The Aviator's Apprentice
The period in which "The Aviator's Apprentice" is set
The story begins early in 1914. Only ten years had passed since the Wright Brothers had seen their intense efforts crowned with success when they finally achieved a controlled, sustained flight at the very end of 1903. The Wrights had continued their experiments at Huffman Prairie, eight miles east of their Dayton, Ohio home, and by the end of 1905 they had made about forty flights. It may seem surprising that they avoided publicity and did not fly again until 1908, and the reason, with the benefit of hindsight, even more surprising. They were waiting for patent protection for their invention, confident of sales to the United States and British governments. The concept of patenting flight, to modern minds seems absurd. However, this was the age of the great engineer inventors: Edison, Bell, McCoy, men who had grown rich on royalties from their creations. To the Wrights it seemed ridiculous not to patent their invention, and as none of their competitors and imitators seemed even close to success at the time, Orville and Wilbur argued they should have been rewarded with royalty payments from those who copied their ideas.
In Europe, despite feverish activity by hundreds of enthusiasts, very little had been achieved until accurate sketches of Flyer lll were published in France in 1906. The following year Henri Farman made a flight of one minute and 14 seconds, managing a wide, skidding turn. Aware that their secret was out, the Wrights determined a different approach. In 1908, while Orville demonstrated a two-place Flyer to the U.S.Army at Ft. Myer, Wilbur took a machine to France where he stunned the crowds with perfectly controlled flights, limited in duration only by the amount of fuel he carried. During Orville's demonstrations to the army his machine suffered a serious structural failure and his passenger, Lt. Thomas Selfridge, was killed. Orville was seriously injured in the crash, but despite this, the world woke up to the fact that powered flight was a reality.
From this point aviation finally "took off". Every year saw another important objective achieved. In 1909 Louis Bleriot, the French pioneer, flew the English Channel. In the same year the great air meet at Rheims, France attracted crowds in hundreds of thousands. In 1911 Calbraith Rogers made the first transcontinental flight sponsored by Vin Fizz, a soft drink manufacturer. He arrived in California despite having crashed nineteen times en route from New York. In the first few months of 1914, the Jannus Brothers flew over one thousand passengers on the first scheduled passenger service between St. Petersburg and Tampa, Florida, using Benoist seaplanes. The point had been made.
By the time Will Turner, the hero of the novel, arrives in England in the summer of 1914, the duration record stood at 24 hours and 12 minutes. A distance of 634 miles had been flown. A German D.F.W. biplane had climbed to an altitude of
25,780 ft., and a French Deperdussin monoplane had averaged 127 mph. around a closed circuit.
In spite of the progress being made, flying was still seen as a hobby for the rich sportsman and a new spectacle for the public, who flocked to see Lincoln Beachey, Matty Laird, Ruth Law and the Stinson Sisters, looping the loop and performing other hair- raising stunts. Very few of the pioneers appear to have been farsighted enough to grasp the commercial potential of aviation beyond the possibility of mail carrying and joyriding. The military, however, despite reservations from the traditionalists, were quick to grasp the potential for observation of the enemy.
The end of the nineteenth century had seen a period of voracious colonial expansion by the European powers, leading inevitably to friction as they squabbled over territory and trade. Alliances based on mutual interest gradually formed. The German Kaiser supported the Hapsburg, or Austro-Hungarian Empire, in its claims on the Balkan States including Serbia. The Russian Tsar, through the Pan Slav alliance, sided with the Serbs. The French, still smarting from their humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, found a useful ally in Russia as it confronted the eastern border of the new German nation. The British could have remained aloof behind the 'moat' of the English Channel, but were becoming increasingly alarmed by the expansion of the German High Seas fleet, and there was the seemingly trivial matter of the British guarantee to protect Belgian neutrality dating back to 1839.
The assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, by Gavrilo Princip a member of the ultra nationalist Serbian Black Hand terrorist organization, precipitated a chain reaction with horrific consequences. It was the excuse the Hapsburg Empire needed to go to war with Serbia. In the following four weeks Austria advanced on Serbia, bringing the Russians rushing to the aid of the Serbians. Germany declared war on Russia in support of Austria, immediately bringing France into the conflict as the ally of Russia. German military strategists, aware that they would be forced to confront an enemy on two fronts, depended on a rapid flanking maneuver swinging around the French defenses in the east to attack France from the north, taking Paris and forcing surrender in a matter of a few weeks. Known as the Schlieffen Plan its weakness was the necessity to march through Belgium to attack France, risking a response from the British. The Kaiser gambled that the British would stand back rather than commit to a European land war. It was an error of judgement leading to the tragedy that became known as The First World War. On August 4th 1914 the British declared war on Germany.
The British Expeditionary Force moved quickly to France confident of a quick victory and a return home, "by Christmas". The war which began with rapid retreat and advance quickly became bogged down in static trench warfare. Instead of a triumphant return, the BEF found itself part of an unbroken line facing the German Army from the sand dunes of the Belgian Coast to the hills and forests of the Swiss border.