Sir William Hugh Stobart Chance, C.B.E.

Part 2 - Royal Flying Corps training and gaining his "Wings".
At Reading we studied engines, air-frames, theory of flying, Morse, and other subjects relative to the training of a pilot. Preparations were being made for the great offensive on the Somme and the R.F.C. was being rapidly expanded.

After six weeks at Reading I was posted to No. 5 Reserve Squadron at Castle Bromwich near Birmingham and I rode home on my newly acquired Red Indian motor bike for a brief leave - very excited at the prospect of actually taking to the air.
The aerodrome at Castle Bromwich was large enough to hold three units - a B.E.2c squadron preparing to go overseas, a flight of Avros and R.E.7s and at the north end the Mess and hutments of No. 5 R.A.S. where we were housed. Initial flying training was carried out in Maurice-Farman biplanes - the "Longhorn" having a front elevator supported by booms and the "Shorthorn" with rudder and elevator on the tail-plane. Both models had 70 h.p. air-cooled V-8 Renault engines, and the pilot and pupil sat one behind the other in an open nacelle which extended forward of the planes. The Maurice-Farman was not a difficult plane to fly and at ground level would do its 60 m.p.h.

Maurice-Farman biplane

The first entry in my Log-book reads "29 May 1916. 5.37 p.m. M.F.L.H. 6697. Captain Scott. 19 mins. Partial Control." Dressed in leather flying coats, wool-lined flying boots, flying helmets and goggles, my instructor and I climbed into the nacelle. Captain Scott repeated the engine-starting formula - "Switch off, suck in, contact." The Air mechanic - they were colloquially known as "Ak-Emmas" - swung the prop, the engine fired, the pilot waved his hand - "Chocks away" - and we were off. It is not easy to recall the sensations of a first flight, sitting in the nose of the nacelle in front of the pilot, but Shorthorns only needed a short run to take off and soon we were circling the aerodrome, flying over Castle Bromwich Church, the railway, and the open fields which surrounded the aerodrome. Birmingham has now spread its tentacles, Dunlop and Pressed Steel factories cover the meadows and the aerodrome has been given over to housing.

Over the next fortnight I put in something over an hour's flying, partly on Longhorns and partly on Shorthorns, and was allowed to hold the controls while we practised landings, flying either in the evenings or early mornings. Pilots' training was being rushed at this period of the war and after nine brief flights and two hours and thirty-one minutes of instruction I was considered fit enough to take off on my first solo. 
So at 7.42 a.m. on 17th June I climbed into my seat, started the engine, taxied out onto the runway, pushed forward the throttle, and I was "off". The flight only lasted nine minutes and on landing I was told to go off again. The plane climbed well and having reached a height of 1200 feet I found myself over Castle Bromwich Church and turned to glide in to the aerodrome. As I crossed the water meadows I realised that I was too low, so opened the throttle to give the engine a boost. But horror of horrors, nothing happened, and looking back I realised that the engine had stopped and I had "lost my prop". There were only a few seconds to decide what to do - ahead lay the railway and a river and I was too low to turn. So the only hope was to flatten out as much as possible without losing flying speed and with a beating heart and with the wheels clipping some young trees on the edge of the aerodrome, down we came with a bounce and a bump, and my skin was saved. After three more solos I attempted the test for the Royal Aero Club Certificate which involved making two figures of eight and landing near a designated spot. All went well and after a total of three hours and fifty-nine minutes flying I had qualified for my "Ticket" which entitled me to rank as a certificated Pilot and bore the number 3099.

2nd Lieut. W. H. S. Chance
(June 1916)

Three weeks after posting to Castle Bromwich I was ordered to 47 Squadron at Beverley in Yorkshire, commanded by Major J. G. Small. Beverley aerodrome had been a racecourse and was like a grassy pimple; if one flew in too low one ran the danger of hitting the rising ground; and if too high, the ground receded on the far side of the pimple and, instead of touching down, one's wheels went higher and higher and another circuit became imperative.

