A Contribution from TGWS Member John Wheat
Learning to Fly in the AEF
From the Letters of My Cousin: Lt. William Muir Russel
William with Mascot "Stupide"
My cousin William Muir Russel has always been a family legend. Sadly, he was the prototype Great War Aviator, being killed after only a few weeks of front-line service. But he left us something lasting from his experiences. At Cornell University, Class of 1917, William had been a journalism major. His collected letters show he had a fine eye for detail and the ability to capture the feelings of an aspiring aviator. Here Lt. William Muir Russel, 95th Aero Squadron, tells how he learned the skills of a First World War Chasse or Pursuit pilot.
John Wheat, Member
The Great War Society
26 April 1917; Detroit, Michigan
[My] certificate of enlistment, dated May 10, 1917, states that William M. Russel was enlisted as Sergeant, Aviation Section, Signal Corps, Enlisted Reserve Corps of the Army of the United States on the 26th day of April, 1917, for the period of four years.
1 May 1917; Memphis, Tennessee
[Reported] at the field yesterday at seven o'clock, which meant rising at 5:15 in the morning, a hasty breakfast, and a long ride. Dressed in our overalls, we were at once set to strenuous mental and manual labor; taking instruction by lecture, and tearing down and assembling aeroplanes. The work is entirely new to me, and has to be done rapidly, but it is amazing how much one can learn by practical experience even without instruction. At twelve o'clock, a bugle sounds, which informs us that we can check in our tools and rush to a small cafeteria across from the field and stand up to a delicious luncheon of ham and egg sandwiches and a bottle of coca cola. I then crawl into one of the hangars and have a rest -- that is, if I rush my sandwich.
Another bugle at one o'clock, and we return to the assembling and repair department. Work then continues until four o'clock, when we are summoned for muster and inspection. At 4:30, we have drill for half an hour; then two or three times a week, a lecture on aerodynamics, after which we scoot for town and get a good bath and a better dinner.
Shortly after this letter the field near Memphis was deemed unsafe and the entire unit transferred to Illinois. After much upheaval, Lt. Russel's training resumes:
The last week has been so perfect, and so much has been accomplished, that I feel as if I had a new lease of life, and am more enthusiastic about flying than ever.
22 June 1917; Fourth Aerial Squadron, Ashburn, Illinois
The sun has shone all week, and, as a result, the ground has thoroughly dried out. Last Monday, I made only one flight, but on each of the remaining days, I have made two. With this long consecutive run, I have at last got some confidence in myself, and yet, at the same time, I feel how little I really know. The flying in mid-air above an altitude of two thousand feet is comparatively simple. The quicker action and decision is required as you get nearer the ground. I should say that, barring such accidents to an aeroplane as might happen to an automobile, a locomotive, or even a carriage, from a concealed defect, or the breaking of a part, a fellow is safe when flying at a height of more than one thousand feet; between one thousand and five hundred feet, he is reasonably safe; at less than five hundred feet, there are elements of danger. You cannot rest even in a straight course as with an automobile. Each little puff of wind swings you to the right or to the left. The early morning flight, however, is very different. The air usually is perfectly quiet, and you glide along like a bird. My instruction last week consisted practically of straight flying, with occasional turns. The early part of this week, I spent in making left hand turns in the form of a circle or square. On Wednesday, I began on right hand turns, which are very different from the left hand ones. This is due to the revolving of the propeller, the tendency being not only to turn your machine to the left, but also to upset it laterally to the left. This must be prevented by giving it right rudder and right aileron more than left, thus holding your machine in a stable position. Seven machines have been somewhat damaged this week on account of too steep a descent before landing. The ground is still somewhat soft, and the front wheels stick in the mud, which throws the tail up in the air, and causes the machine to stand on its nose, and smash the propeller. Ordinarily, it is not very serious, but rather a nuisance, as it puts the machine out of commission for some time. Aeroplanes now are plentiful. We have forty-eight for the use of seventy-three students. One of our most advanced men, who was already recommended for his commission, has been indefinitely suspended for looping the loop with a passenger. In the first place, it is strictly against the rules for a student to loop the loop without permission of the commanding officer, and secondly, it is forbidden except for an instructor ever to loop with a passenger.
29 June 1917; Fourth Aerial Squadron; Ashburn, Illinois
Curtiss Jenny Being Delivered for Training
Monday was the only day I could make a flight. The rest of the time the rain has beaten down, and the field is practically lost to the eye under four inches of water.
