posted 21 May 2012, 17:06
6 WWI Fighter Pilots Whose Balls Deserve Their Own Monument
We usually think of fighter pilots as kick ass cowboys of the sky, living out our video game fantasies and handing out bitchin' nicknames all day long. But today's fighter pilots have nothing on the first of their kind -- the guys who appeared in the first world war when airplanes themselves were new and experimental.
That is, instead of being surrounded by huge, sturdy metal planes with state-of-the-art avionics, these guys sat in rickety frames of plywood wrapped in flammable fabric, next to large tanks of highly combustible fuel. Then they took to the skies and tried to kill each other.
So let's take a moment to salute...
#6. Sir David Grahame Donald
Right off the bat, you're going to call bullshit on this story. We weren't there, all we can say is that the pilot himself spent 55 years insisting it was true.
Sir Grahame Donald started out like a lot of RAF pilots: young, brave and parachute-less. Which is often a problem when you're flying a machine held together by twine and good intentions. The official reason why the Allied forces didn't issue parachutes to pilots was not that they hadn't been invented yet, because they totally had, but that they feared pilots would abandon their planes as soon as they were hit rather than try to save them.
"It's not that the planes are worth more than your life, but...well, they are."
So with that in mind, Donald was 6,000 feet in the air when he discovered that his safety belt wasn't of the highest quality. Specifically, he discovered this tiny fact as he was hanging upside down in the middle of a looping maneuver and the belt snapped. Donald fell nearly 2,000 feet before BAM!
... He landed on the top wing of his own goddamned airplane, which had continued on its loop without him.
Which is not a situation they teach you how to handle in pilot school. Probably. None of us are pilots.
Grahame Donald was now frantically holding on to the edge of the wing, trying to stop himself from slipping into a whirling propeller while his plane hurtled toward the ground at 140 mph. His first attempt to reach his joystick sent the plane into a violent spin that nearly flung him off. Finally, he was able to hook the stick with his foot and bring the plane back under control, eventually slipping back into the cockpit with a whole 800 feet to spare. In a later interview, the pilot took the whole experience in stride:
"The first 2,000 feet passed very quickly and terra firma looked damnably 'firma'. As I fell I began to hear my faithful little Camel somewhere nearby. Suddenly I fell back onto her."
You know what? The man is a knight, and we're taking his word for it. Even though we haven't even been able to replicate that stunt in the Grand Theft Auto universe.
#5. Billy Bishop
It took Billy Bishop less than two weeks in the Air Force to qualify as an ace (awarded for five or more enemy planes shot down), and he quickly gained a reputation as a fierce killing machine, knocking Germans out of the sky on such a regular basis that they nicknamed him Hell's Handmaiden. Now would be a good time to pause and contemplate exactly how much of a badass you have to be when Germans consider you scary.
Bishop's favorite method of attack was to play air chicken with his opponent. Air chicken is just like regular chicken, the difference being that instead of two small-town farm boys driving at each other in their daddies' tractors, it was two planes heading toward each other at a combined speed of nearly 300 mph. While pouring machine gun fire into each other's aircraft. And instead of getting branded "chicken," the loser died in a cascading hellish fireball.
After one jaunt, Bishop's mechanic counted over 200 bullet holes in his plane. And considering that his plane was just under 20 feet in length, that averages out to about 10 bullets per foot. That Bishop used this method not just once but in an estimated 100 confrontations is a testament to his sheer ballsiness.
Not to mention the fact that he got through the war without so much as a scratch, which seems to point to some sort of pact with Satan. Especially since Bishop ended the war with a mind-boggling total of 72 victories.
Which is 71 aircraft more than I have managed to bring down. Apparently there's a reason they ask you to turn your cell phone off.
#4. Charles Nungesser
Frenchman Charles Nungesser was a character straight out of a Hemingway novel. Before the war he was an amateur boxer, race car driver and pilot. During the war he managed to score 45 victories between drinking and banging everything he could get his hands on in Paris. He even found time to regularly nail the legendary spy Mata Hari (well aware of her activities, he cheerfully fed her bullshit stories that she dutifully reported back to her German controllers).
His list of war time injuries reads like a recitation of everything that could go wrong on a body, ever, including but not limited to a skull fracture, a brain concussion, fractures of the upper and lower jaw, dislocation of both knees, bullet wounds in the mouth and ear AND SO ON.
So one day a German plane came flying low over Nungesser's airfield and challenged him to single combat at a specific time and place the next day. Despite his friends' attempts to point out the whole Germans + War = Dicks equation to him, Nungesser was unable to resist the challenge and duly set off to meet the enemy.
It turned out his friends were right. The moment Nungesser reached the designated rendezvous, six German fighter planes came swooping out of the clouds in a coordinated attack.
Nungesser responded to this shocking turn of events by blowing one of the German planes out of the sky. Then another.
Getting cocky works.
At this point, with the odds whittled down to a much more reasonable 4-1, he broke off the engagement, presumably to run home and pick up more bullets. The remaining four Germans, no doubt in a state of shock and feeling like right dicks, simply watched him go.
A badass to the very end, Nungesser survived the war only to disappear mysteriously, presumably lost at sea as he attempted to fly from France to America just two weeks before Charles Lindbergh accomplished the feat traveling in the opposite direction.
#3. Willy Coppens
Poor little Belgium, sandwiched in between France and Germany and with all the natural defenses of a cabbage. Belgium did, however, manage to produce at least one genuine ass-kicking hero in World War I. Willy Coppens, despite being fobbed off with obsolete aircraft and inadequate supplies of ammunition, became the undisputed champion balloon buster of the war, with 34 kills to his credit. This would probably be a good time to explain that "balloon busting" wasn't a bizarre party game played on the battlefields during WWI, but a serious endeavor for the only the bravest pilots.
