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Dangerous jobs that people think are safe and easy

dangers of wwi aviation

In Cornell University's list of World War 1 dead is Stuart Emmet Edgar. Edgar didn't actually graduate; he was in the class of 1913 but "left in 1911 to enter business". In 1916 he quit work as a reporter on the New York Evening Sun to become an ambulance driver in France. After America joined the war he transferred to French aviation and in January 1918 was at the front as a corporal in "Escadrille Lafayette 158". (I haven't found out yet whether that was the same thing as the famous Lafayette Escadrille, which had several different names over the course of the war, but this was a couple years after the Lafayette Escadrille was started, so even if it was the same squadron, he wasn't one of the "Valiant 38".)

He got commissioned as a first lieutenant in the American Army and spent some time being a ferry pilot. Andy Parks, the director of the Vintage Aero Flying Museum, points out that being a ferry pilot was actually a very dangerous job.

Sure, it was just moving airplanes from where they were to where they were needed. But flying killed more pilots than the enemy did, and a ferry pilot was often bringing an airplane into a combat area - without guns. So the ferry pilot had most of the dangers of any combat pilot, without a way to defend himself. 

This discussion reminded me of Eddie Rickenbacker's explanation of why shooting down balloons was actually worse than shooting down enemy airplanes. You would think a balloon would just pop when shot at, but that is forgetting the scale of the thing. A bullet can pass right through a WWI-size balloon without making enough of a leak to affect it. You had to use incendiary bullets to make anything happen. Also, balloons were at a specific height, so antiaircraft guns could be set up to fire in a curtain around the balloon, which an attacking airplane would have to get through to even fire at the balloon, and enemy airplanes could be waiting in the area ready to pounce. Besides that, the balloon could be pulled down to the ground pretty fast compared to the time it took an airplane visible in the distance to get close enough to fire. So by the time the airplane got to the target, it could be that the balloon was no longer at that height but a whole lot of antiaircraft fire was.

Compared to the image of dashing fighter pilots, ferry pilots and "balloon busters" were not so glamorous; they didn't get much respect from civilians. But pilots at the front gave respect where it was earned.

By the way, Lt Edgar survived being a ferry pilot. It was after that, in the 103rd Pursuit Squadron, behind the Ypres battle line, that he took off on a patrol, and "at a height of only four hundred feet, his motor stopped. The machine, losing its momentum, fell to the ground and he was instantly killed." So the machine was still more deadly than the combat.

Read more about the hazards of World War 1 airplanes in the story of Captain Hedley:



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