Shortly after my flight Monday, all flying was stopped on account of a nasty accident to one of the solo men, who escaped miraculously from a wreck in a tail spin. This is a form of accident which a novice aviator must always guard against. It is usually the result of carelessness or a moment's forgetfulness. From the minute you first begin instruction, you are warned about it, and told how to keep out of it. A "tail spin," as it is called, is caused from losing headway. It results from two factors-failing to nose the machine down on the turns, and failing to keep the direction of the wind clearly in mind. On making a turn, if you do not nose the machine towards the ground, you necessarily lose such headway that the plane becomes uncontrollable. The nose will drop on account of the weight of the motor, throwing the tail into the air. If the wind is coming from a side direction, it will strike the plane, whirling the tail, and tend to spin it around the nose as an axis. Your 'only chance to gain control is to head to the ground with the motor off and the rudder held against the wind until you gain sufficient headway to get control once more of the machine. If you are at an altitude of over five hundred feet, your safety is assured, otherwise a wreck is imminent. This boy kept his head remarkably well, and never ceased fighting to gain control. When they got him out of the wreckage with only a couple of minor cuts on his face and a bad shaking up, they went over every part of his machine. It was badly smashed, but the controls were all in good condition. He fell about two hundred feet, and in that small space of time he had removed his glass goggles, unfastened his safety belt, throttled the motor, and shut off the spark-the four things he should have done. As I said, after this accident, all flying was called off for the rest of that day, and for the remainder of the week, it has poured rain.
Another rather unfortunate experience of a different kind has come to one of the boys, a nice fellow, this week. He entered just about the time I did, and it has been evident that flying did not appeal to him. All the time he struggled to overcome his aversion to the new sensations, but somehow, they were so unnatural to him that he failed to master his feelings. Wednesday, he went with tears in his eyes to headquarters, and after a long talk with the Captain, was released from the Aviation Corps. He was a brave enough fellow, and wanted to continue. This is the second case we have bad. It seems that one's feelings are not controllable. You are either fascinated or dread it.
Rumors are rife again that we are about to move to Rantoul, Illinois. No further word has been given out, but I think there is little doubt but that we will go within the next two or three weeks. If we do go there, we will have a taste of real army life, because it is an established army post, and we will live in barracks under strict military discipline. The flying field [with the capacity to support 72 aircraft], near a village of about a thousand people, is practically finished. The ground is well drained, and the hangars and barracks, I understand, are already constructed.
13 July 1917; Chanute Field; Rantoul, Illinois
Chanute Field During the War
Our days here will be as thoroughly occupied as before, and to a greater advantage. At present the order is reveille at six O'clock, breakfast at 6:30, roll call at 7:15, and work until lunch, 11:30; at one o'clock, another roll call, and work, lectures, and flying until 5:30; supper at 5:45; retreat at seven o'clock, and the ending of a perfect day at ten o'clock, when lights are out. When we are comfortably settled with beds and blankets, and the mess hall is finished, all will be well, and it will be as good and healthy a life as one can wish for. This will give you a notion of what my first military existence is. It is rumored that we are the last reserves in this corps, and that we will be transferred into the regulars when we receive our commissions.
You may be interested in our methods of training. you are set directly to flying after the first day, when you ascend for a ride to accustom yourself to the new sensations. This is called the "joy ride." From then on, unless there is some natural defect or personal characteristic which prevents, the controls are given over to you, and you drive the machine under the guidance and aid of another set of controls operated from the rear seat. On becoming more proficient, you are put in the rear seat, and later you are sent up alone to do solo work. After twenty hours of solo work, you are allowed to undertake your flying tests for a commission. Then you are sent to France or England to have another month of instruction on high-powered machines. 1 am just about to be turned loose; that is, to begin solo work. If we have good flying weather, it will require about five weeks more training in this country.
15 July 1917; Chanute Field; Rantoul, Illinois
Our day's work is well laid out for us, and we have little time for recreation. We rise at 5:45 in the morning, have a good setting-up exercise, and a fair breakfast, then we are set directly to work with the machine crew. Six fellows have charge of the upkeep of two machines. When your turn to make a flight comes, an orderly notifies you, and you take half an hour in the air. At eleven and twelve o'clock you report for classes in aerodynamics and practical electricity. Noon mess is usually a light meal. In the afternoon, we have military drill, class in meteorology, and the remaining time in the motor room where we tear down and assemble motors. The evening is usually spent in study, preparing for the final examinations by which our commissions will be ranked to a certain extent.
23 July 1917; Chanute Field; Rantoul, Illinois
But the purpose of coming here, namely, flying, has been well met. The weather has been ideal, and great progress has been made. I have had a thirty minute flight every day. The training has been slow on account of frequent removals, but at last I am getting to the end of my preliminary instruction. For the past few days I have been working on landings, which is the final step. Next, solo work, or flying alone, begins in preparation for the Reserve Military Aviator tests. If these are passed, my commission follows automatically.
