Technicalities: A Casualty of the War

When people die, worlds die with them.

Sopwith Camel
The Sopwith Camel.Wikipedia

In May 2016, I met a woman named Susan Mozena. When she learned that I fly, she told me her father, Charles d’Olive, had been an ace with five victories in World War I.

My first thought was that my friend Javier Arango would have gotten a kick out of my having had a close encounter with some genuine Great War DNA. But that could not be. A month earlier, Javier himself had become, so to speak, a delayed casualty of that war when the Nieuport 28 he was flying crashed for unknown reasons, killing him.

Javier owned a magnificent collection of World War I planes. Most of them were extremely accurate reproductions, a few original. They resided beside the grass airstrip on his ranch in central California in a row of antiseptically clean hangars liberally supplied with mousetraps. Mice, it seems, like to eat old airplanes.

The airplanes themselves were beautifully made, and spotless. Once, when we were talking about various airplane collections, Javier described what he called the Platonic fallacy, which is the idea that the thing most faithful to the original is an unblemished reproduction. In fact, he said, the true original would have been dirty and somewhat slapdash in manufacture because, like its pilot, it would not have been expected to last more than a few weeks in combat.

Nevertheless, Javier’s airplanes were, in fact, polished and perfect. Nearly all were in flying condition. Most had century-old rotary engines, which are weird because the entire engine spins with the propeller. They emit a steady mist of castor oil, whose laxative effect gave rise to some funny, and probably false, wartime stories. As soon as one of Javier’s airplanes landed, with oil streaming down its belly, a historically incorrect swarm of helpers armed with polishing cloths sprang into action and restored it to its Platonic state.

World War I was a period of very rapid evolution in airplane building. I say “airplane building” rather than “airplane design” because aeronautical engineering was not yet a profession, and the Tony Fokkers and Tom Sopwiths of the world, though they manufactured thousands of airplanes, were really backyard hobbyists, writ large. The pure sciences of fluid mechanics and aerodynamics developed along a separate track, and until the 1920s they had little or no influence on the creation of flying machines. And I say “evolution” because survival of the fittest was certainly in play when each side’s airplanes, however toylike they looked, were hunting one another through the skies with machine guns.

You can get some feel for the breakneck speed of development during the war from the fact that the Wrights first flew in 1903, and then quietly improved their machines and their flying skills for several years before taking a Flyer to France in 1908. The European experimenters were still making baby steps then; the Wrights’ mastery of flight amazed and inspired them. Only six years later, the war began. At first, its aerial component consisted of a few devil-may-care sportsmen taking potshots at one another with pistols. One thing led to another, and by the time the war ended in 1918, most of the technological advances that would occur between then and 1940 had already been sketched out.

How this progress was achieved intrigued and fascinated Javier, who had majored in the history of science at Harvard. The wartime builders — Javier’s principal interests were Sopwith, Nieuport and Fokker — left no record of the alternatives they considered, or the reasons for their choices, or the mistakes they made. We don’t know under what assumptions, true or false, they operated, or what effects they expected their innovations to have. Javier hoped that by building and flying the airplanes and comparing his observations with contemporary records he could gain insight into how they developed.

A mutual friend introduced me and Javier in 2006, and we soon set out to supplement his subjective experiences by in-flight measurements. It used to take a whole cabin full of gyroscopes and accelerometers and recording equipment to document an airplane’s behavior, but today, tiny solid-state equipment does the same thing within a cube 2 inches on a side. That was lucky, because these airplanes’ cockpits barely accommodated a pilot, let alone anything else.

I say “evolution” because survival of the fittest was certainly in play when each side’s airplanes, however toylike they looked, were hunting one another through the skies with machine guns.

Unfortunately, Javier had a day job, and the project moved slowly. We did succeed in instrumenting and testing a Sopwith Camel, which was the premier fighter of the war on the Allied side. The Camel was notorious for the alleged effects on its behavior of the rotary engine, which was like a gigantic gyroscope attached to the nose of the airplane. If you wanted to go one way, the gyroscope pulled you in another. The Camel’s quirks gave rise to various canards, one of which was that it could more easily turn 270 degrees to the right than 90 to the left. This was like saying you could get from New York to Paris faster by way of Tokyo than London, but it was a sufficiently durable myth to have found its way into Wikipedia.

Our conclusion, which was not novel, was that the Camel did indeed have quirks, and that pilots adapted to them and, in fact, learned to put them to use in combat. What was novel was that we were able to assign numbers to pitch and roll rates and accelerations, speeds, rates of climb and glide, and so on, and to assess the real magnitudes of the effects of that infamous nasal gyroscope. We attempted to publicize our findings in my popular articles and Javier’s scholarly papers and lectures, but we probably produced the most lasting impact upon human knowledge by the simple expedient of going online and editing the Wikipedia article.

Our next subject was to be the Fokker Triplane, the Camel’s legendary antagonist. Those findings could have settled once and for all the questions about Snoopy and the Red Baron that have long tormented readers of Peanuts.

In 55 years of flying, I have lost a number of friends to this safety-obsessed pastime. With Javier, I lost not only a genial and generous friend, but what surrounded him: the old airplanes, their sounds and smells, the way they looked in the air and the way it felt to wriggle into one of their tiny cockpits and imagine myself about to depart on a dawn patrol over France, hoping no one would notice that I was scared to death.

On the calm mornings when the airplanes were rolled out to be flown under the morning sun, I remember the mix of birdsong and the chatter of radial engines, the sweet country air and the sight of an old biplane dropping in over the pole fence at the end of the runway to land, like a bird, almost at a walk. I remember Javier’s grin, under his leather goggles and cap, as he climbed out. Those things will remain with me. I hope to be remembered, when my own time comes, as fondly as I remember Javier and the world that he brought with him.