Flying Machines


December 03, 1990|By Donald R. Morris

HOUSTON. — DOUGLAS CAMPBELL died October 18 in Connecticut, aged 94. It wasn't a name most Americans were familiar with, and most newspapers carried at best a small squib.

But Douglas Campbell was once far better known. He had three unique distinctions. On March 19, 1918, with Eddie Rickenbacker and Raoul Lulbery, he flew in the very first patrol over enemy lines conducted by the U.S. Air Service. He was the first American-trained pilot ever to shoot down an enemy aircraft, and he was the first American-trained, with five aerial victories, to qualify as ace. (Several Americans, flying with French or British squadrons were already aces, and even after we entered the war, most of our pilots received some, or all, of their training from the French and British.)

In two World Wars, in Korea and Vietnam, some 60,000 Americans have served as fighter pilots. Only 1,416 became aces -- and Campbell was the first of that fabled line.

Born in San Francisco on June 7, 1896, Campbell was a student at Harvard when America entered the war. He enlisted immediately, and received his entire training in American schools. He was assigned to the 94th Aero Squadron -- the famous ''Hat in the Ring'' outfit, which was equipped with Nieuport 28s, and made the first patrol with Rickenbacker and Lulbery, a veteran pilot who had flown with the French.

On April 4, Campbell and his squadron mate Alan Winslow were standing by their Nieuports when two German aircraft emerged from the clouds. Four minutes later both enemy aircraft were blazing wrecks -- and Campbell, by a matter of seconds, had become the first to score a kill. On May 31, when he brought down his fifth plane, he became an ace.

With six confirmed and three unconfirmed kills (planes shot down behind enemy lines could rarely be confirmed), Campbell's career ended June 6, when an explosive bullet from a Rumpler hit behind his cockpit. Severely wounded in the back, he managed to land and was brought back to America to recuperate; he was only able to rejoin his squadron after the Armistice. His combat career had lasted precisely 79 days, and he held the Distinguished Service Cross. Campbell went to work for Pan American Grace Airways (today's Pan Am), and rose to vice president before retiring in 1963.

His death leaves A. Raymond Brooks as the last survivor of the 108 Americans aces of World War I. Brooks had just graduated BTC from M.I.T. when he enlisted; his training started in Toronto. He was assigned to the 139th Aero Squadron, flying first SPAD VIIs, then the more powerful SPAD XIIIs. (From beginning to end, no American-built plane saw action; the French and British supplied all our needs. The Nieuport 28s the first arrivals drew were fine aircraft -- barring a nasty tendency to strip fabric off their top wings in a dive; pilots were delighted to turn them in for SPADs.)

Brooks, who had three SPADs shot out from under him, scored his first victory June 30. On September 14, in his 11th aerial combat, over the Meuse-Argonne battle, he suddenly found himself in the midst of 10 red-nosed Fokkers, 10 miles behind German lines. In a 10-minute battle, he drove off four (two were confirmed), and with one gun jammed, his windshield shot away, his rudder controls damaged, a tire punctured, an incendiary bullet smoldering in the upper wing spar and the motor missing, he dived to tree-top level and raced for the allied lines, tangling with two further Fokkers en route. He landed safely, but the plane was finished.

Brooks, too, was hospitalized and unable to rejoin his squadron before the Armistice; he had scored six confirmed victories (and three or four unconfirmed -- he himself isn't sure about the fate of one he forced down far behind German lines). He stayed with the Army Air Corps until 1922, then organized an Aeronautic Branch for the Department of Commerce, then organized and managed air operations for Bell Laboratories, before retiring in New Jersey in 1960.

His SPADs were all named ''Smith'' -- for Smith College, where his fiancee was a student. ''Smith IV'' went to the Smithsonian, and can be seen today, magnificently restored, in the National Aviation and Space Museum in Washington. Neat white patches with German black crosses cover her bullet-holes.

Less than 15 years after the Wright brothers flew, these men went into combat mounted in frail aircraft which could collapse in a tight maneuver; aircraft whose wood, doped fabric, fuel and spewed oil the slightest spark could turn into a flaming coffin. The instrumentation was rudimentary; the most skillful pilot couldn't keep a plane right-side-up in a cloud.

It was a far-cry from today's Top-Gun jet-jockeys. But, 72 years ago, the Right Stuff was already there.

Mr. Morris is a retired naval officer and columnist.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.