The work becomes more fascinating each day, and as instruction continues, you realize that flying is a science with something more always to learn. A person can easily learn enough in one week to fly in the air, but without more experience, he would lose his confidence and have an accident at a critical moment. This has been evident during the last few days. Many of the boys became impatient, and induced their instructors to turn them loose for solo work. Friday, we bad four accidents, none of them serious, but the machines were wrecked and the boys pretty well bruised up-all due to ignorance and inexperience in the pinches. Then Saturday, one of my room-mates in Chicago was sure be could make a good landing. The controls were turned over to him by the instructor, and when he came down he was sailing against the wind at an air speed of about seventy miles an hour-that is, going at the rate of fifty miles against a wind of twenty. In flying, you calculate your speed with the air and not the ground, as it is the pressure against the wings which does the lifting. So when he rounded the last turn to alight in the field, the twenty miles wind pressure was taken away, because he was then flying with the wind, and not against it, and the air speed was reduced to not more than forty miles an hour, which is below the necessary minimum. The machine went into a tail spin at an altitude of about 200 feet, and crashed to the ground. Both occupants were taken from the plane and given up for dead. On examination, however, to our great joy, they were found to be badly cut and their noses broken and faces disfigured, but luckily without permanent serious injuries, although the machine was a total wreck.
I wish I could explain some of the ways of getting into a tail spin, but am too young in the art yet, and it is difficult for me to describe it. Even with a perfect machine, it is only one of many dangerous situations which may come at any minute. A flyer must know how to avoid them if possible, and to counteract them if necessary.
26 July 1917; Chanute Field; Rantoul, Illinois
Famous Training Aircraft: Curtiss Jenny
Again, we have had bard luck. Another serious accident happened Saturday, but the two occupants escaped miraculously well. Evans Baxter, my former room-mate at Chicago, and his instructor were the unfortunates. [described above]
More good news was the coming of ten new Curtis planes yesterday. This will give us a chance for more instruction, which, however, is progressing rapidly now. I have reached the step where I am making landings. This is a difficult part of flying, and to a considerable extent, the phase by which you are judged. It is no easy thing for me yet, but I am sure I will soon get the knack of it. My instructor said yesterday that my air work was tip-top, and that I was coming on with the landings. Tuesday and Wednesday, I practiced gliding into the field from an altitude of two thousand feet. That was easy, but when we got about one hundred and fifty feet from the ground, he would take the control and make the landings. I would then ascend, and we would do the same thing over and over again. The purpose of this is to practice your spirals so that you will enter the field from the right side and always against the wind.
I have at last had an aeroplane put under my supervision, for which I am wholly responsible, and which is also my own instruction machine. This puts an incentive up to you for careful work, as your neck depends upon your own diligence.
1 August 1917; Chanute Field; Rantoul, Illinois
The last few days have been exceptionally busy and terribly hot.
My flight today is last on the list, and my machine is running like a bird, so that I have a few minutes for a breathing spell and retreat from the burning sun. Monday morning, when I began instruction, we had a very poor machine, and the air was rough. I have told you accidents usually occur if you lose headway near the ground, either on the first turn in ascending, or the last turn in descending. The predicament we were in Monday was a perfect setting for such trouble. In climbing from the field with a motor which was not working too well, we could not get enough altitude, and had to take the first turn when only seventy-five feet in the air. Mr. Pond, my instructor, was watchful, as he always is, and grasped the situation and took the controls from me, and dropped into the field with the wind, something that is never done except in emergencies. We landed all right, but be refused to go up again until the machine was fixed. I worked on it for more than two hours-changed the propeller and some other minor things-and then called Mr. Pond. He then tried it alone, but found it unsatisfactory, and condemned it, This put me to work for the day. It meant that the entire motor bad to be removed from the fuselage, and another set in. Allen Wardle and I tackled the job, and we have since been working and sweating steadily-Monday night until eight o'clock, and last night until nine. This morning, we tried her out, and found her satisfactory. She will turn over thirteen hundred and twenty-five revolutions a minute- twenty-five more than the mark. This, of course, is on the ground. In the air, she will turn over about one hundred better.
