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Rickenbacker: Fighting the Flying Circus
Chapter 33 - An Aeroplane Movie Show


THE new Liberty duly arrived and after a brief rehearsal of our parts in the coming show we again had our machines run out on the field on the morning of October 21st and took our stations in the line. Captain Cooper was again placed in the rear seat of the Liberty, with Jimmy Meissner in the front seat acting as his pilot. Jimmy was to keep his machine as near the actors as possible, always flying to the left side, so that the photographer might face the show and keep his handle turning with the least possible difficulty.

Reed Chambers sat in the front seat of the captured Hanover and piloted it. He carried two guns which would fire only tracer and flaming bullets, and with true Movie instinct Reed was prepared to do his utmost to imitate with two guns the Roman Candle effect of the latest four gun effort of the Huns whom he was supposed to represent. In the rear seat of the Hun machine sat Thorn Taylor, the villain of the play. He was dressed in villainous enough looking garments to deceive even the most particular Hun. He too had a gun, one which swung on a tournelle and which would emit a most fearsome amount of smoky and fiery projectiles when the climax of the action was reached. As a clever piece de resistance Thorn carried with him, down out of sight of the camera until the proper time came, a dummy Boche pilot stuffed with straw. At the height of the tragedy Thorn was supposed to duck himself down out of sight behind his cockpit and heave overboard the stuffed figure, which would fall with outstretched arms and legs, head over heels to earth. This would portray the very acme of despair of the Boche aviators, who, it would be seen, preferred to hurl themselves out to deliberate death rather than longer face the furious assaults of the dashing young American air-fighters.

As to the latter —I was supposed to be it. In my old Spad No. 1, with the Hat-in-the-Ring insignia plainly inscribed on the sides of the fusilage and the red, white and blue markings along wings and tail sufficiently glaring to prove to the most skeptical movie fan that this was indeed a genuine United States areoplane —I was to be Jack, the Giant Killer, with an abundance of smoky and fiery stuff pouring from all my guns every time the monstrous hostile machine hove in sight. A few films of a distant formation passing through the sky had been taken early in the game so as to delude the innocent public into the belief that I was going up to demolish the whole caravan with my one resistless machine. A series of falls and vrilles would put the one Hanover out of the fighting enough times to account for a whole formation of them. Then as the last desperate encounter took place Thorn Taylor, after shooting all his spectacular ammunition well over my head, would force the dummy to commit suicide rather than longer endure the suspense of waiting.

It was a clever plot. The whole aerodrome was in raptures over the idea and everybody left off work to gather on the field to witness the contest. I doubt if the later performances will ever have a more expectant, more interested or so large an audience.

Jimmy and his camera operator got away safely this time and right behind them the comedian and tragedians of the show winged their way. Arrived at 2,000 feet over the field we pulled up our belts and began the performance. It was necessary to keep an eye on the camera, so as not to get out of its beam while pulling off our most priceless stunts, and at the same time we had to be a little careful as to the direction in which our bullets were going. Captain Cooper was thrusting his head out into the windstream, manfully trying to keep my swifter moving machine always within the eye of his camera. As I came up under the Hanover aeroplane's tail I would let off a terrific stream of flaming projectiles which are perfectly visible to the naked eye and certainly ought to be caught by a camera even in the daytime. Thorn shot as lustily under me and over me as I approached and even Reed's front guns were spitting death in a continuous stream at the imaginary enemy planes ahead of him.

Over and over we repeated the performance, the Hanover dying a dozen deaths in as many minutes. At last, our movie ammunition beginning to near exhaustion, it became necessary to stage a big hit that denoted the climax of the play. Coming about above the Hanover, while Captain Cooper was grinding industriously away not over twenty feet from its side, I came down in a swift pique, made a zoom and a renversement on the opposite side of the Hanover, and kicking my rudder over came back directly at the enemy, full into the gaping lens of the camera. Firing my last rounds of ammunition as I approached, I saw them go safely over the tops of both machines. As I drew in to the closest possible distance that remained safe for such a maneuver I threw my Spad up into a zoom, passed over the vanquished Boche and came back in a loop somewhere near my original position. As I glanced at the Hanover I saw that she was doomed! A quantity of lampblack, released by the crafty Taylor, was drifting windward, indicating that something seriously wrong had occurred with the enemy machine. Such a dense cloud of smoke would satisfy the dullest intellect that he must soon begin to suspect fire. Ah, Ha! There she comes! I knew she was afire! Sure enough several bright landing flares suddenly ignited under the Hanover's wings throwing a bright gleam earthwards but prevented from injuring the wings themselves by the tin surfaces above them. Finding longer existence on such a burning deck utterly unendurable the poor dummy gathered himself together in the arms of the stalwart Taylor and with one tremendous leap he departed the blazing furnace forever!

While Taylor kept himself resolutely hidden below decks Chambers, throwing out the last of his sack of lampblack, lifted over onto the side the doomed machine and gave a good exhibition of the falling leaf. Down — down it drifted, the daring photographer leaning far out of his cage to catch the last expiring gasps of the stricken Hanover — the last of the wicked formation of hostile machines that had dared to cross our frontiers early in the picture. And then — just as he was prepared to flash on the " good night " sign and entertain the departing audience with views of the best line of corsets to be had at reasonable prices at Moe Levy's emporium—just then the real climax of the play did appear.

