The story opens in the late summer of 1915. By this time the air war over France had entered a new and deadlier phase. When the first shots of the Great War were fired, the high command on both sides dismissed the aeroplane as an expensive toy. A year later the Generals on both sides are demanding more and more aerial photographs and aircraft for directing artillery. To achieve this both sides strive for what we now call air superiority.
The British try to achieve this by an aggressive policy of attack and superior numbers; the Germans retaliate with better technology. Aircraft armament had progressed from pistols and rifles to machine guns. Pilots on both sides had recognised that the most effective way to attack an enemy machine was to aim your own aeroplane directly at it with a machine gun fixed to fire ahead on your line of flight. To achieve this they had to overcome the problem of how to avoid shooting off their own propeller. The gun had to be mounted where the pilot could reach it for reloading, or clearing stoppages. This put it directly in line between the cockpit and the propeller in most aircraft. The manufacturers found various solutions. The British Vickers and Airco companies adopted “pusher” designs where they mounted the engine behind the pilot driving a propeller that pushed the aeroplane through the air rather than pulling. This gave the pilot a clear field of fire.
The Frenchman Roland Garros famously fitted metal deflector plates to his propeller allowing him to fire straight ahead. He achieved success with this crude but effective solution but was forced down and captured behind enemy lines. Popular legend has it that his device was shown to Antony Fokker who then went ahead and perfected a superior system where a cam and rod mechanism prevented the gun from firing when the propeller passed in front of the muzzle. In fact Fokker had already patented his system, but the timely capture of Garros’ machine after its rapid success against German machines persuaded the high command to buy Fokker’s system fitted to his new monoplane fighter, the “E1”. This precipitated what became known as the “Fokker Scourge”; the principal victim of which was the ubiquitous British BE2 series of biplanes.
Nicknamed “Stability Jane”, the BE2 provided a dependable and stable platform for artillery spotting and photographic reconnaissance. This was exactly what the War Office had demanded and exactly what the designer, Geoffrey de Havilland gave them. Unfortunately the very stability that made it such an easy aeroplane to fly proved fatal to many crews. Described as too slow to get out of its own way, with the observer in the front cockpit hemmed in by struts and flying wires with a limited field of fire, it was difficult to defend and many were shot down. However, not all the losses could be explained by the poor performance of the BE2. The Fokker “Eindekker”, as it was known, was an indifferent aircraft, not much faster than the BE with a low rate of climb and inherent structural weakness compounded by wing warping giving a sluggish rate of roll. It seems likely that many British crews simply failed to spot the Eindekker before it was too late. With its single wing and small overall dimensions the Fokker presented a tiny visual “signature” when flying directly towards its target, as it would be when attacking. Several crews showed that when handled aggressively with a skilled man behind the Lewis gun, a BE2 could give a good account of itself providing the danger was spotted in time. German pilots would frequently break off an attack if they failed in their first pass. A tactic that experienced combat pilots still recommend. Regardless of the losses, the British High Command still insisted on an aggressive policy of carrying the war to the enemy, despite the inferiority of the aircraft available to the Royal Flying Corps.
Will Turner arrives in France to take over command of a flight in a BE2 squadron that has effectively been shot out of the sky. Morale is on the floor, and near mutiny is afoot when the newly appointed Commanding Officer, Major Ernest Simpson proves to be a martinet of the old school. Will finds himself leading his men in a fight that soon seems to be against more than just the Germans. With a combination of technical skill and tactical innovation, Will Turner struggles to tip the balance in the air. Find out if he succeeds as he leads “Turner’s Flight”.