Mr. Pond is a very conservative instructor. He has a method of teaching which is different from the others, and I am becoming convinced that he is right, although at first, I envied some of the other boys their more daring teachers. The common way of instructing is to give four or five lessons in air work, right and left turns, and straight flying; then start immediately upon landings, and having accomplished this, turn you loose. In this course, you seem to be making very rapid progress. Mr. Pond, on the other hand, gives you twenty-five or thirty lessons in air work. He claims that landings then come naturally to you. You are judged in your progress, however, by the other students, according to the number of lessons you have had in landings, and when you say you have had none, they think you are not getting ahead. I felt this way until I had a long talk with Mr. Pond, and have reasoned out the matter. Up to now, I have had twenty-two lessons in the air on right and left turns, and in gliding. He says that my work has been good, and that he would start me on landings this morning. If I catch on all right, I have great hopes of doing solo work by the end of next week if we have good weather. I am looking forward to it with delight.
5 August 1917; Chanute Field; Rantoul, Illinois
I have come to the conclusion that making a landing is the trick of flying. Last week, I would willingly have taken up a machine alone, with the expectation of having a pleasant trip and an easy finish, but this week, I would not touch one. My first lessons in landing, I am frank to say, scared me considerably. My instructions were to sit back with my hands off the control and watch every move. Next, I was to handle the controls myself. I rose from the ground, circled the field, and endeavored to drop in from the same side from which I left, so as to be continually against the wind. The sensation of having the ground rushing by you, as well as rapidly approaching you, tends to make you somewhat dizzy at first. I brought her down within about fifty feet of the ground, and then gave up. Mr. Pond landed her that time. Then I made another attempt. This time, it was not a good landing, but I felt a little more at ease. It becomes more and more natural, and at last a mere incident of the flying. The trick lies in attempting to judge your altitude and the length of the glide in order to land at a certain spot. I am catching on and if good weather continues, have great hopes of soloing by the end of next week. It remains for me to judge my distances better and perfect the touch on the earth. My landings, as yet, are rather erratic.
11 August 1917; Chanute Field; Rantoul, Illinois
At last I am a regular aviator. I realized it with surprise and some nervousness.
William the Day He Soloed
Wednesday, I was placed in the back seat and told to continue my instruction in making landings. Every one I made was poor. The slump stayed with me until Friday. I "pan-caked" as they call it, every time. At a height of about two hundred feet, you throttle down your motor. This tips the front part of the machine down, and causes you to glide. Once in a gliding position, it is necessary to hold the front end up, or she will dive too rapidly. You continue your glide earthward until you get within about thirty feet of the ground, when you steepen your glide in order to obtain more speed. This is the difficult part of landing, because you become nervous, and the natural tendency is to level off too high from the ground. The steep glide should be held until you are very close to ground-then you level out and bold her in the air as long as possible until she settles to the earth. In the few days while I was in my slump, on getting near to the ground would get nervous and level off about ten feet from earth, and then, when I lost 'speed, I would drop to ground with a bump. Friday, I broke the wing-skid blew the right tire in a careless landing. I pan-caked and was lifted back into the air from the heavy bump. The wind got under my left wing, and threw me over on right side, and broke the tire and skid. It was not very serious, but caused half an hour's delay, and deprived of that much practice. Yesterday, however, I was determined to make good. I beaded the list, and got benefit of the still early morning air. My first landing poor, and my instructor had to help me with it. The next three, however, were beauties. I did them all alone, I set the machine on the ground like a basket of eggs. Without another word said, Mr. Pond stepped out of the front seat, lifted the tail around so as to point the nose of machine to the wind, and said, "Go ahead, Russel, let's you take her up alone." Never before had I missed company so much, but my chance had come at last, so I gave her all the throttle, and started. Taking her off the ground was simple enough, and the air work was even more so, and I felt no worry except for the lack of companionship.
One Year To-the-Day Before His Death
At first, it seemed awful to be alone in the wide, wide sky. I thought of the Ancient Mariner, which I used to hate so in the Detroit University School because I had to study it: "So lonesome 'twas that God Himself scarce seemed there to be." When I approached the spot where I had to start my glide for the ground, the nervousness returned. Before, when I was in this situation, I would merely throw up my hands, and Mr. Pond would bring her down; but here I was, about three hundred feet high, and no way to bring her down except to do it myself. My involuntary prayer was, "Why did you let Mr. Pond lie to me, Oh Lord, and tell me I could do it?" I reached the point I thought was right, cut off the motor, clinched my hands on the wheel, and started for the ground at about fifty miles an hour. The next thing I remember, I was rolling along the ground, and bad made the best landing possible. Mr. Pond came up and said, "Very good. Try it again." This time it was more simple, and there was less nervousness in the atmosphere, and I finished with equal success; then I tried it two or three times more, and found that I was getting some confidence in myself. A little more experience, and less self-doubt (it seems that I never thought enough of myself), and I will be all right. After the first solo flight, I felt as if I had some right to wear an aviator's uniform.
