Lone Eagle: The Fighter Pilot Experience - From World War I and World War II to the Jet Age

Lone Eagle: The Fighter Pilot Experience - From World War I and World War II to the Jet Age

by Philip Kaplan


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Take someone with superior intelligence, unusual strength, perfect vision, catlike reflexes, exceptional marksmanship, and nerves of steel – and you just might have what it takes. The fighter pilot had total control of an airborne vehicle traveling hundreds of miles an hour, and was capable of leaving a devastating path of destruction in his wake. Navigating with brains and stamina, making life-or-death decisions in the blink of an eye, these unique heroes succeeded or failed by their skill and wit. And although their planes have changed over the years – from World War I’s precarious contraptions made of wood, wire, and cloth; to the metal monsters of the second World War, and finally to sleek, computerized birds able to cruise at speeds that exceed Mach 1 – fighter pilots still must out-think and out-fly opponents in a one-on-one contest where everything is at stake.

Profusely illustrated throughout with action photos, paintings, memorabilia and mementoes, Lone Eagle is a vivid volume recalling the thrill of flying Spitfires, Phantoms, Zeroes, and other fighter planes throughout aviation history. Through engaging personal stories and remembrances, this book examines the combat missions and evolution of tactics gathered over the last 70 years, where every hour of every day was an unforgettable and marvelous experience.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781510705111
Publisher: Skyhorse
Publication date: 05/16/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 8.50(w) x 10.50(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Philip Kaplan, formerly an art director with Playboy, Atlanta, and Architectural Digest magazines, has written, coauthored and designed thirty-eight books, including The Bird Farm, Silent Service, and The Bomber Aircrew Experience. He lives in Gloucestershire, England.

Read an Excerpt



"... the First World War ... took me from school at sixteen, it destroyed all hope of University training or apprenticeship to a trade, it deprived me of the only carefree years, and washed me up, inequipped for any serious career, with a Military Cross, a Royal handshake, a six-hundred-pound gratuity, and — I almost forgot to say — my life. There were men older than I whose education was complete. To them the War was a setback, disastrous but not irremediable. There were others, older still, who had positions to which they could return. But we very young men had no place, actual or prospective, in a peaceful world. We walked off the playing-fields into the lines. Our preoccocupation was the next patrol, or horizon the next leave. We were trained with one object — to kill. We had one hope — to live. When it was over we had to start again."

— from Sagittarius Rising by Cecil Lewis

"Mark Twain said, 'Courage is the mastery of fear, resistance to fear, not the absence of fear.' At times the nearness of death brings an inexplicable exhilaration which starts the adrenaline flowing and results in instant action. The plane becomes an integral part of the pilot's body, it is strapped to his butt, and they become a single fighting machine."

— from Double Nickel-Double Trouble by R. M. Littlefield

HE CAME FROM JAVA, the son of a wealthy Dutch coffee planter. The family returned to the Netherlands in 1897 when he was six, so that he could be educated there. Little Antony Fokker was reputed to be spoiled, cocky, arrogant, and selfish, as well as extremely bright and inventive.

He became interested in aviation at an automobile and airplane exhibition in Brussels, but was not encouraged by his father. Hermann Fokker told the boy that he would never buy him an airplane, believing, as did so many in the early part of the century, that one must have a death wish to get involved with flying machines.

For all his protestations, Hermann Fokker kept his son, now enrolled in an aeronautical engineering school, well-financed through the boy's first attempts to build a successful flying machine. The elder Fokker provided more than 180,000 marks to keep his son afloat in his continuous failures, and was astonished when, early in World War I, young Antony was able to repay his father every cent, with interest.

In the year leading up to that war, Antony Fokker followed the principles of automatic stability that he had developed as a child building experimental model airplanes and concentrated on the design and construction of a series of planes that he called Spinne (Spider). These were a simple blend of skids with wheels attached, tilted fabric-covered wings, and welded tubes, wires, and turnbuckles ... all improvised into forms and shapes from his wild imagination. He dedicated himself to becoming known for his flying machines by selling them when he could, giving flying lessons in them, and performing for crowds at weekends. He tried, without success, to interest the German army and navy in his planes. He made a meagre living but was mostly in debt and in grave danger. On one occasion a bracing wire parted when his aircraft was at 2,400 feet. He rode the disintegrating machine down into the trees and survived with only the slightest injuries, although his passenger died.

And so it went. Flying for promoters, taking great risks, and always cheating death.

When the war did come it came as a surprise to Fokker, as did a sudden turn in his fortunes. He was, he thought, just a businessman, and neutral about the conflict. He wanted only to make and sell his airplanes and was not concerned about who bought them. Virtually overnight every machine he had built was snapped up by the very same German army and navy that had coolly dismissed his earlier proposals.

Germany's military men, who now had an inkling of the combat potential of the airplane, called on Fokker to outdo the French in their efforts to make a plane serve as a flying gun platform. A Moraine-Saulnier monoplane was forced down behind the German lines in April 1915. The craft had a Lewis gun mounted in line with the propeller, and they noted the rather crude steel deflector plates on the propeller blades. To the Germans, this French idea was interesting, but they considered it a poor solution to the problem of firing a machine-gun through the arc of a propeller. They gave the problem to Fokker, who solved it in two days with a rod-and-cam device which interrupted the firing each time a propeller blade passed in front of the gun muzzle. The Germans were duly impressed, but remained indecisive, and it took three trial flights by the great ace Lieutnant Oswald Böelcke to convince the German Air Corps of Fokker's genius.

