Air museum director discusses WWI planes, pilots
In the Sandven Building on the grounds of the Prairie Village Museum in Rugby, Glenn Blackaby explains to attendees of a lecture Tuesday evening that there are ways to look at aviation: from baby, toddler and adolescent stages.
And when World War I started, the airplane was in its pre-adolescent stage or, as Blackaby said, “old enough not to be babied.”
Blackaby, who is the director of the Minot-based Dakota Territory Air Museum, explained that the one core concept of the lecture was that the airplane had made “remarkable strides” throughout the war.
Blackaby explained that early in the war both politicians and battlefield commanders were skeptical of the airplane’s use beyond scouting or reconnaissance and that planes were not armed at first. It wasn’t until after Allied reconnaissance saved British and French forces in battle, and German pilots saved forces during battles at Marne and Tannenburg that commanders started looking at planes for other uses, and toward stopping enemy pilots.
Planes would eventually be equipped with machine guns fired by observers, and deflector plates to prevent bullets from destroying propellers until the invention of the interrupter gear by Anthony Fokker. The gear would allow German forces to briefly gain aerial supremacy from August 1915 to early 1916, a period known as the “Fokker Scourge.”
Air battles were decided by a number of factors, including whether one had gun problems; got hypothermia or hypoxia at high altitudes; how efficient and stable one’s plane was; and how experienced or trained a pilot was over the other. Pilots early on did not have parachutes, and some would drink whiskey before flying to combat sickness caused by fumes from castor oil which was used to lubricate engine parts. With their kill records, each side would later use pilots as propaganda.
Attendees got the chance to ask questions.
Deb Hoffert asked about pilot training. Blackaby explained that early on pilots were trained poorly due to a shortage of pilots, and the lack of training killed pilots early on. Training became more organized as the war progressed.
Dave Bednarz asked whether planes engaged airships in battle.
Blackaby also discussed Manfred von Richtofen, also known as the “Red Baron,” a German ace credited with 80 victories in airplane combat. At the start of the war, Richtofen was a cavalryman and transferred to the Air Service in 1915. Richtofen crashed during his first flight. He was given command of a fighter unit in 1917 after 16 confirmed kills and had his plane painted red. In July of that year he would receive a head wound while in combat.
He scored his 79th and 80th credited victories on the same day, April 20, 1918 the day before his death.
Attendees also had the chance to dine on grilled burgers or hot dogs after the lecture.
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