Friday night was an interesting evening in camp. The instruction in night flying began. The more advanced students, under the pupilage of Lieutenants Laffiy, Prevot, and Captain Brown, made the flights. It was a weird and astonishing exhibition, and surely tries the nerves. On one of the hangars five strong searchlights were placed; four gleaming out into the field, and one directly into the zenith. The aeroplane was brought out into the light, started, and was out of sight in a second. Then we could only hear the roar of the motor. Away from the shafts of light you could not see the machine, even close to the ground. We could bear it circle about the field a couple of times, and then it passed through the light like a flash and disappeared. The next minute, the motor had been cut down, and everybody waited breathlessly for the landing. In a second, the machine passed into the light, coming at a tremendous speed. Some three hundred feet beyond it touched the ground with a beautiful tail-high landing, a thing which is usually discouraged. Lieutenant Laffiy told me afterwards that he dropped fifteen hundred feet in a short distance into the field, and this accounted for his terrific speed. It is hard to explain it to you, but it was really the most thrilling flight I have ever watched. Probably it was so interesting to me because the task of landing in the day time is still so difficult for me. There were two other flights that evening.
17 August 1917; Chanute Field; Rantoul, Illinois
Work now is about the same as before, with a little change in the hours. At present I report at 4:30 A. M., and work through until twelve o'clock. The next day I begin at twelve o'clock noon, and work through until the machine is ready for the next day's flying. I have to keep a record of each man's flight, and to see that the machines are in good running condition while I am on duty. Of course, I have time out for my flight, one-half hour each day, and for my classes. The end of the week will, no doubt, bring the last stage of my training (elementary), and then I will take the tests to qualify as a Reserve Military Aviator . . . Having passed these tests, my first training will be over, and I am recommended for a commission. I would like then to be transferred to Mt. Clemens, because there one is assigned to active duty again. On completion of these tests, the future work is problematical. It may be instructing, or being instructed in the use of the machine gun, bombing and other military aeronautic tactics.
28 August 1917; Chanute Field; Rantoul, Illinois
My. own flying has advanced satisfactorily, and I am beginning at last to believe more in myself. On Friday and Monday, conditions for flying were very bad, and after a few flights, flying was called off. I went up both days, and cruised about with a forty mile wind blowing. By exercising watchful care, the rise, the flight in the air, and the landing were all satisfactory. I was rather surprised that there was not more bother, and this experience, more than anything else so far, has given me confidence. They were not the usual pleasant flights, as there was a fight every minute to keep stable, first a bump on one side, then on the other, then a drop, and in a fraction of a second you would go shooting directly up. All the time you had to watch yourself; going with the wind, the speed would be about one hundred miles an hour, and against it, not much more than twenty. It seems to me that I learned more in those two half-hour storm flights than in all the rest of my time. A minute's practice in the exercise of quick judgment and the correction of errors caused by nasty weather counts more than hours of smooth sailing.
3 September 1917; Chanute Field; Rantoul, Illinois
My work has been fascinating with only occasional draw backs. Until we came to Rantoul, little was accomplished, but since then, progress has been so fast that I can hardly realize all my preliminary training is over, and now it is only to wait until my commission arrives and I am assigned to active duty. Today, the last of my R. M. A. tests was successfully completed. This makes me a Reserve Military Aviator. The final tests are extended during three days. First, we were required to climb to an altitude of four thousand feet and remain there forty-five minutes. On the descent, we had to make one spiral to the right and one to the left with the motor shut down. The drop into the field was made with a dead engine from a height of one thousand feet, and the landing within two hundred feet of a designated mark. This is not the most dangerous, but by far the hardest to do accurately. The next was a triangular cross - country flight, covering a distance of sixty miles without a stop. Then, there were three tests, consisting of climbing to an altitude of five hundred feet without going out of the boundaries of a tract two thousand feet square. This is the most dangerous, because one is apt to get into a tail spin on the turns, which is very perilous if you are near the ground. Next, on landing, we had to jump a hurdle fifteen feet high, and land on the other side, coming to a stop within fifteen hundred feet of the hurdle; and last of all, a hundred mile cross-country flight without a stop. I am informed now that I am entitled to a commission, but it may be some time before it comes. It seems to take longer in the aviation than in the other branches of the service.
11 September 1917;Telegram from Champaign, Illinois
Word received from Washington this evening, ordering us to report immediately to Camp Kelly, San Antonio, for advanced training on speed scout machines. Will wire you further information and address.
