Peru and other South American locations. It’s also flying out of Miami. By this time, a pilot who had worked with various outfits for the better part of the decade would know a lot of people and have connections.
A guy like JBR could get a job flying with Panagra, which was ambitious and rapidly expanding. By the 1940s it was flying passengers from New York to Buenos Aires (via Panama), and by the 60s it was flying jets to many South American destinations.
I try to picture myself in the position of an air force pilot who survived the First World War. I can’t imagine wanting to do anything other than fly planes. And with the commercial airline industry growing fast, it looks like destiny.
It might have been rocky for the first few years, with airlines going under and the future a bit uncertain. But by the 1930s, it would have looked like a career for life. The world was opening up, people wanted or needed to fly all the time. I’d never have to worry about money or a job.
But I’m unfairly glorifying the experience. JBR and so many other airmen had been flying planes in a war. They were using those machines to deliberately kill people. It would be hard to reconcile that with moving mail and taking people to beach holidays.
And if aero-neuroses was really a factor, well then the door was shut before it really opened. If you’re suffering nightmares and flashbacks from being shot at in mid air, then the decision is already made for you.
There’s no way to know what JBR was thinking at the time, but I wonder whether he wished he could have become a commercial pilot. Did he see ads like the one for Panagra and think, “that could have been me”? Did it embitter him that he couldn’t bear to even step into an airplane?
Clearly, flying was still in his blood many years later, as was his experience of the war. When the Second World War broke out, he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. By this time he was about 40, too old to fight. So he became a recruiting officer, proudly wearing the wings on his uniform.
He travelled all over Canada convincing young men to join up. As far as I can tell, he took the train the entire time. No flying. And yet everyone knew he was a pilot. He probably told stories to recruits about what it was like to fly a heavy bomber in 1918.
It all feels like he was suffering a lifelong personal insult. The First World War made him a pilot, and was the catalyst for the global commercial aviation industry. But the war also seems to have robbed him of the ability to fly for the rest of his life.
Yeah, I’d be bitter.
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