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RFC Pilot Training
RFC Pilot Training
Michael Skeet
Published by Michael Skeet
3 December 1998
Page 8

There was also a practical side to the limited dual instruction given before autumn 1917. The simple fact is that, while instructors certainly knew how to fly, they knew very little of the mechanics of flight, and could seldom explain to their pupils why aircraft in flight behaved the way they did. What’s more, until Smith-Barry the RFC made no attempt whatsoever to disseminate what information did exist. For example, by the end of 1916 the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough had completed a series of aerodynamic studies on spinning, knew what caused a spin and -- most important -- knew the proper method of recovery from a spin. Yet, more than six months later, instructors were still completely ignorant on this vital subject. E.C. Burton was told by his instructors “that not much was known about spins but it was best to keep out of a spin by avoiding a stall, but ‘If you get into a spin it might be best to keep your hands and feet off the controls and it would come out itself’.” As such, Burton and his fellow cadets received no instruction on recovery from spins; nevertheless, he wrote, “cadets were encouraged to loop, roll and spin on their own.” Most bad accidents, he suggests, were caused by stalling.

Under these circumstances, perhaps it’s a wonder more cadets weren’t killed. And it’s worth noting that Smith-Barry’s reform of RFC training methods began at Gosport, which was a school that trained instructors.

After the First Solo Flight

The unspoken consensus of RFC instructors before autumn 1917 was that students had a better chance of becoming good pilots if they taught themselves. This amounted to tacit admission that there was little that an instructor could teach beyond the rudiments of taking off, turning, simple maneuvers and landing.

Accordingly, students spent ten times as much flying time solo as they did under instruction. The cadets were encouraged to fly higher and further as they became more comfortable with the process, and the duration of solo flights increased to 45 minutes, an hour, or more. Cadets flew as high as 3,000 feet; Price on one flight reached 9,000 feet, which his CO told him was a record for his training squadron.

Most pupils were reluctant to push themselves too far, though. C.H. Andrews wrote of climbing “into the bottom of some clouds at about 3,000 ft, but did not have enough nerve to try and get above them. I was afraid of getting into a large one and loosing (sic) my sense of equilibrium.” W.C. Gibbard wrote, “I was no dare devil and when a thunderstorm appeared I gave it a wide berth and landed.” There were good reasons for being cautious; Gibbard goes on: “Many others took the opportunity to see a storm at too-close quarters. The result was about 7 crashes by cadets... ‘Hungry Lizzie’ was sure busy that day. Several of the crashes were fatal.”

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