Reported in Scientific American, This Week in World War I: January 2, 1915

In this issue of Scientific American from 1915, we published the second installment of a three-part first-hand account: “War Experiences of an Air Scout: Patrol of the Sky” by Frederick C. Hild, “American volunteer with the French Aviation Corps.”

We were introduced to this callow young man in the first installment of his three-part series in the previous week’s issue, December 26, 1914, where he says he joined just to fly, and “It mattered little to me which of the warring nations I would join.” His lack of commitment apparently led him to run away after a couple of months. (The evidence that he deserted is presented by the late Philip M. Flammer, professor of history at the University of Utah, in his 1981 book, The Vivid Air: The Lafayette Escadrille.)

Hild, while he was on active duty with the French air services, soon learned the ways of an old soldier:

An early aerial weapon: steel darts. Hild called them steel “pencils” or “arrows” and accurately stated “after a fall of say, 6,000 feet, they will penetrate almost anything.” However, they were not accurate when dropped from 6,000 feet and only rarely effective. The use of aerial darts as skyborne weapons has been revisited occasionally since 1914. Image: Scientific American, January 2, 1915

“The next morning a bugle aroused us at 6:30, and after a hasty toilet in a cold stream that runs close by I was ready for roll call. This roll call is held at 7 o'clock every morning, and as absence from this means four days in jail I always managed to be present. Saluting superior officers was another hardship, and after several ‘call-downs’ I was able finally to salute every officer I met as well as the two-year experienced and trained soldier. After roll call we went to breakfast. This consisted of a cup of black coffee and hard dry bread. How the French government expects us to fly on such fare is beyond me. I went to the home of some peasants in the vicinity, and for a few cents I obtained a large howl of hot chocolate, with bread and butter. This I did every morning.”

After some training Hild was sent with a flight of Morane Saulnier airplanes to an airfield closer to the front lines, near Arras. Hild expresses a desire to get into the fray, and soon he and an observer were sent to observe troop movements on the front lines:

“The next morning at six o'clock my observer, who was able to speak good English, and I were up and anxious to fulfill the work that lay before us. A heavy fog was a great disappointment to me and caused a delay in our start. It was at least ten o'clock before the captain would permit us to start away on our flight. Our course had been prearranged, and it was the duty of my observer to make notes of the movements of the enemy's troops. Several other apparatuses [airplanes] started away at the same time we did. Rising to a height of 2,250 meters (7,000 feet) I headed the machine toward Douai and thence toward Lens. The flight lasted a little longer than one hour, and proved to be intensely exciting. At times it was impossible to see the earth directly along the line of battle, owing to the terrific cannonading that was going on; the smoke was so dense that it seemed as though we were flying above the clouds.”

After Hild landed, four other machines took off for a bombing raid on the massed enemy troops. Hild’s report on his conversation with one of those pilots gives us a look at the serious nature of the shooting war going on—as well as Hild’s reaction to it:

“Of the four machines that started out on their murderous journey to the enemy’s lines, one did not return. He suffered the same fate that he and his passenger were dealing out to the Germans below. From one of the other three aviators who had accompanied the unfortunate, I learned that he was a young officer, and being very desirous of making a good showing, had, upon reaching the enemy’s line, descended to quite a low level, where he attempted to dispatch with better accuracy the bombs he was carrying. Terrific rifle and machine-gun fire was immediately directed upon his apparatus, which suddenly began to wobble and then plunged head first down to a horrible death. Both the pilot and passenger must have been instantly killed, and the horror of having seen his fellow pilot killed drove my informant nearly insane.”

Part I of this trilogy from December 26, 1914, where Hild joins the French air forces, is here:

An American Pilot at War, Part 1: December 26, 1914

Part III of this trilogy, from January 9, 1915, where he encounters serious aerial combat, is at:

An American Pilot at War, Part III: January 9, 1915

Our full archive of the war, called Scientific American Chronicles: World War I, has many articles from 1914–1918, including first-person narratives and articles on aviation. It is available for purchase at www.ScientificAmerican.com/wwi