PUBLISHED: 13:35 29 June 2011 | UPDATED: 14:09 10 October 2012
FIGHTER PILOTS, Ed Jon E Lewis (Robinson, £7.99)
FIGHTER PILOTS, Ed Jon E Lewis(Robinson, £7.99) Review by Tony FrenchThe words in this book are those of the fighter pilots themselves, which makes for vivid reading. The selection sets out to answer the question, ‘What is it like to be a fighter pilot?’ As far as mere words can answer that, this book succeeds.
These chapters are excerpts from the books, memoirs and letters of 27 pilots, spanning the years from WWI to the Falklands War in 1982. Many of the names are familiar: Manfred von Richthofen, Cecil Lewis, James McCudden, Ernst Udet, Edward V Rickenbacker, Johnnie Johnson, Chuck Yeager.The stories are in roughly chronological order. The earliest, which is very well written and amusing, is by Duncan Grinnell-Milne, recalling his training at Shoreham as a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps. The first aircraft he encounters is a Farman Longhorn, ‘a forest of spars and struts, with floppy white fabric drooped all over it’. The last actions described are by Lt Cdr Sharkey Ward flying a Sea Harrier in the Falklands, firing missiles at his targets rather than the machine guns which feature in so many other accounts – guns which were always blocking, misaligned or short of ammunition.
A few other appendices and chapters add interesting perspectives. There is an account by Dutchman Anton H G Fokker – the aircraft manufacturer who as it happens developed the interrupter gear which allowed a machine gun to fire through the arc of a propeller – but in this book his words recall three WWI aces whom he knew well: Richthofen, Boelcke and Immelmann. Fokker recalls taking Immelmann on a tour of his factory, and later examining the wreckage of the Fokker aircraft following the pilot’s unexplained fatal crash – Fokker concluded the control wires were cut by shrapnel from German ground fire, a fact not publicised, but it resulted in silhouettes of all German types being sent to artillery commanders. In another chapter, Richthofen himself recalls flying alongside ‘my little comrade’, the eighteen-year-old Immelmann, whose name is still remembered for the half-loop, half-roll manoeuvre, developed in action. A full half of the book is devoted to WWI. The second half takes us into the cockpits of Beaufighter, Hurricane, Spitfire, Me 109, Mustang, F-4 and F-8 among others, in theatres from England during the Battle of Britain, to the Low Countries, Sicily and the Far East. Each is vivid, all are personal, most describe flying and fighting, and some recall the consequences... Richard Hillary’s account of recovery from dreadful burns is included, and Tornado navigator John Nichol’s account of torture as a 1991 Gulf War POW in Iraq.
Whether you are interested in the personalities (‘the aggressive spirit is everything,’ Richthofen), the flying (read Dicta Boelcke, seven rules of air fighting which became the basis for German training), or quieter moments reflecting on the act of killing, then you will be fascinated by these intensely personal accounts.