[William's manuscript surprisingly contains nothing about his advanced training at Camp Kelly. Perhaps his letters from that period were lost by the family.]
5 October 1917; Telegram from New York, NY
Honorable discharged as Sergeant today. First Lieutenant's commission dated September 20, 1917. Probably sail [for France] Tuesday.
12 Nov 1917: Villa Coubley, France
I am having fine times flying all by myself. The very first day, Lieutenant Chatain gave me fifteen minutes' instruction with the stick control-the first time I had ever used it-and as I seemed to get the knack of it he told me to go ahead, that I was all right. It was one of the well-known Nieuport machines, and the best way I can explain the difference between our machines and it, is to compare our original curved dash Oldsmobile with a Packard twin-six. The Nieuport has a powerful motor and a light fuselage, and will pull you anywhere at any angle. It avoids a lot of the danger which was so common in the Curtis. Outside of the quick response to the controls, the great difference is in the terrific speed at which you take off the ground and make your landing.
Lt. Russel in France
One objectionable feature of the flying at this season is the intense cold. You cannot imagine how bitter it is. I put on a couple of knitted masks, then Allen's leather fur-lined helmet and my goggles. Even then, the part of my face which is exposed stiffens and prevents me from moving my mouth. My hands also become numb with the cold. I usually go up for twenty minutes at a time, and then hug a stove for a while before trying it again.
[For the next three months, William served as a transportation officer delivering supplies and equipment from ports to AEF bases. He was only able to practice his flying two afternoons each week and on Sundays.]
25 January 1918 With AEF in France
[Practice flying] is not so essential as before, because my instruction is practically at an end. I have not, however, yet had the training in aerial gunnery, but this is only a matter of a three weeks' course, and I am expecting orders any day to report at that school.
All the acrobatics and squadron flying, really the two most difficult phases of aerial work, are completed. The acrobatics consist of three stunts which sound impossible in description, and which would draw a thousand dollars a flight in exhibition at a side show, but in these machines (Spads) are not so much. All of these movements in five seconds. It seems most complicated, but it is necessary for you to learn it in forty-five minutes.
The first is a vertical spiral with the motor cut off and a continual bank of 90 degrees. It is very difficult to keep your spirals even and to keep your machine in a vertical position.
The second is the side-slip, and is most valuable in fighting, as it is the quickest way to get away from the enemy if he gains the superior position on you. In this, you place your machine in a vertical bank and allow her to fall vertically towards the ground off on one side. In this way, you can lose about three thousand feet in less than one minute. It is much faster than the vertical nose dive.
The third, which is really beautiful, and looks very difficult, but is not, is what the French call the renversement. This is also very valuable in fighting, as it is the quickest way to turn when being pursued by the enemy. While flying along level, you suddenly pull the nose up into the air, let her slip to one side over on her back, then nose her to the ground and come out going in the opposite direction. You practice the movement on the ground for some time before you go up, and then you try it. Many get into the vrille, or tail spin, the first few times until they finally get it. It is very pretty to watch, and the sensations at first are quite unpleasant; later you do not mind it at all. The remarkable part is that no altitude is lost in the entire operation.
10 February 1918; With AEF in France
Spad XIII of the 95th Aero Squadron
Let me tell you what I have been doing since my arrival, and I think you will realize that a good deal has been accomplished. We were sent at once to an advanced training school, where we practically had to learn flying all over. In the States, we flew what is called the "Dep" control with a wheel. Here we fly a stick control-a lever instead of a wheel. You are started on a large aeroplane with a low-powered motor, and as you improve, the machines become smaller and the motors very high-powered. When you reach the stage of instruction where you have mastered the Nieuport 15 with 120 H. P. motor, you are ready for your acrobatics or stunt flying. Three stunts among others, which are used to great advantage in fighting, must be mastered perfectly before going further. [Described above.] After completing these acrobatics, which is ordinarily done in three days' time, you are placed on a regular fighting machine, either a Spad 180H.P. motor or a 15 meter Nieuport. With this, you practice what you have learned so far, and then are instructed in squadron flying, such as "V" formations, rectangular formations and the like. The days of individual fighting have just about passed away. You and your squadron now fight the German with his squadron. After you have finished your squadron formation flying, the next step is training in aerial gunnery, a course of two or three weeks' duration. It is at this point that I am now, but by the time you receive this letter, I hope to have seen some active service.
