HAP, JAKE, TOMMY, AND MALCOLM…
During the 2017 Roberts Trophy Match we took a side trip to visit a few of the historical spots that dot the bucolic English country side. Heading west from Bisley we soon arrived at Stonehenge, a prehistoric monument in Wiltshire. My brother Steve had been involved in the first computer study of the site under the direction of Dr. Gerald Hawkins, a noted astronomer, under whom he studied at Boston University. Hawkins was a pioneer in Astroarchaeology. In one of the first uses of computer technology in the field he plotted the location of the standing stones and the celestial bodies and ran the numbers. From the data derived he concluded that Stonehenge was an astronomical observatory used to predict the movement of the sun and stars. It was kind of neat to have that kind of family connection to this World Heritage Site.
As imposing and historic as the ring of standing stones are a smaller monument caught my eye as we walked towards the visitors’ center. It was a small stone cross standing on a three-step pyramid that was set on a rectangle of flat stone. Inscribed on the grey rock are the words “To the memory of Captain Loraine and Staff-Sergeant Wilson who whilst flying on duty, met with a fatal accident near this spot on July 5, 1912. Erected by their comrades.”
As a pilot this memorial was intriguing. After asking about I found that Loraine and Wilson’s memorial was commonly called ‘The Airmen’s Cross.” It memorializes the first Royal Flying Corps personnel to die in an aircraft crash while in the line of duty. Six years later the RFC, the air arm of the British Army, was no more when it was merged with the Royal Naval Air Service to become the Royal Air Force.
I was mulling over this discovery after we returned to our hotel when I recalled that Sir Tommy Sopwith, an early British aviation pioneer, had established the Sopwith Aviation Company a short distance from Bisley in 1912. I took a dive into the pool of useless information that clogs my mind to surface with yet another association that combined my passions of shooting and flying.
Early aircraft were fragile. Their thin spruce frames were covered with Irish linen which was drawn tight, stitched in place, and then covered with a paint like liquid called dope. As the dope dried it tightened and stiffened the fabric making an airtight and weatherproof covering. However, early dope was a two-edged sword as it was made with nitrocellulose, a highly flammable component. Nitrocellulose, commonly known as guncotton, is a prime component in modern gunpowder. One of the many hypotheses put forward in the aftermath of the fiery destruction of the German zeppelin Hindenburg has that static electric charges ignited the heavily doped skin of the aerial behemoth.
The Aeronautical Division of the US Army Signal Corps was interested in arming aircraft and needed to determine if they were robust enough to withstand the recoil of rifle fire. Civilian pilot and aircraft manufacturer Glenn Curtis and Army Second Lieutenant Jake Fickle were assigned the task. A photograph of the test flight shows Curtis at the controls in suit and tie with a newsboy’s soft cap pulled over his head. Fickle, in full military uniform, riding boots, choker collar blouse, and campaign hat, sat on his left with a United States Rifle, Caliber.30-06, Model 1903 cradled in his arms and a pocket full of ball ammunition.
They took to the air from the Sheepshead Bay Race Course, located in southeastern Brooklyn, New York, on July 20, 1910. After Curtiss piloted the ship to an altitude of 100 feet over the race track, Fickle took careful aim at a 3X5 foot target set upon the ground and fired off two rounds. Those two shots planted the seeds for the development of aerial gunnery and proved that firearms could be discharged from an airplane in flight without causing fatal structural damage.
While Fickle fired the first airborne shots the first recorded aerial combat took place on November 30, 1913 during the Mexican Revolution. Two American pilots, soldier of fortune Dean Ivan Lamb in a Curtiss D Pusher flying for the Carranzistas, and filibuster Phil Rader, piloting a Cristofferson Pusher for General Huerta, encountered each other over the Mexican village of Naco on the Senora/Arizona line. The two pilots, old drinking buddies, recognized each other on sight, but that didn’t stop Rader from pulling out his pistol and taking a few pot shots at Lamb, who replied in kind.
A year after the test Fickle found himself again holding an ’03 in an airplane. This time his old Army pal Second Lieutenant Henry Harley Arnold was at the controls. Flying over Long Island’s Nassau Boulevard airfield, this time at 200 feet, Fickle fired off five rounds of ‘ought six,’ pulled out a stripper clip, recharged the magazine, and again blasted away again. When he was done there were six holes in a dinner plate which served as the target.
That is not the end of the story. Arnold and Fickle were contestants in what was probably the first aerial shooting contest. Their opposition was a British team featuring Tommy Sopwith, aviation pioneer, motor sports enthusiast and yachtsman, and Malcolm Campbell, pilot, motoring journalist, and world speed record holder on both land a sea. The two future knights of the realm did not do as well and lost to two future US Army Air Forces generals.
A few days later, more than a century after the shootout over Brooklyn, where I was born, the US team assembled on Century Range for the 2017 Roberts Match against the British. As Adjutant I couldn’t help but reflect on my fellow airmen, pilot Arnold, with whom I share a nickname, and rifleman Fickle, and hope that the outcome of our present day match would reflect the outcome of their historical one. It did.