Orders poured in for Fokker's gun-synchonizing device and for his current monoplane which, when equipped with the device, proved devastating. It was more than a year before the first Allied fighter plane appeared in action with a gun-interrupter gear. By his mid-twenties Antony Fokker had become a millionaire, but he still lived in a modest German boarding house with his dog and a pet monkey.

Throughout the war he continued to visit the front to consult the pilots who flew his planes. He got on well with them and relied on their advice and opinion in his efforts to design new and improved fighters.

Fokker's main problem in trying to compete with the latest Allied aircraft designs was inadequate power. The finest German aero engine of the day was the water-cooled 160 hp in-line Mercedes, but the entire factory output of the Mercedes engine was committed to the Albatros company. Fokker could obtain none for his own firm. This shortage inspired him to develop a better fighter that did not rely on increased power (speed), but rather on improved maneuverability and rate of climb. The Fokker Triplane featured three wings, a clean line, and very few wires and struts. Manfred von Richthofen, Germany's leading ace, was mightily impressed: "It climbs like a monkey and maneuvers like the devil." It was so maneuverable that most of his opponents never realized how slow it was, nor how limited its range. The Triplane had twin Spandau machine guns and an amazing rate of climb — ten minutes to 13,000 feet, a ceiling of nearly 20,000 feet, cantilevered wooden wings, cable-operated ailerons, balanced controls, and a landing speed of thirty mph. Its main fault was its seeming determination to ground-loop. Apart from that, it was strong and very difficult to shoot down.

However, the German army wanted speed more than any attribute offered by Fokker's Triplane and orders for the radical craft were limited. Fokker still needed the Mercedes engine to develop the plane that he and the German army knew was required. In meetings with Richthofen's technical officer, Fokker proposed a contest among the leading aircraft makers to build a new plane, which the best German fighter pilots would evaluate. His condition was that each manufacturer should be able to use the Mercedes engine to power his entry. The trials were held in January 1918, and initially Fokker's design was a disaster. Von Richthofen flew it and clearly identified its severe problems. Undeterred, Fokker quickly corrected the problems, and Richthofen was amazed at the improvement. The German air corps implored Fokker to move immediately into mass production of his winning entry, which was in fact, a redesigned two-wing version of his Triplane. He was asked to name his price to build 400 machines. He asked for ten million marks and got it. He even had the satisfaction of watching Albatros and AEG, his primary competitors, ordered to build his design and to pay him a royalty on each such plane they produced. Thus was born the famous Fokker D-VII.

Nearly 1,000 D-VIIs had been built by the time of the Armistice, the first of them going to Baron von Richthofen's unit, JG-1. Richthofen was to die later in one of Fokker's Triplanes. Another World War I airman who flew the D-VII subsequently became famous in the next conflict: Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering of the German air force.

The first true fighter pilot was French Air Service Lieutenant Roland Garros who, on April 1, 1915, claimed the initial fighter victory of World War I. Garros was en route in his Moraine-Saulnier to drop two 155mm bombs on a German railway station when he encountered an enemy two-seater aircraft. He got the Moraine into position and emptied three Hotchkiss gun strip magazines into the enemy plane, sending it down in flames.

On an early morning patrol in June 1917, the German fighter pilot Ernst Udet, at that point a raw twenty-one-year-old, spotted a French Spad VII biplane approaching him from the west. Udet was a relatively inexperienced flier with little flying time and few combat sorties flown, but he was already credited with having downed six enemy aircraft. When the two planes engaged, Udet was able to make out the word Vieux on the fuselage of his opponent's machine. It was common knowledge among airmen on the Western Front that the great French ace Capitaine Georges Guynemeyer flew a Spad with Vieux Charles painted on it, and Udet was now certain he knew the identity of the man he was fighting. Guynemeyer's score at that point was thirty kills. Udet quickly considered the odds against him. In addition to Guynemeyer's skill and fearsome reputation, his was a vastly superior aircraft to the Albatros that Udet was flying. The Spad was faster, climbed better, and was stronger and better able to take the stresses of aerial combat.

Udet tried every trick he knew, to no avail. His fate seemed sealed. Nothing worked until, finally, his luck improved for one brief moment and the Spad crossed through his sights. He tried to fire and found that both his guns were jammed. He beat furiously on the gun breeches, trying to free the jams without success. He saw that Guynemeyer was observing his predicament. Seconds passed and then, astonishingly, the Frenchman waved and departed westward toward his own lines. Udet was confused. He knew, without any doubt, that Guynemeyer could have killed him easily in the few terrifying moments of their encounter, but had clearly elected to show mercy to his hapless, helpless enemy. There may be another explanation for the Frenchman's apparent act of chivalry in sparing the life of a still-combatant enemy pilot. Maybe Guynemeyer's guns were also jammed; maybe his ammunition was already expended, or perhaps he feared the German might, in desperation, decide to ram his plane. It seems probable, though, that Guynemeyer's act was that of a gentleman who hoped that he would be accorded a similar treatment if he were to one day find himself in Udet's situation.