No. 47 was equipped with Avros and Armstrong Whitworths, both biplanes. The Avro - later to become and for many years to remain the standard primary "tutor" of the R.A.F. - was a two seater and was equipped with an 80 horse power rotary Gnome engine, manufactured in France. The 7 cylinder engine, which revolved round a stationary crankshaft, had automatic inlet valves (which sometimes refused to open) and mechanically operated exhaust valves. There was no means of controlling the speed of the engine and before taking off it was necessary to "blip" - that is to use the button on the top of the joy-stick to switch on and off. To protect the propeller on landing a skid jutted out from and was fixed to the axle of the landing wheels. The engine was lubricated with castor oil and the centrifugal force of the rotating cylinders spewed out a thin film of oil, some of which found its way aft to the discomfort and odour of the pupil and instructor. Avros were not difficult to fly, provided the engine behaved itself, and were much lighter on the controls than the relatively heavy-handed Maurice-Farmans. We were warned to treat the controls with delicacy, as too energetic handling could put the plane into a spin; and at that time the technique of recovering from a spin had not been discovered; so we flew with caution and avoided "stunting". In two weeks of dual instruction - eleven separate outings - I put in nearly two hours of flying and after three more trips - one with Major Small who commanded the Squadron - I was thought capable of "going solo". 

My log book - signed weekly by the Squadron Commander - bears his comment "Don't use American slang." "Dud engine" and "Joy ride" were not considered appropriate terms of expression by the Army Regulars seconded to the R.F.C.

In the "remarks" column of my log book the entry relating to my third solo reads: "Bumpy. Switch wire broke. Landed by petrol tap." The Avro I was flying was a good climber and I found myself going higher and higher. So I decided to switch off the engine and lose height. But when I pressed the switch button, nothing happened! What could I do? Should I fly round until the petrol was exhausted and hope to land without engine. Then I remembered that under the pilot's seat was a tap which regulated the petrol supply. Reaching down I twisted the handle and after what seemed a long pause the engine cut out. Turning into the wind, I set course for the aerodrome, but there was a strongish breeze blowing and I realised I was not going to "make it". So the tap was feverishly twisted and after a wait which seemed interminable the engine picked up and disaster was avoided. Another circuit and I tried again. This time I approached at a greater height and by twisting and turning managed to hit the landing strip with several bumps and bounces. Thank goodness I had remembered the existence of the petrol tap.
No. 47 Squadron was also equipped with Armstrong-Witworths - biplanes somewhat like the standard B.E.2c. with 90 horse power air cooled engines made to Royal Aircraft Establishment design and in fact copies of the Renault. They were good, steady planes and easy to fly, but they saw little or no active service in France and were mainly used in Salonika and the Middle East.

After five minutes of "dual" I was sent up "solo" and on landing dipped a wing and damaged the kingpost of the right aileron. Looking back over fifty years it seems surprising that one should have been sent up in a strange plane with only a few minutes of "dual" experience.

After thirty minutes of what my log book describes as "Circuits. 3 landings", I was sent off on my first cross-country flight which lasted 83 minutes and took me over the Humber to Goole and on to Doncaster. The same afternoon another cross-country covered the triangle of Market Weighton, Tadcaster and Selby. At the end of this week Major Small left the Squadron and my log book is signed "J. A. Cunningham. Captain R.F.C."

Navigation in these early days was a matter of reading a map, spotting main roads and railways, and if in doubt, flying low over a station and reading its name on the signposts. Apart from a rev-counter and air-speed indicator, the only instruments were an altimeter, a compass, and a bubble-level.

Capt. J. A. Cunningham
  (No. 47 Squadron)

Pilots at Doncaster played a game on the spectators who came out on Sundays to watch the flying. A two-seater took off with a dummy dressed in flying kit concealed in the cockpit. The pilot did a loop over the aerodrome and the observer ejected the dummy, which fell spread eagled to the ground. A waiting ambulance, in which was concealed an officer dressed in flying kit and his pals, tore out over the grass and the occupants jumped out and surrounded "the corpse". Unperceived by the spectators the live airman took the place of the dummy and soon was seen being escorted to the tarmac apparently none the worse for his fall. Meanwhile the dummy had been hidden in the ambulance and the plane was seen to land with only the pilot's head showing and taxi back to the hangars.