27 March 1918; Issoudon Training Center
. . . I have to report my first accident -- nothing serious, however. I was working with Quentin Roosevelt [a son of Theodore Roosevelt]. There was a very high wind, and I was rolled over on my back on the ground wrecking the machine badly. I did not even have so much as a bruise: was merely pushed out in the mud and soiled my clothes. Quentin Roosevelt is now in charge of us. He is an awfully nice fellow and a beautiful flyer.
1 April 1918; Issoudon Training Center
In my letter of some time ago, I described the acrobatics which are compulsory for each chasse pilot to take. Our machines have been strengthened to stand the extra strain. All of the sensations are pleasant except the side-slip, where you fall off to one side perpendicularly. This is the worst I have yet encountered, and you may be sure that one does it only when he is ordered to. You are actually torn away from your seat, and your life belt is all that holds you in the machine. At the same time, your stomach rests in your mouth. You can probably understand why the rain is such a friend in need after you have worked for a week endeavoring to perfect such stunts. After satisfying certain French monitors that these maneuvers have been mastered, we were assigned to another field to perfect our squadron flying. This is most interesting work, but a little tedious, as you have to do almost too much flying. You stand formation as usual at seven o'clock, and then have to go on four different flights of two hours each before sunset. This flying all takes place above an altitude of sixteen thousand feet. You fly generally in a formation of five machines, with only a small space between them. The formations are all of different types. The most common is the inverted V, like a flock of wild geese. You fly all over France, seldom covering the same ground twice. If your motor cuts out, you land at the most convenient place practicable. You are often left a long time in such a position, as it takes two men to start one of these high powered machines. The little machines, though, are fascinating, and you soon commence to baby the one assigned to you like a pet dog.
8 April 1918; Issoudon Training Center
I left at [7 a.m. recently] to partake in a cross-country flight. On reaching the River Cher, we took our course in a northwesterly direction along the river. In the worst of all imaginable places, my motor stopped dead. I had good altitude, so it gave me time to choose my field. I felt trouble long before it came, but headed down right into what looked to be a field surrounded by a hedge. On coming closer and closer, my heart sank. My field, although the ground was good, was terribly small, and what I took to be a hedge was high poplar trees. It was too late to change, so I determined to just clear the trees on one side in order not to roll into those on the other side. My plan was good, but the piloting poor, and in trying to clear the trees, one wing, the right upper, struck a branch of the tree next, tearing off the wing. With this supporting surface removed, my right side headed ground ward, but acting so quickly I over controlled, throwing the machine into a wing-slip on the other side, and crashed to the ground. For a minute or two, I did not move, the belt only holding me in, as the machine was balanced on her nose. Then I realized I was not hurt, unclipped the belt and fell to the ground. By this time, a few of the French neighbors had congregated, and I had a difficult time explaining that I was not hurt. It was really very fortunate that I was not, but truly, I did not have a scratch. If it had not been for a stiff back, I would not have known that I fell.
10 April 1918; Issoudon Training Center
Our time has been spent in reading and shooting. Every day, we shoot fifty rounds at clay pigeons with shot guns, thirty rounds at a target with a machine gun, and twenty-five rounds with an automatic. This routine is broken only by meals and a sojourn to the Y. M. C. A. at 5:30 for a cup of hot chocolate and three hard biscuits.
15 April 1918; Issoudon Training Center
Issoudon Training Center
The weather has been terrible, and my surroundings are far from pleasant, which made conditions even worse. Our only purpose in being here, however, is well attended to, and we are flying every minute possible, between storms and during showers. It has been tedious work. Some of our flights continue as long as eight hours a day with only a short break for luncheon. The other day, when I was making my altitude test in the 15-120s in which I flew at an altitude of twenty-one thousand feet, I froze two of the fingers on my left hand. The least touch of cold affects them. The doctor told me there is nothing to do except to soak them in warm water and massage frequently.
With my left hand, I work the small gas and air manettes which I cannot adjust with a glove or mitten on. I can keep my right hand well covered and warm. It was necessary to remain at this altitude for fifteen minutes, and when I descended, I was absolutely lost, so I dropped into the first town which I passed over, and learned from the people who immediately rushed up that I was one hundred and twenty kilometers from my proper destination. My gasoline was very low, and I knew it would be impossible to reach the field, so I decided to make a dive for the home grounds and get as near as possible. The crowd of people who had gathered about gave me general directions, and I started; but very soon the expected spitting began, and the motor stopped. A small town was directly opposite so I spiraled down into a nearby field and again asked where I was. This proved to be a small town, only twenty-six kilometers away, a matter of only a few minutes but where was gasoline to be obtained? I wandered into the village, which, by the way, was the town where Jean d'Arc met Charles VII. Here I ran across an American military policeman, who told me that there was a camp two miles away. I telephoned, and they gave me fifty liters of gasoline. I filled the machine and endeavored to start, but unfortunately, truck gasoline will not drive an aeroplane. As it was getting dark, I bad a guard posted over the machine, and spent the night in the town. In the early morning, I was awakened by the femme de chambre who asked me if I was the aviator for whom a motor was waiting. The mechanics had arrived with good essence. We drained out the poor gas, filled the machine, turned her over, and away I went, reaching the field 0. K. at eleven o'clock a.m. and reported to Quentin Roosevelt. I had been gone since seven o'clock of the morning before, and this time Quentin said be was glad to see me as well as the machine safely back.