Most historians agree that airmen in World War I behaved in a chivalrous manner. War correspondents remarked on the "knightly" behavior of the pilots on both sides. Willie Fry, a fighter pilot, wrote of the contrasting horror of the Battle of the Somme, and of Passchendale: "The public at home, and to a certain extent the ground troops in France, could not understand that, from the first, fighting in the air war was conducted on chivalrous lines and not with the hate largely generated by propaganda, justifiably in order to keep up the tempo of the war effort." This is not to argue that a chivalrous or gentlemanly approach to air fighting was dominant in the Great War; only that there is evidence that such acts and such behavior did occur then.

A World War II commander of JG-27, German air force, 1942–43, Eduard Neumann recalled: "It may be a little difficult for most people to understand today that the British fliers always enjoyed our respect and sympathy. This is more conceivable if one knows that in all German pilots' messes in peacetime, the old veterans of World War I always spoke of the British pilots, of air combat with them, and of the British fairness in the most positive way."

In Sagittarius Rising, the remarkable memoir of his career as a fighter pilot in "the war to end wars," Cecil Lewis brought a wonderful clarity and color to his subject. Born in 1898, he joined the Royal Flying Corps, earning his wings at Gosport in February 1916 while still only seventeen years old. At eighteen, he was posted to France with No 56 Squadron, RFC: "The squadron was to be equipped with the SE5, the last word in fighting scouts, turned out by the Royal Aircraft Factory. It was fitted with a 140 hp Hispano Suiza engine and two guns: one Vickers synchronized and firing through the propeller by means of the new Constantinesco gear; and one Lewis gun, clamped onto the top plane and firing over the propeller. To change drums, the Lewis could be pulled down on a quadrant mounting, and in this position it could, if necessary, be fired straight upwards. The machine (for 1917) was quite fast. It would do about 120 on the level and climb ten thousand feet in twelve minutes. It could be looped and rolled and dived vertically without breaking up. Altogether it was a first-class fighting-scout (probably the most successful designed during the war), and was relied upon to reestablish the Allied air supremacy lost during the winter.

"I always regarded instruction as a come-down, a confession that the pilot was finished, no use at the front, and condemned to flip young aspirants round and round the aerodrome day after day on obsolete types of machines. Of course, it was unreasonable, for competent instructors were most valuable to the rapidly expanding Force. Although their qualities were not necessarily those of successful active service pilots, they were equally important. A good instructor was, and still is, a pretty rare bird. It needs some guts to turn a machine over to a half-fledged pupil in the air and let him get into difficulties and find his way out of them. Instruction demands, besides, an ability to communicate oneself to another person (the secret of all good teaching), and not so simple as it sounds. Add to this great patience, the quality of inspiring confidence, and an extremely steady flying ability in the man himself, and it will be obvious that nobody need look down his nose at an instructor. All this I know now; then, the idea of flying an uninteresting machine condemned the thing out of hand, for flying itself, handling the latest and fastest types, trick flying, exhibitionism if you like, was all I cared about. Unconsciously quoting Shaw (with whom I was then unfamiliar), I thought, 'Those who can, do; those who can't, teach,' and prayed that I might not be posted to a Training squadron.

"The squadron sets out eleven strong on the evening patrol. Eleven chocolate-coloured, lean, noisy bullets, lifting, swaying, turning, rising into formation — two fours and a three — circling and climbing away steadily towards the lines. They are off to deal with Richthofen and his circus of Red Albatrosses.

"The May evening is heavy with threatening masses of cumulus cloud, majestic skyscapes, solid-looking as snow mountains, fraught with caves and valleys, rifts and ravines — strange and secret pathways in the chartless continents of the sky. Below, the land becomes an ordnance map, dim green and yellow and across it go the Lines, drawn anyhow, as a child might scrawl with a double pencil. The grim dividing Lines! From the air robbed of all significance.

"Steadily the body of scouts rises higher and higher, threading its way between the cloud precipices. Sometimes, below, the streets of a village, the corner of a wood, a few dark figures moving, glides into view like a slide into a lantern and then is hidden again.

"But the fighting pilot's eyes are not on the ground, but roving endlessly through the lower and higher reaches of the sky, peering anxiously through fur-goggles to spot those black slow-moving specks against land or cloud which mean full throttle, tense muscles, held breath, and the headlong plunge with screaming wires — a Hun in the sights, and the tracers flashing.

"A red light curls up from the leader's cockpit and falls away. Action! He alters direction slightly, and the patrol, shifting throttle and rudder, keep close like a pack of hounds on the scent. He has seen, and they see soon, six scouts three thousand feet below. Black crosses! It seems interminable till the eleven come within diving distance. The pilots nurse their engines, hard-minded and set, test their guns and watch their indicators. At last the leader sways sideways, as a signal that each should take his man, and suddenly drops.


Excerpted from "Lone Eagle"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Philip Kaplan.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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