We had necessarily wandered some little distance away from the vicinity of our aerodrome while firing genuine flaming bullets over each other, so that the falling missiles would not cause any injuries to property or persons below. Paying little attention as to just where we were flying so long as open country was below us, we had not noticed that we were some miles south and west of our starting place and almost immediately over the edge of a French aerodrome. Suddenly a puff of real Archy smoke in the vicinity of the Hanover told me that some enthusiastic outsider was volunteering his services in behalf of our little entertainment. Another and another shell burst before I could reverse my direction and get started to place my Spad close to the black machine wearing the Iron Cross of the Kaiser. Reed Chambers took in the situation at a glance. He pointed down the Hanover's nose and began at once to descend for a landing on the French aerodrome below us. At the same moment several French Breguets left the field and began climbing up to assist me in my dangerous task of demolishing the Hanover.

Diving down to intervene between them before any more shooting was done I succeeded in satisfying the Frenchmen that I had the affair well in hand and that the Hanover was coming down to surrender. Without further incident we all landed and got out of our machines. The French pilots, their mechanics and poilus gathered about in a curious body while I laughingly hurried over to the side of Reed's machine and explained to the assembly the meaning of this strange performance. They all laughed heartily over their mistake — all except Reed and Thorn Tayor of the Hanover crew who, from the expressions on their faces seemed to admit that the joke was on them.

Getting away again the Hanover flew home under my protection. After it had landed I climbed up through the clouds where Jimmy and the Movie man were still waiting for me. There I stunted for a while in front of the camera, giving some excellent views of an aeroplane bursting through the clouds and some close-up views of all the aerial tumbling that a Spad is capable of performing.

Next day Captain Cooper departed with his films for Paris, where he expected to turn them over to the American authorities and if permitted, take a copy of them for public exhibition in Paris and the United States. A day or two after Christmas, on my way through Paris to New York; I learned that these pictures had turned out very well and would soon be shown in the Movie palaces of the cities of America.

The captured Hanover was flown into the American Station at Orly, near Paris, a few days after the armistice was signed, and from there was shipped to America to be placed upon exhibition. Major Hartney and Laurence L. Driggs, of New York, who were visiting us at that time, flew in it from Verdun to Paris in a little less than an hour and a half. One captured Fokker machine and an escort of two Sopwith Camels and one Spad accompanied them, for the enemy machines still carried the war markings of the German air service, and inquisitive Frenchmen along the way might be tempted to try to capture them a second time. So far as I know these were the only two enemy aeroplanes captured by the American forces during the war. The Fokker came down upon our field at Verdun just a day or two before the end of hostilities, and was turned over to 95 Squadron as their capture, since they operated this field. The pilot had given himself up, saying he thought he was landing upon his own aerodrome at Metz. He had become lost in the fog, and as the two aerodromes are similarly situated along the edge of a river's course, his mistake was quite probable.

Another two-seater, a Halberstadt machine, came down upon the American field at the Supply Station at Columbey-les-Belles under similar circumstances a few days before the armistice was signed. But in this case, the " capture " was a deliberate surrender. The two occupants climbed out of their machine and in pure New York patois informed the startled mechanics that they wished to make a bargain with them.

They were, it transpired, two Yiddish gentlemen of German extraction, who for some years had been in business in New York. The war caught them in Germany and they were perforce thrust into the service of what had once been their mother country. After many vicissitudes, they both entered aviation, seeking for the opportunity of flying over the lines and giving themselves up. Now a chance had arrived. Both of them getting permission to cross the lines in the same machine they had made straight for our headquarters at Columbey-les-Belles and now offered a perfectly good machine, valued at not less than ten thousand dollars in exchange for their freedom, and a pass back to Harlem.

It was an attractive offer, but since they were already in our custody as prisoners and the machine was regarded as a capture, their conditions were respectfully declined. The Halberstadt was likewise later sent to Orly and thence to America with the Fokker and Hanover, which had been taken in by 94 and 95 Squadrons.

The following afternoon I escaped assassination by four red-nosed Fokkers by the narrowest margin ever vouchsafed to a pilot, and at the end of the combat flew safely home with my 21st and 22nd victories to my credit. Curiously enough I had gone out over the lines alone that day with a craving desire to get a thrill. I had become " fed-up " with a continuation of eventless flights. Saying nothing to any of my fellows at the aerodrome I went off alone with an idea of shooting down a balloon that I thought might be hanging just north of Montfaucon. While I did not get a shot at the balloon I got all the thrill I needed for several days to come.

It was about five-thirty in the afternoon when I ordered out my machine and set off for Montfaucon. As I neared the Mouse valley I found the whole vicinity was covered with a thick haze — so thick in fact that the Germans had hauled down all their observation balloons. There was nothing a mile away that could be observed until another day dawned. Over to the South the sky was clearer. Our own balloons were still up. But no enemy aeroplanes would be likely to come over our front again so late in the evening.

