Classic History Books

William J. Claxton - The Mastery of the Air

across the Channel the new science was kept alive mainly by the private enterprise of newspapers and
aeroplane manufacturers. The official attitude, as is so often the case in the history of inventions, was as

frigid as could be. The Government looked on with a cold and critical eye, and could not be touched

either in heart or in pocket.

But with the institution of the Royal Flying Corps the official heart began to warm slightly, and certain
tests were laid down for those manufacturers who aspired to sell their machines to the new arm of the

Service. These tests, providing for fuel capacity up to 4.0 miles, speeds up to 85 miles an hour, and

heights up to 3500 feet, would now be regarded as very elementary affairs. "Looping the loop" was still a

dangerous trick for the exhibiting airman and not an evolution; while the "nose-dive" was an

uncalculated entry into the next world.

The first important stage in the history of the new arm was reached in July, 1914, when the wing system
was abolished, and the Royal Naval Air Service became a separate unit of the Imperial Forces. The first

public appearance of the sailor airmen was at a proposed review of the fleet by the King at a test

mobilization. The King was unable to attend, but the naval pilots carried out their part of the programme

very creditably considering the polyglot nature of their sea-planes. A few weeks later and the country

was at war.

There can be no doubt that the Great War has had an enormous forcing influence upon the science of
aviation. In times of peace the old game of private enterprise and official neglect would possibly have

been carried on in well-marked stages. But with the terrific incentive of victory before them, all

Governments fostered the growth of the new arm by all the means in their power. It became a race

between Allied and enemy countries as to who first should attain the mastery of the air. The British

nation, as usual, started well behind in the race, and their handicap would have been increased to a

dangerous extent had Germany not been obsessed by the possibilities of the air-ship as opposed to the

aeroplane. Fortunately for us the Zeppelin, as has been described in an earlier chapter, failed to bring

about the destruction anticipated by its inventor, and so we gained breathing space for catching up the

enemy in the building and equipment of aeroplanes and the training of pilots and observers.

War has set up its usual screens, and the writer is only permitted a very vague and impressionistic picture
of the work of the R.F.C. and R.N.A.S. Numerical details and localities must be rigorously suppressed.

Descriptions of the work of the Flying Service must be almost as bald as those laconic reports sent in by

naval and military airmen to head-quarters. But there is such an accomplishment as reading between the


The flying men fall naturally into two classes - pilots and observers. The latter, of course, act as aerial
gunners. The pilots have to pass through three, and observers two, successive courses of training in

aviation. Instruction is very detailed and thorough as befits a career which, in addition to embracing the

endless problems of flight, demands knowledge of wireless telegraphy, photography, and machine


Many of the officers are drafted into the Royal Flying Corps from other branches of the Service, but
there are also large numbers of civilians who take up the career. In their case they are first trained as

cadets, and, after qualifying for commissions, start their training in aviation at one of the many schools

which have now sprung up in all parts of the country.

When the actual flying men are counted in thousands some idea may be gained of the great organization


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