A Spyplane in 1914

Its mission included two pit stops and an “excellent lunch.”

Bleriot XI.jpg
A Blériot XI Racer, piloted by Roland Garros, during the Paris - Madrid Air Race, 1911.

Looking for an interesting summer read? We suggest Taylor Downing’s Secret Warriors: The Spies, Scientists, and Code Breakers of World War I (Pegasus, 2015). World War I began on July 28, 1914; a little over two weeks later, on August 13, the pilots of the Royal Flying Corps flew across the Channel, landing in Amiens. (Because Britain was pledged to defend Belgium’s neutrality, Britain declared war on Germany after German troop trains crossed through Belgium to attack France.)

Once the squadrons had assembled in France, they followed the British Expeditionary Force; each army corps was allocated an airplane squadron. The men flew a variety of aircraft. Despite hot weather—which caused thermal updrafts that tossed the flimsy aircraft around—and summer storms, the RFC started flying reconnaissance within the week. Downing writes:

The first ever reconnaissance flight was flown by Captain Philip Joubert de la Ferté on 19 August in a Blériot XI. He had no observer but was asked to check if enemy troops were present in an area to the west of Brussels. Struggling with cloudy weather and with very little knowledge of the countryside, Joubert soon found himself lost but was reluctant to come down in order to discover his location. However, when he spotted what seemed to be a parade ground in a military garrison in a large town he decided to land and ask where he was. He discovered he was in the town of Tournai, and after an “excellent lunch” with the commandant of the garrison he flew on in the afternoon. Once more he quickly became lost and when short of fuel had to land again. But this time the local gendarmes came out and threatened to arrest him, as he had not been issued with identification papers and they thought he was a spy. He was helped by a linen manufacturer from Belfast who happened to be visiting the town. The salesman draped a Union Jack over the aircraft. Once the locals understood who Joubert was the mood changed. He was able to buy petrol and eventually get on his way. He returned to his landing ground [airfield] near Mauberge to deliver his report at 5.30 that evening.

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