While I was reflecting thus sadly a bright blaze struck my eye from the direction of our nearest balloon. I headed around towards this spot in the shortest possible space of time. There could be but one explanation for such a blaze. A late roving Hun must have just crossed the lines and had made a successful attack upon our balloon over Exermont! He ought to be an easy victim, I told myself, as soon as he should start to cross back into Germany since I was on his direct road to the nearest point in his lines. He was now coming my way. Though I could not see him, I did see the bursting Archy shells following his course northward. He must pass considerably under me, and no doubt would be quite alone.

Just then a series of zipping streams of fire flashed by my face and through my fusilage and wings! I divined rather than saw what this was without looking around. Two, or perhaps more than two enemy machines were piquing on me from above. Utterly absorbed in planning what I should do to catch the other fellow I had been perfectly blind to my own surroundings. The Hun balloon strafer had a protective formation waiting for him. They had seen me come over and had doubtless been stalking me for many minutes without my knowing it.

These thoughts flashed through my mind as I almost automatically zoomed up and did a climbing chandelle to escape the tracer bullets directed at me. I did not even stop to look at the position of my assailants. Knowing they were above, I concluded instantly that they had prepared for my diving away from them and that therefore that would be the best thing for me to avoid. I fortunately had reasoned correctly. As I sped upwards two red-nosed Fokkers, my old friends of the von Richthofen Circus sped down and passed me. But even before I had time enough to congratulate myself upon my sagacity I discovered that only half of them had passed me. Two more Fokkers had remained above on the chance that I might refuse to adopt the plan they had determined upon for me.

One glimpse of the skilful contortions of these two upper Fokkers showed me that I was in for the fight of my life. I lost all interest in the progress or existence of the balloon strafer that had destroyed one of our balloons under my very nose. My one dearest desire was to get away off by myself, where thrills were never mentioned and were quite impossible to get. The masterly way in which the Fokkers met and even anticipated every movement I made assured me that I had four very experienced pilots with whom to deal. Zig-zagging and side-slipping helped me not one whit and I felt that I was getting a wind-up that would only sap my coolness and soon make me the easy prey of these four extremely confident Huns. The two machines that had first attacked me impudently remained below me in such a position that they invited my attack, while also preventing my escape in their direction. I made up my mind to start something before it was too late. Even though it meant getting into trouble, I decided that would be better than waiting around for them to operate upon me as they had no doubt been practising in so many rehearsals. Noting a favorable opening for an attack on the nearest man below me I suddenly tipped over at him and went hurtling down with all my speed, shooting from both guns.

I had aimed ahead of him, instead of directly at him, to compel him either to pass ahead through the path of my bullets or else dip down his nose or fall over onto his wing — in either case providing me with a fair target before he could get far away. He either preferred the former course or else did not see my bullets until it was too late. He ran straight through my line of fire and he left it with a gush of flame issuing from his fuel tank. I fully believe that several bullets passed through the pilot's body as well.

Considerably bucked up with this success I did not seize this opportunity to escape, but executed blindly a sudden loop and renversement, under the strongest impression that my two enemies above would certainly be close onto my tail and preparing to shoot. Again I had guessed correctly, for not only were they in just the position I expected to find them and just where I myself would have been were I in their places, but they were also startled out of their senses over my sudden and unexpected assault upon their comrade. It is never an encouraging sight to see a comrade's machine falling in flames. It is sufficient to make the stoutest heart quail unless one is hemmed in and is fighting for his very life. But however that may be, my three neighbors did not turn to continue the combat with me, nor did they even pause for an instant to threaten my pursuit. All three continued their headlong dive for Germany with a faster and heavier Spad machine following them and gaining on them every second. My blood was up and I considered that I had been badly treated by the red-nosed Boches. I was three miles inside their lines, other enemy machines might very easily be about —I had no time to look about to see—and I had just escaped from the very worst trap into which I had ever fallen. Yet I could not resist the mad impulse of paying back the three Huns for the scare they had so recently given me.

Though the Spad is faster than the Fokker, the fleeing Huns had a slight start over me and I did not immediately overtake them. One of the three gradually fell back behind the others. The ground was getting nearer and nearer and it was growing very much darker as we approached the earth's surface. At about 1,000 feet above ground I decided the nearest Fokker was within my range. I opened fire, following his gyrations as he maneuvered to avoid my ever nearing stream of lead. After letting go at him some 200 bullets, his machine dropped out of control and I ceased firing. His two companions had never slackened their pace and were now well out of sight in the shadows. I watched my latest antagonist flutter down and finally crash and then awoke to the fact that I was being fired at by hundreds of guns from the ground. The gunners and riflemen were so near to me that I could distinctly see their guns pointed in my direction. I had dropped down to within a hundred yards of earth.

All the way back to the lines I was followed by machine-gun bullets and some Archy. Absolutely untouched I continued on to my field, where I put in my claim for two enemy Fokkers, and after seeing to the wounds of my faithful Spad walked over to the 94 mess for supper.


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