So, you’re afraid of flying?

Fearless aviators of the First World War

Written by James Hawksley

In this day and age of health and safety, wrapped in red tape, hard hats and safety harnesses, we can sometimes shudder at even the thought of scaling ladder without it being bolted to a solid surface. Looking back through history, however, you realise that health and safety was an afterthought. In fact, it was rarely a thought at all. Perhaps we were tougher or maybe, as time has gone on, we’ve had to adapt to the dangers of progress. Air flight is one fine example of that.

As we take off in our comfortable passenger jet, seatbelts clipped firmly in place, we don’t think (or try not to think) about the thousands of feet of ‘plummet’ below us. We feel safe in our aluminium climate-regulated cocoon, sipping wine from the trolley, reading books and admiring the fluffy white clouds. Now, imagine someone asked you to step outside and climb onto the wing. Or perhaps to hang out the window, with only your legs inside the cabin. ‘What kind of crazy person would do that?’ you’d reply. Our flying ancestors, that’s who.

That brings us nicely round to our object of the week. An Royal Flying Corps coat.

An observer in action, wearing a flying coat similar to the National Leather Collection’s example.

WW1 saw aeroplanes being used for the first time in large numbers. In the UK, they were being flown by the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), which later became the Royal Air Force (RAF).

It is said that the average life expectancy of a pilot during WW1 was just three weeks. But why was it so short?

Choose any of the following: being shot, falling out of your aeroplane, being boiled to death or burned alive. Most aeroplanes were laid out in a mid-engine plan. Whilst we think of aeroplanes as having engines at the front or under the wings, in the planes of this era the engines were situated in the middle, with the propeller facing towards the back of the plane. This meant you could have a pilot and observer at the very front.

The observer was the lucky man who got to stand up in the front seat of the cockpit whilst 5-10,000ft+ in the air, turn round to face the rear of the plane, and mount a machine gun so he was able to fire at the enemy planes behind him. Meanwhile, the pilot was in a position to place another machine gun barrel facing forward, sometimes between the legs of the observer. The chances of falling out of the plane must have been pretty high, as the edge of the cock pit when standing up only came up to just above the knees. Some observers even sat on the edge of the cock pit mid-flight.

This gives us a clue as to who our very own flying coat belonged to. A majority of the wear and tear is between the bottom of the coat and the waist. This suggests that our coat belonged to an observer, and that the wear is likely from the coat rubbing against the side edge of the cockpit.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the observer had drawn short straw here when being buddied up with his pilot friend. But no. The pilot, who remained seated during the flight, ran the risk of being boiled to death or covered in hot oil.

There was little protection from gun fire on these planes. A small amount of armour near the base of the cockpit was all it had. Not exactly a reassurance when the plane’s radiator was located right behind the pilot, and the fuel tank beneath him. A single bullet could have quite easily punctured the radiator or engine, spraying the pilot with boiling water or oil. Carrying a pistol was a standard part of your flying experience. The plane, whilst having some mild protection for the fuel tank, also had a reserve tank under the wing, almost above the pilot’s head. If this was hit, the chances of you and/or the plane going up in flames was high. The pistol offered a quicker, more painless end.

If that wasn’t enough to deal with, air to air combat was virtually guess work. Having no canopy meant that the sound of enemy planes was carried away from you. All you would have been able to hear was the rush of wind noise and your own engine. Cloud cover obscured your vision, making it impossible to see.

Along with all the dangers, the lack of general comfort added to the whole experience. Pilots took to wearing silk scarves because they were constantly having to turn their heads on lookout, which meant that the collars rubbed their necks raw. It also became popular to cover your face with animal fats to protect the skin against extreme temperatures, unless you were lucky enough to find a leather mask with goggles. It was, even in the height of summer, exceptionally cold up there above the clouds.

 © National Leather Collection 2018

The National Leather Collection’s RFC Coat

 © National Leather Collection 2018

The National Leather Collection’s RFC Coat

You can’t help but wonder; did the pilot who wore our coat survive? Was he one of the lucky few?

The coat is quite well worn, even to the point that we cannot be 100% certain of its original colour. Flying coats tended to be either an orange-brown or a yellowy colour.

There was a quote from ‘The Clouds Remember: The Aeroplanes of World War I’ by Leonard Bridgman (1938). “There he sat, with Archie bursts all around him, an immense figure in a bright yellow leather coat.”

This ‘bright yellow’ isn’t the colour achieved through the tanning process, but the colour produced by the protective coating of fish or whale oils. Although the coat has now faded to a buff colour, there are traces of a red-brown colour hidden behind flaps and under buttons. The orange-coloured buttons also suggest that our coat have been this colour originally. The thick woollen lining, although being slightly moth-eaten in places, is in very good shape. It makes the coat very heavy and, I should imagine, very effective at keeping you warm.

This average-looking leather coat really puts into perspective our fears of flying and, more importantly, the horrors of aviation during the First World War when flying was seen as a better option than being in the trenches.

An FE-2 observer demonstrates how the top mounted machine gun could be used to fend off attack from the rear.

Our First World War Flying Coat is currently on display at the National Leather Collection, as part of our ‘Leather at War’ exhibition. This exhibition will run until mid-November as part of the Imperial War Museum First World War Centenary Partnership.

During the October half term, we are offering leather poppy-making workshops. If you’d like to have a go at making a wearable poppy, join us on the 23rd and 27th at 11:00 and 13:00! Tickets are available via Eventbrite, and £1 of every ticket purchased goes to the British Legion. More information here.