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An Explorer in the Air Service (WWI Centenary Series) - Hiram Bingham

"AN EXPLORER IN THE AIR SERVICE" (which was originally published in 1920 by Yale University Press) is Hiram Bingham's account of his time as an officer in the United States Army Air Service (1917-1919) in which he headed, first in Washington the Personnel Office of the Air Service - and then was sent to France in the Spring of 1918 as Chief of Personnel at Tours, where he labored for a few months before he managed to wrangle a transfer to Issoudun, where the U.S. had established a complex of military airfields 100 miles SE of Paris. Bingham, who had undergone flight training in the U.S. in March 1917 prior to the country's entry into the war and went on to earn the designation of Reserve Military Aviator (R.M.A.) the following August, wanted to freshen up on his flying skills. His work as Air Service Personnel Chief was so all-consuming that he had had no time for flying. 

From reading this book, one quickly sees how much of an aviation enthusiast Bingham was. (Indeed, before joining the U.S. Army, he was one of the persons instrumental in the establishment of the U.S. Schools of Military Aeronautics at 8 universities across the country - from Cornell to UC/Berkeley - which provided ground school training for Army aviation cadets, who later received advanced flight training in Europe.) At Issoudun, he was placed in command of the Third Aviation Instructional Centre (AIC). The Third AIC was the largest primary instruction and pursuit training school in the Air Service. It was made up of a series of airfields where pilot trainees were put through various stages of training, from simplest (Field 1, where the trainee pilot learned to taxi a 'wingless' plane at high speed along a straight course, so as to get a basic feel for handling a plane) to advanced (Fields 7 & 8, where formation flying, simulated aerial combat, and gunnery were taught). 

In reading about the training that took place at the Third AIC, Bingham goes into considerable detail in sharing with the reader the realities and challenges of training pilots and meeting the frontline requirements the Air Service placed upon him and the officers under his command throughout the summer and autumn of 1918. Sometimes the pilot trainee who has his heart set on flying 'pursuits' (fighter planes) fails to catch on to the demands of flying a fast, high-performance, single-seat airplane. No matter how hard he tries to keep his place in formation or learn combat tactics, he doesn't measure up. He falls short and his deficiencies become all too clear to his instructors. Rather than waste any more precious time and resources on a pilot trainee who doesn't have what it takes to serve in a pursuit squadron at the Front, he is shunted off into training as either an observation or bomber pilot (at Field 10, which was much larger than the other fields). 

Throughout the book, there are many photos of the various aircraft types that were used at Issoudun, as well as photos of Issoudun itself and some of the men who served there. Those photos gave me a very real sense of what it must have been like to be in the U.S. Army Air Service in France during World War I. There are also detailed illustrations of some of the flight maneuvers (e.g. the 'vrille' or spin, vertical virage, wing slip, and renversement) prospective pursuit pilots were expected to master.  Sometimes I would take a break from reading and study these illustrations. I would then close my eyes and try to imagine that I was in a Nieuport or SPAD fighter carrying out these intricate movements with deft handling of throttle, control stick, and rudder. 

"AN EXPLORER IN THE AIR SERVICE" is one of the best books of its kind that I've ever read. Bingham speaks both to his time and to today's generation with words that are sometimes prescient about aviation, as well as fanciful. His candor in speaking about America's lack of preparedness in developing the Air Service once the country is at war serves as an indictment of the narrow vision or blindness shown by the Army General Staff, which failed to appreciate aviation's potential and utility on the battlefield. Bingham himself says that "... it must never cease to be a source of amazement to our descendants that, while the great nations of the world had been fighting for their lives for two years and a half, and ordinary common sense would have seemed to have dictated the necessity of preparing for the day when we, too, should get thrown into the gigantic conflict, so little should have been done of what is known as 'General Staff Work.' " 

Anyone who wants to understand the origins of U.S. military air power, start here. This book is absolutely priceless.