In the days before satellites and unmanned reconnaissance planes, armies would station observers in moored hot air balloons with wireless radios to report back on enemy action. And even though you'd think that taking pot shots at a giant bag of explosive gas would be child's play, it totally wasn't. Balloons were guarded by anti-aircraft batteries pumping wads of hot lead into the air, and they often had their own squadrons of fighter planes swirling around the area to protect them.
Get past all that, and you run into the mid-air booby traps the Germans set, which included surrounding the balloons with silk-covered kites attached to steel cables that were all but invisible to pilots until they noticed their airplanes being torn in two.
In other words, balloon busting was as foolhardy as setting up a mosh pit in a minefield. And Coppens was really good at it. In fact, Coppens's electric blue Hanriot airplane became such a pain in the ass for the Germans that they hatched a cunning plan to dispose of him. Basically, they took an ordinary observation balloon and jammed it so full of explosives that a single bullet would be enough to atomize anything within 500 feet of it. With Coppens regularly swooping in to attack from as close as 50 feet, he didn't stand a chance.
The Germans were so proud of their little plot that word of the scheme eventually got back to Coppens himself, who decided that after they went to all that expense and effort, it would be rude not to go have a look at this balloon.
When he got there, he discovered that the Germans had really made a day of it, with dozens of soldiers and staff officers standing around to watch the fireworks. The balloon itself was still being winched up and was, crucially, only at half its intended height. It was then that Coppens, demonstrating that fine line between bravery and just plain bat-shit insanity, said "Fuck it" and dove in shooting.
The resulting explosion sent his plane rocking through the sky like a kangaroo on a pogo stick, yet it remained intact. If the low height had saved Coppens, it proved disastrous for those below, with the resulting fireball killing and maiming dozens of the watchers on the ground. See, that's what you get for standing around watching a war.
#2. William Barker
By October 1918, Canuck pilot William Barker had already survived three years in the Royal Flying Corps, and his official score of downed enemy aircraft stood at 46. So, on Oct. 26, 1918, Barker was ordered home for a well-earned rest. While most people would skedaddle home in a heartbeat in war time, Barker elected to swing by the front lines. Sure enough, he quickly spotted a low-flying enemy two-seater observation plane, which he promptly shot down. But that was a mistake.
Those sneaky Germans were using the two-seaters as bait while about 60 faster fighter planes lurked higher up, hidden in the clouds. Barker's first indication that all was not well was when an explosive bullet shattered his right thighbone, leaving the leg attached by the sinews.
Now able to make only left turns, Barker swung his plane around to discover an entire squadron of German fighter planes bearing down on him.
Bad odds ... for the Germans!
But instead of trying to flee like a normal person, Barker plowed through the middle of the squadron in a suicidal banzai charge, and he shot down both his original assailant and another luckless German who wandered into his sights. By now, the Germans had managed to get their shit together and began attacking him in a coordinated fashion, riddling his plane with over 300 bullets and wounding his left leg.
And that was when Barker fainted the first time.
Normally an occurrence only brought on by a quarter-gallon of trench-gin.
His aircraft went into an uncontrolled spin for over 6,000 feet before he came to and discovered that the Germans had followed him down, shooting all the way. Having long since given up any hope of surviving, Barker began attempting to ram the enemy and even managed to shoot one more down -- taking his tally to four in the space of less than 10 minutes. Then his left elbow was shattered by another bullet.
And that was when Barker fainted the second time.
He didn't regain consciousness until he was almost at ground level. But, crucially, by this time he had crossed over the Allied lines. Given that he was half-delirious from blood loss and pain and only able to move his right wrist, it's not surprising that he made a bit of a mess of his landing. And by "mess," we mean that he plowed into the ground at 90 mph.
Barker was pulled from the wreckage blood-soaked, unconscious and with both legs held on by threads. He lay in a coma for 10 days, and two days after he woke up, the war ended. Not bad for a guy who twice fainted in the middle of a dogfight.
#1. Manfred von Richthofen
Manfred von Richthofen was the first world war's ace of aces, with a score of 80 confirmed victories. As an utterly remorseless killing machine, Richthofen's greatest passion in life was hunting -- before the war it was boars, during the war it was men. Basically, the guy just really, really loved sneaking up on things and shooting them in the head.
He's standing behind you right now.
Richthofen quickly became Germany's leading ace and was awarded command of his own elite squadron, Jasta 11, which eventually became known as the Flying Circus because of the wild colors they painted their machines and their habit of traveling from one hot spot to another along the front with caravans and trailers.
In the camouflaged world of khaki and field gray that was the first world war, Richthofen's decision to paint his plane entirely red was a bold declaration of confidence bordering on arrogance.
Otherwise known as "peacocking."
By the April 1917, the British were so obsessed with finding the famous "Red Baron" that they coordinated a massive aerial raid on his home. And even though German intelligence alerted him to the coming onslaught hours ahead of time, Richthofen stayed put, allegedly hosting a lavish dinner for his officers in his dugout shelter. Not only did the Allied bombers attack and not kill the Baron, but he ended the month with 20 more kills added to his tally.
But it wasn't until after his death a year later that everyone really appreciated what an impact Richthofen had made on the fledgling German and British air forces. Because when the Baron was finally shot down in his last dogfight, the RAF ended up treating him like their own royalty. The Australian infantry that held the area he landed in stripped the plane for souvenirs, the British carried his flower-covered body to a hangar, where hundreds of soldiers filed past to pay their respects, and the next day, his former enemies buried him with full military honors.
And a fine line of frozen pizzas.