French Flying Chicken Coops
Our family is building a chicken coop. For chickens. One hundred years ago, when a much higher percentage of Americans lived on farms, chickens were a normal thing to have, rather than a suburban farming fad. Roosters then were not restricted by community covenants, non-laying chickens were probably dinner rather than pets, and coops would have been built out of whatever was lying around, not painted beautifully or constructed to look like hobbit holes. (Besides, nobody had heard of a hobbit, because Lieutenant J. R. R. Tolkien was still busy recovering from trench fever.) The purpose of a chicken coop was to keep chickens in and predators out.
A secondary purpose of a chicken coop was as a metaphor to express the beauty, sturdiness, and flight characteristics of French airplanes with a bit of sarcasme. In a quote from the book about Eugene Bullard, The Black Swallow of Death, "In those days, when aviation was young, the planes we flew were known as 'chicken coops' or as the French called them, 'cages a poules.' Many of them were held together with wire and heavy glue."
Aviation Training: Couper and Piquer
In other words, it sounds like an average Colorado raccoon could have easily broken into an airplane. Fortunately, the purpose of the airplanes was not to keep raccoons out; it was to keep the aviator in and the air pressure underneath.
Or not even that, in the case of the first training airplane Bullard tried, which had shortened wings and a low-powered motor so it wouldn't get off the ground. Bullard was told to drive this air(less)plane across the field in a straight line at 40 mph, which sounds simple, but took several days to figure out. (Remember, airfields originally were literally fields, and maybe not too smooth after hard landings dug ruts.)
Then Bullard had three weeks of practice with an airplane that could actually fly, but wasn't supposed to - again, he was supposed to get used to handling it on the field.
Next, he got to take off to a height of three feet before cutting the engine and dropping, preferably gently, to the ground. As he got good at it, he was allowed to go all the way up to five hundred feet, but not to turn except to come back.
Finally, he had to do some maneuvers from 20,000 feet with the engine shut off, and land at a particular field (as opposed to landing wherever the airplane came down).
Then came his first solo. "After listening to about fifteen minutes of explanations and being told that if you do this, you are dead, and if you should do that, you are dead, and 'Bullard, whatever you do, don't forget one thing. I have tried to teach you and your comrades here in this school all that I know about aviation, and I have been flying since 1911....So, don't forget that one thing: When you are going to land, after you fly around, just over the field twice, you must piquer et couper.'"
Bullard knew that meant to push and cut on the handle, but he was confused: "I did not know whether I should piquer and then couper, or couper and then piquer. I had been told so many do's and don't-do's that when it was time for me to come down, I could not make up my mind which to do first."
So he coupered and piquered, and landed safely, "wild with joy, and not just because I had passed the test for my pilot's license." As he eventually learned, the order of piquer and couper didn't even matter.
If this training sounds a bit less than comprehensive, remember there are stories (from those who survived!) of one day, or one half hour, of aviation training. Not that there was a whole lot of knowledge to pass on, in the early days, and no safety manuals to memorize. If you needed more instruments than the seat of your pants, maybe it was time to go back to bronco busting, where the fall was not from so high up.
There are so many great stories from Bullard's life that it is hard to know which to start with, but since we are almost at the 100th anniversary of his receiving his pilot's license on May 5, 1917, it's a good time to mention that Bullard then went into Paris and showed his pilot's wings to Jeff Dickson, a white American from the South who was in France. Dickson was a drinking buddy who had made a bet with him a few months previously as Bullard was recovering from wounds received in the trenches. Dickson bet Bullard $2000 that he would not be allowed to become a pilot because he was black. Now, seeing the wings, Dickson asked how he had done it, and why the French government had let him. "I guess because I am human, and a soldier, and had asked for the opportunity to see if I had the ability to become a pilot and because that opportunity was granted me, and here I am," said Bullard.
Dickson's response was, "Bullard, I am sorry I lost that kind of money to you or anyone else, but I am glad that the first military Negro pilot aviator came from Dixie. So, good luck, Bullard, and may God bless you."
You can read more about how this black boy from Georgia ran away at 8 and became a member of the Lafayette Flying Corps and a national hero of the French many times over, in The Black Swallow of Death.