Monday, 18 March 2013

Open Cockpit - Arthur Gould Lee

The information presented was written by Chris Buckham; however, it was published in Airforce magazine. Therefore, the material is proprietary to the Air Force Association of Canada and is reproduced here by the author with the permission of the association. If you would like to republish this information or refer to excerpts please contact the Editor Airforce magazine ( ). I support the Air Force Association’s important mission to inform new generations of Canadians about the value and importance of their country’s air force. A link to the AirForce Magazine website is:
Title: Open Cockpit
Author: Arthur Gould Lee
ISBN: 9781908117250
Pages: 212
Illustrations: 29 b/w
Publisher: Grub Street Publishing

     The author, Gould, was a fighter pilot in the RAF from early 1916 until the end of the war having transferred from an initial stint with the infantry. His autobiography encompassing his period of training and operational flying is an engaging and enlightening window into the early years of military flying. His intent is not to glorify or romanticize the role of the fighter pilot, but rather to provide insight into the lives and challenges of a line pilot in the cauldron of the First World War. He is a gifted writer and his work conveys his story to the reader in a casual yet compelling way. Indeed, one could easily imagine the author, with a brandy and cigar, sitting across from the reader in his library relating the story of a particularly notable period of his life.

      Gould’s discussion of the training that he received is of particular interest. The casual, almost haphazard method that young pilots were introduced to the mysteries of flight is both shocking and comical. In today’s technological world of aviation, it is hard to imagine sending up novice pilots with a couple   hours training to solo without even understanding the basics of how to recover from a spin (and, in fact, the powers that be did not know the answer to this question until well into the war). The fact that pilot training was, in many respects, as dangerous as combat, further deepens ones respect for those early pilots who took up the challenge of flight.

     I was particularly taken with his descriptions of patrols. Typically these lasted for two to three hours and as his aircraft, the Sopwith Pup, handled better at higher altitudes, 18 – 20,000 ft was not uncommon. As a rule of thumb, any sustained operation above 10,000 ft today requires the use of oxygen in an unpressurized environment. Imagine if you will, operating at 20,000 ft without oxygen or heating in open cockpits for two to three hours!!! Now add the stress and challenge of potential combat onto that (and without parachutes). Modern aviation medicine tells us that it is incredibly hard both psychologically and physically to sustain this kind of undertaking. It boggles the mind that these men were expected to do it two to three times per day, every day. Gould’s reminisces of these events leave the reader shaking their head in wonder.  

     The author does discuss his thoughts on the courage of the fighter pilot compared with other elements of the airforce (such as observation and reconnaissance aircraft) and the army. His views are poignant and balanced. In effect, he acknowledges that each of the branches had stressors uniquely theirs and so one may not, with any degree of legitimacy, suggest that one group was braver than another. In his view, the main challenge for the fighter pilot was centred upon the fact that he was alone. In the air, he did not have the support of being able to overcome/dilute his fear through the close proximity of his peers and friends. He comments that a significant part of his maturity and development as a pilot occurred during a scrap with a Albatros D-III. The German and Gould were alone facing each other and the German’s aircraft was overall a far superior one to the Pup that Gould was flying. Nevertheless, the German broke contact and retreated to his own lines. It was at that moment, Gould recounts, that he realized that his adversaries were as scared, and therefore as human, as he. The quality of the aircraft, while important, was not the only factor in survival in the air. Psychologically, the balance was made more even for Gould because of this realization.

     Grub Street publishing has produced yet another high quality book. The production value is first rate and well worth the money.

     Overall, I have to say that this was one of the most enjoyable books that I have read about the experiences of a First World War combatant. Gould is a top notch author who is able to tell his tale without being overly dramatic or gruesome. A thoroughly engaging read, I had trouble putting the book down. I highly recommend this book to those looking for a story that entertains and educates concurrently.

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