The last few days have been spent in lectures during the rain, and actual work-out the minute it ceased. Most of the acrobatics are good fun, and exceedingly pretty to watch from the ground.
Thursday, I expect to make another move, which, although not very far away, is enough south so that the weather will be more enjoyable. There, we will have a complete course in aerial combat work. One machine is sent out to patrol a certain section, and later another machine is sent up to attack it. You have all the thrills of actual warfare with its quick maneuvers, only gun cameras replace the machine gun. Then, too, you take up toy balloons, throw them over and dive at them, shooting with the real thing. You also dive and fire at a kite, which is towed at a good length behind another machine. This camp is purely for practice in aerial gunnery.
1 May 1918; Arachon, France
We have to report on the field in flying clothes at seven-thirty, and keep practicing and flying until eleven-thirty, when there is nearly a three-hour stop for lunch in accordance with the good old French custom. You understand that this is the finishing school for chasse pilots. At two-thirty, we report at the field again, and flying continues until eight o'clock. The rest of the time is free. At Issoudun, when it rained, we rested. Here, when the weather is inclement, we attend lectures on machine guns, deflections, jams of guns, etc. I forgot, however, to mention that we only fly until noon on Sunday, giving us a rest of a whole half day a week. The course itself is very practical. It is purely shooting, first on the ground, and then in the air at various kinds of targets, still and moving, then at still targets when you move, and finally at moving targets while moving yourself.
95th Aero Squadron
8 May 1918; Arachon, FranceMy very pleasant stay here is just about concluded, and I have nearly finished the course. This completes my instruction as a chasse pilot. All that remains now is to wait for orders, and orders, we understand, will come when machines are forthcoming. What type of a machine, or when we will get them, or where we will go, there is no telling, but don't worry-there is no need of anxiety for some time yet . . . I am ready and hope to get flying there. Aeroplanes, however, are still lacking. For the interim, I have had an opportunity to take three jobs, none of which appeals to me. One is apt to be left permanently with it, especially if he makes good. I can be a monitor instructor, tester, or take charge of the acrobatic field. The last is by far the most preferable; but, as I say, if I should take it, I might be tied down indefinitely. I think I can arrange so as to wait until a squadron of Americans is formed, or until I can be detailed with a French or English squadron.
[Lt. Russel was finally assigned to the 95th Aero Squadron after temporary duty at Orly Field near Paris on the waiting list for an opening. He would replace his friend from Issoudon, Quentin Roosevelt who was killed in action on July 14th. William sadly, would soon share his fate. ]
From the History of the Air Service, 95th Aero Squadron
"On August 11 the squadron had 11 more combats, as a result of which Lieut. William M. Russel was killed, and the pilots thought they burned a balloon, but never received official confirmation for it. It was in the combat that Lieut. Russel was killed, the patrol was followed by a formation of E.A. [Enemy Aircraft] and suddenly Lieut. Russel turned and fought this formation of E.A., with fatal results to himself."
Grave in Courville
Near the crash site just south of Fismes, the citizens of Courville, France buried Lt. Russel in their village cemetery. After the war, when William's body was returned to the United States for burial, his family out of appreciation provided full-water service for Courville and built a memorial to their lost son in the town. Both the memorial and original grave site are maintained to this day. Click here to see Monument.
William's college, Cornell University, also honored him and its other graduates who fell in the Great War at a magnificent War Memorial. Below is a rubbbing of his name and class which is engraved on the inside wall of the monument.
The text and photos for this article were selected from A HAPPY WARRIOR: LETTERS OF WILLIAM MUIR RUSSEL, AN AMERICAN AVIATOR IN THE GREAT WAR, 1917-1918. It was published as a family memorial in Detroit, Michigan in 1919. The Cornell University Alumni Affairs Office and Mr. Noel Shirley of the League of World War I Aviations Historians also provided helpful information. Twenty-four members of John Wheat's family served in the Great War. William was the only fatality. In the future John will be providing information on the war service of his other family members.
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