Not to take anything away from the bravery of later pilots, but these men amaze me. They flew into battle in aircraft made of plywood and fabric, treated with flammable liquid. They weren’t issued parachutes, because it was thought that parachutes would encourage them to abandon their planes rather than try to save them in a crisis. Over the course of the war, they progressed from reconnaissance flights to shooting at enemy pilots with handguns, and then to using machine guns mounted on the aircraft. Often the guns were positioned to fire through the plane’s propeller. They were synchronized so that, in theory, they would miss the blades, but if the synchronization gear failed, the unlucky pilot would end up shooting the propeller off of his own plane, or having bullets deflected back at the cockpit. There was a saying in the Royal Flying Corps: you were headed for a wooden cross, the Red Cross or a Victoria Cross. The average life expectancy of a combat pilot was one week. And yet, some survived to become the stuff of legend.
One of those men was Canadian William Barker. To tell the whole story of his career as a combat pilot would make this post far too long, so I’m only going to describe how it ended. It fits into the category of truth that’s stranger than fiction.
On Barker’s final mission, a complex series of circumstances put him in the middle of about 60 enemy aircraft. The femur of his right leg was shattered by a bullet, but he kept attacking the enemy, destroying two aircraft and their pilots. Then he got hit in his left thigh. He took out two more enemy planes before he fainted. He came to with his plane falling, pulled it out of the dive and, despairing of survival, charged another enemy. In the process, his left elbow was shattered by a bullet and his plane lost its gas tank. Barker managed to switch on the small reserve tank, got across Allied lines and crash landed. He was pulled unconscious from the wreck of his plane and spent seven days in a coma, but he survived.
Unfortunately, William Barker’s story doesn’t have a happy ending. He never fully recovered, and spent the rest of his life in pain. In 1930, he lost his life in a flying accident that may have been a suicide. Even so, nothing can take away from his bravery. He had the stuff that legends are made of.