My time at Beverley was now coming to an end and finished with a trip to Doncaster, where the Racecourse was used as an aerodrome, and on to Bramham Moor. Log book records "Clouds, low and misty. Bumpy." The aerodrome at Bramham Moor adjoined a main road and the planes were housed in tents. When I set out to return to Beverley, my engine refused to start and after spending a night in the Mess I was picked up by tender and taken back to Beverley. By this time I had totted up "Total solo 10 hrs. 42 min. Total in air 16 hrs. 22 min." and was beginning to feel that I was acquiring confidence and could find my way - weather conditions permitting - from point to point.

Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.7.

Two days after returning to Beverley I was posted back to Castle Bromwich and joined No. 28 Reserve Squadron. We had a few Avros but the Squadron was primarily equipped with R.E.7s built by Siddeley-Deasey and engined with the 12 cylinder 150 h.p. R.A.F. 4a engine.

The R.E.7 was a two seater with the pilot sitting aft of the observer, who occupied an enormous cockpit in the centre-section of the wings. It had a wing-span of 57 feet and at the time was the largest plane in use by the R.F.C. Designed for bombing, it was out of date before it saw active service; and only one squadron flew with it in France before the opening of the Somme offensive in July 1916. Slow to fly and clumsy to manoeuvre, R.E.s were "sitting ducks" and although they did some useful work they were soon scrapped.
After a few trips round the aerodrome in an Avro I climbed into the spacious cockpit of an R.E.7, strapped myself in, and went up with Captain Woodhouse - a racing motor cyclist and one of the early "stunters". Later in France he was to gain distinction by landing and taking off spies behind the enemy lines. Next day we went up again and, having climbed to 1500 feet, Woodhouse put his nose down and before I realised what he was doing he pulled back "the stick" and I was experiencing my first loop. During the next week I put in quite a lot of flying, on one occasion staying aloft for over an hour, getting up to 9000 feet and for the first time flying through cloud.

Martinsyde "Elephant"

No doubt because R.E.7s were being scrapped I was posted early in August 1916 to No. 49 Squadron at Dover, where there were two aerodromes - one belonging to the R.F.C. and one to the R.N.A.S. Our aerodrome was on the cliffs east of Dover Castle, where a few years earlier Blériot landed after his famous Channel crossing. When flying round the aerodrome I was surprised to see below me a Blériot belonging to the R.N.A.S., with its warping wings and open fuselage.

No. 49 was equipped with Martinsyde Scouts and commanded by Major Barratt - later to end a notable career as Chief of the Air Staff and an Air Chief Marshal. I remember him with thick dark hair and a large black moustache, but my log book only records his signature.
The Martinsyde - known in the Service as the "Elephant" - was a single-seater biplane with a 120 horse-power four-cylinder-in-line water cooled Beardmore engine. It was rather Germanic in design and, while not difficult to fly, had a nasty habit of "floating" when one levelled off to land. So long as one held back "the stick", all was well and the wheels settled down into the grass. But it was fatal to attempt to hurry the process of landing, which only resulted in protests from the "Elephant" in the form of bumps and bounces.

Being a single seater, no "dual" was possible, so after appropriate words of advice from an instructor I taxied out and took to the air. Log book reports; "1 hour 5 minutes, 3500 ft: bad landing." But the undercarriage was sturdy and no damage was done. I only stayed a week at Dover and put in just over five hours flying time. I had now completed my training - gained my "Wings" and flown solo for 26 hours and 37 minutes. The first thought on "graduating" was to acquire a R.F.C. "maternity jacket", as the double-breasted, high-collared uniform was colloquially known. Rounded off with a pale coloured pair of Cavalry breeches, brown field boots, Sam Browne belt, and a forage cap, one felt highly superior to the infantry subaltern.
One night at Dover we were woken by a terrific cannonade and rushing from our hutments we saw a Zeppelin flying high and illuminated by searchlights. The harbour was full of ships including the twelve-inch gunned monitors Erebus and Terror whose normal task was to shell the German fortifications on the Belgian coast. Every ship in the harbour seemed to be letting fly and the noise was deafening. But the Zep put its nose up, turned away, and departed apparently unharmed.