[Received December 27, 1917]


No. 56 Training Squadron,

Royal Flying Corps.

London Colney Aerodrome

December 10, 1917

Dear Mother:

I thought that you all had gotten about fed up on my letters from Northolt so I flew over here to give you a change of stationery. There is another reason for the change but it is a minor one, viz.

I took a joy ride this afternoon and got lost in the fog. I was on my way home and saw another nice aerodrome. In so much as I only thought I was on my way home, and as I knew I did not know where I was I decided to land down there where the other machines and hangars were.

So I turned about and went down. A couple of mechanics came out, and I got out and asked the first officer I met where I was. It turned out to be here, 12 miles north by east of Northolt. I asked for a map which he produced and we picked out some ponds and other land marks for me to go back by. When we looked up from the map he said it is too foggy to see the first pond so you had better stay here until morning.

I finished all my elementary training this morning and got out a bus that had not been out of the hangar since I came here. It was 70 H. P. instead of 80 as most of them are, so I decided no one else would want it, and I could stay up all afternoon. To my great delight it had a compass aboard. I checked up the way she was indicating when I was on the ground and watched its actions as I flew about the country in the neighborhood of Northolt. These 70 H. P. buses do not climb very easily and I also tried to keep her going up. I tried to judge my drift sideways over the land, due to the wind, in the various directions of my flight and thought I had all of the effects down pat. So I went away to windward and climbed up to 2000 feet. I figured that going to windward was the safest because then when I turned, or if I had to glide the wind would take me towards home. I passed over some towns that I had not explored before and decided that I had better put about and try to locate home. I went around and saw what little I could discern was very strange. I did a little mental reckoning, changed my course and tried again to recognize something. But nothing doing. From the position of the faintly noticeable high areas of land I thought I was north of Northolt but according to my course as judged from the guessed wind and the previous compass bearings. I should have been East. Incidentally the light was failing as the sun (which could not be seen at all for mist) got low and the mist thickened. So I decided I had better turn back to that aerodrome I had seen a few minutes before. I turned and looked but could not see it. Then I thought I saw something that might be it and in a moment there, in a nearby locality to my first assumption, was the big field with “hangarish” looking buildings on its edge. I went down and nearer and there sure enough were aeroplanes on the field so I went on down and landed.

The details of the bloody scenery about here are so small and complicated. There are no valleys, no large hills, no main railroads, and no rivers. Instead there are little fields, hedges, clumps of woods, little ponds, an amazing network of wiggly little streams that wander about in every direction, and railroads galore also in every old direction. What got me off my track was the fact that at my 2000 foot elevation the wind had changed from W by N to SW and increased a great deal in velocity. As I was climbing up I figured that the wind direction was changing from W around towards N and kept bearing over to the N. Also I was practicing turning in both directions all the while and did not know accurately enough what my true average course was. Then when I made the complete turn to go back I put too much attention on the making of the turn and did not take sufficient notice of the movement below. I made the turn to the N around to east and while doing it the wind drifted me over to the north of Northolt. That is where I thought I was, judging from my notion of the landscape, but judging from my notion of the wind and my general previous course, I thought I was west.

Well, to go back to the landing. As I think of it now it seems strange that I was not thrilled at the act of completing my first cross country flight—namely landing in strange territory. I was not a bit worried about what kind of ground it might be or any thing else. I think I was much too blasé and confident. Perhaps it was due to the joy of casting off that old last worry. The theme of my thoughts, above the details of the judging and manipulations of making the landing, as I came down to land was that I have a nice place here to put in at and I am lucky. I was so confident that I did not land out in the middle of the field but pulled up so close to the hangars and the other machines that I fear I “put the wind up” some of the spectators. Some of the mechanics that came out to me were Americans. I don’t know how they judged my nationality as I was dressed in a fur lined union suit and a big crash helmet but they got me right away.

The bum part of the trip came when I had to go up to an officer and ask him where I was. I reported first at the headquarters of the 74th squadron. They did not have room for my bus so I taxied across the field to the 56th squadron where I got accommodations and am now.

So I have made my first across country flight. It was great sport. The next time I go away I am going to take a cap and a coat along so that I will have something to wear when I take off the flying clothes.

If you have gotten my last three letters at close intervals you will probably be surprised at the short and easy trick that learning to fly is. It is really much simpler than most folks realize. In fact the good machines nowadays fly themselves, you can let all the controls go for ten minutes at a time. With a rumpty however you have to keep pulling her about in all three directions continually. Flying is a great deal like swimming. All you need to do a little of it is to forget that it is unnatural or dangerous to be in the water. Then you can dog paddle and after a good deal of practice and training you can swim. I am just dog paddling in the air.

This 56th squadron is a scout training squadron. The men here are learning to handle Spads and Dolphins. It is very interesting to listen to their pow-wows about the stove here in the lounge room. They make me think there really is a lot to flying after all. The things they do in the air and the problems of how it was done are very mystifying.

I am in a room with an American lst Lieut. Gaines. He is a fine chap and is taking good care of me, such as clothes and the necessaries.

