Reported in Scientific American, This Week in World War I: January 9, 1915

In this issue of Scientific American from 1915, we published the last installment of a three-part account: “War Experiences of an Air Scout: A Battle in the Clouds,” by Frederick C. Hild, an “American volunteer with the French Aviation Corps.”

Hild joined the French air forces in September 1914, but within a few months he was back in the United States and wrote this short series for Scientific American. Apparently he deserted, according to the late Philip M. Flammer, professor of history at the University of Utah, in his 1981 book, The Vivid Air: The Lafayette Escadrille. The French were apparently unwilling to chase him as it would have been bad for both morale and public relations. This desertion casts some doubt on the veracity of Hild's articles, yet except for the very last part of this trilogy in Scientific American, where he tries to explain why he is no longer with the French air services, his writing does have the ring of truth.

An American pilot with the French air forces versus his German opponent, in an overly dramatic tableau from the early weeks of the First World War. Image: Scientific American, January 2, 1915

For instance, after another mission where he flew at 4,000 feet (rather than 7,000 feet), he says:

“The fact that I was not brought down by the enemy's guns was a wonder, since terrific rifle and machine gun fire must have been directed against my apparatus. Examination of the wings and body showed where they had been penetrated by six bullets.”

During his next (and I believe last) mission, he seems to run into some real trouble (depending on how much he embellished his story). On the way home, they see a German Etrich Taube aircraft:

“Stimulated with our previous success, I decided to give chase, though both the observer and I were armed merely with a revolver apiece provided for just such an emergency. My apparatus, being capable of making 90 miles an hour, soon caught up with the German machine, who upon seeing us had headed for a bank of clouds, and my observer was just getting ready to fire, when suddenly there appeared from the bank of clouds another German machine of the biplane type, which immediately opened fire upon my apparatus with what looked to me like a machine gun. Of course, no sound could be heard above the roar of my motor. Being unprepared for such an attack, immediate action was necessary. The German armored [I think he meant “armed” here--Ed] machine was now nearly over our apparatus, while the Taube had since turned about and was coming straight for us. Our position was most dangerous and for a second it looked as though we would soon be dashing headlong into space. I then did the only thing possible; pushing my elevating lever forward my apparatus dived head first so steeply that it nearly turned upside down, and in a moment I was a thousand feet away, quite low, but, fortunately for both of us, we were well behind the German lines and over country where there were few or no German soldiers to be seen; otherwise we should have been facing further difficulties to hamper our escape.”

On reaching the safety of their airfield:

“Further flying that day was out of the question for either of us ; in fact I was all in, and it was really a wonder that I was able to return safely after our mad plunge for life.”

Here the story takes its odd turn. Hild states that because of a “shortage of machines” his plane was given to a pilot with a higher rank. He says that his commanding officer “Told me confidently that it would be many weeks and months before there would be an abundance of machines to go around.” He claims to have been “greatly discouraged,” and his reaction was “I requested of him my discharge,” giving as one reason, that “through my inability to speak the French language, I would be of little or no service to the French government.” He says the Minister of War “wired Capt. Duperron my honorable discharge.” Yet even without considering the Flammer information about the desertion, given the severe shortage of manpower in France it seems most unlikely the military authorities would have been willing to relieve Hild of the burden of cooling his heels for a couple of months. Perhaps the experience of being shot at in earnest convinced Hild that aerial combat in the service of France was altogether a different proposition than messing about in planes.

Hild returned (somehow) to the U.S. and wrote these three articles for Scientific American (he may have been acquainted with Stanley Y. Beach, the aviation editor and son of the editor-in-chief). Hild appears in 1915 as a test pilot for the Eastern School of Aviation in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, NY. But other than a U.K. patent from 1936 for a floor-cleaning machine that lists him living in Chicago, I have been able to uncover almost nothing about him in the record, military or civilian. Hild died in Miami in 1963.

You can read Part I of this trilogy from December 26, 1914, here:

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

Part II of this trilogy, from January 2, 1915 is at:

An American Pilot at War, Part II: January 2, 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