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RFC Pilot Training
RFC Pilot Training
Michael Skeet
Published by Michael Skeet
3 December 1998
Page 7


There could be upwards of two dozen crashes per day at each airfield when flying was going on at full pace; this led to a steady hemorrhage of cadets; on average, one trainee pilot died each day in the UK before Gosport, and several others were seriously injured. In a typical day (21 October 1917), C.H. Andrews recorded 17 crashes at his training squadron. One cadet was killed and five were injured seriously enough to be sent to hospital. And this was in Canada, which had a much better safety record than did Britain; 129 cadets died in Canada compared with over 8,000 in Britain, and the fatality rate per hour flown in Canada was one percent that of Britain. (Not coincidentally, Canada had standardized on a better training machine in the Curtiss “Canuck”; the Shorthorn was never used in Canada.) Ambulances were on constant duty, motors running, at training squadron airfields; Canadian cadets referred to ambulances by the name “Hungry Lizzie.”

It could be argued that the constant death and injury helped to inure cadets to the casualties they’d encounter when they reached the front. The evidence, though, suggests that training-squadron deaths shocked cadets. Though outwardly they tried to maintain a show of light-heartedness (“Very cheerful” was Andrews’ comment after noting the carnage of 21 Oct. 1917), diary entries show that the strain was there and having an effect. When Harold Price lost two friends to an R.E.8 crash in late spring, 1917, he was shattered and closeted himself in his room. “Haven’t the heart to see anyone,” he wrote in his diary, and added that he could not write home under these circumstances because this kind of news could not be shared with family. In public, though, the attitude was more stern. Price notes with approval a colleague’s exasperation with the emotional, public response of two women friends to the deaths. “We boys do not talk about [death],” he wrote, “except very privately and quietly, in two or threes, and then in almost an impersonal manner.”

Flight Instructors

Most RFC cadets who wrote about their instructors seem to have remembered them fondly, or at least with respect. They seem to have been for the most part good men -- though W.C. Gibbard notes cautiously that “a very few were heartily despised.” It must be remembered, though, that for most of the war instructors were as often as not men who were, for one reason or another, no longer capable of serving as front-line pilots. A spell at a training squadron was considered by RFC brass to be just the thing to restore a pilot’s vitality after six nerve-wracking months at the front. That this was not often the case is revealed by the hearty dislike most pilots felt on being assigned duty as instructors.

It is also revealed in the propensity of instructors for having their cadets solo after so little dual instruction. No pilot, having survived six months of wrenching front-line duty, wanted to be killed by a clumsy pupil. Though few wrote about it in those terms, there’s something viciously Darwinian in the sink-or-swim approach of RFC training.




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