It is now after dinner Sunday. It has been raining all morning. Gaines took me around the hangars after breakfast and showed me all the machines. I called up Lieut. Holland. He said he was coming over for me if weather permitted tomorrow morning. I told him not to bother as I could get back nicely and he said he wasn’t coming to show me back but was just using my being here as an excuse for his trip over.

I wish the mail would get a hump on as I have not received a letter for ages.

I have no idea where I will be posted to or what kind of machines. Holland advises Bristol Fighters. They are very good two seaters, strong and you can do as much with one as you can with a scout. They are not so fast, but (as he pointed out) your observer sitting behind you can see and use his machine gun over your tail which is a fine advantage. However I think that past way of living has made me especially fitted to paddle about by myself. I am as happy up alone as I am with a mate, and then I think I can get a much better chance to practice aerial gunnery at a scout squadron than I can at a Bristol Fighter squadron. And then in the end if they put us in a purely American squadron in France we will fly whatever buses are given to us. So I think I will bid for S.E.5s. They are fine little scouts with a Hispano-Suisa (Spanish) engine in them. They say you cannot throw them about as much as the Sopwith Camels or Dolphins which have rotary engines, but they are very reliable and perform well at high altitudes.



Parr’s bus on his cross country trip was the Maurice Farman S. 11 Shorthorn A4066.

Spad could refer to any of a number of planes built by the French Société pour L’Aviation et ses Dérivés (and Parr later sometimes refers to the plane as a S.P.A.D., although I have normalized this to Spad). In this instance, Parr was probably hearing about either the Spad S. VII or the Spad S. XIII, single-seater fighter biplanes. The Spad S. VII was developed in 1916 to take advantage of the powerful Hispano-Suiza 8A engine; by early 1917 it was used in large numbers at the front. It was fast (eventually 129 mph), strong, and able to climb fast (to 13,120 feet in 19.5 minutes), with a ceiling of 18,000 feet, and to dive safely at up to 249 mph; a significant disadvantage was its being equipped with only one machine gun (a Vickers) at a time when German fighters typically had two. It was used mainly for training once its more powerful successor, the Spad S. XIII, was operational in late spring 1917. The S. XIII retained the VII’s excellent climbing and diving attributes, could fly at 135 mph with a ceiling of 21,000 feet and was equipped with two Vickers machine guns.175

Parr also mentions the Sopwith 5F.1 Dolphin from the British Sopwith Aviation Company. This was another single-seater fighter biplane designed around a Hispano-Suiza engine; it could carry four machine guns. Developed over the course of 1917, it came into use on the Western Front in early 1918 where, because it performed well at high altitudes, it was particularly useful against German reconnaissance aircraft, which by then were able to operate at above 20,000 feet. Its lower wings were set forward of the upper, giving it a distinctive profile. No. 56 Squadron was involved in operational trials of this plane.176

The helpful lieutenant was probably Albert Belding Gaines, Jr. Nearly a decade older than Parr, Gaines had graduated from Princeton in 1905 with a degree in civil engineering.177 His interest in flying apparently prompted him to take lessons and qualify for a pilot’s license as early as 1913; in 1916–17 he was a member of the Governors Island (New York) Training Corps, a flying school established by civilians to promote the development of military aviation.178 He became a lieutenant in the Aviation Section, Signal Officers Reserve Corps, and in August of 1917 he, along with 29 cadets, was at Fort Wood preparing to leave for France, where the cadets were to be trained to fly.179 By October he was in England. His Royal Aero Club Aviator’s Certificate is dated October 18, 1917, and indicates that he gained it flying a Maurice Farman biplane in Ruislip; he apparently then went to London Colney.180 There is a description in War Birds of an encounter at London Colney with an American Lieutenant Gaines; he is described as looking out for the trainees to make sure they did not go up in machines they were not yet ready for (entry for January 1, 1918).

As Parr says, the Bristol F.2 Fighter, another biplane, was a two-seater that served well not only for reconnaissance but also in combat, even against enemy single seater fighter aircraft. It was developed in 1916 around the Rolls Royce Falcon engine and was equipped with a pilot’s fixed forward firing Vickers machine gun synchronized to shoot through the propeller and a flexible Lewis gun operated by the observer seated behind the pilot. After a rough start on the front in the spring of 1917, it soon became widely and effectively used.181

The Sopwith Camel, perhaps the best-remembered airplane of World War I, was developed and introduced more or less in parallel with the S.E.5, and the two planes helped account for the Allies regaining and keeping air superiority on the Western Front after “Bloody April” 1917. A single-seater fighter biplane, the Camel had twin forward-firing Vickers machine guns synchronized to shoot through the propeller. The torque of its rotary engine meant it was slow to pull in one direction, exceedingly quick in the other, characteristics that could be exploited to advantage by an experienced pilot, but that were dangerous for the novice.182Dolphin” here is probably a slip of Parr’s pen for “Pup.” The Dolphin, as noted above, had a Hispano Suiza (inline) engine, while the Pup (which Parr mentions in his next letter) was, like its successor, the Camel, outfitted with a rotary engine.