Honored in France for coming to the defense of a friend and in the United States for inventing the spirit of military air service, the pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille have inspired artists, storytellers, and airmen. Their exploits are remembered for idealism and daring and will be commemorated during their centennial year, 2016.
Above: In this gouache painting of World War I aviators by French artist Paul Mirat are several members of the Lafayette Escadrille, including Victor Chapman (fourth from the left), Norman Prince (center, bright blue uniform with a black cap), and Kiffin Rockwell (back row, sixth from the right). Other notable pilots include Roland Garros (front row, second from left), the first to be able to fire a machine gun through a spinning propeller; Rene Fonck (front row, fifth from right), the top scoring Allied ace of the war; and Pytor Nesterov (back row, first on the left) who scored the first aerial kill in 1914 by ramming his unarmed monoplane into a German reconnaissance plane.
Mirat lived in Pau, where many of the Lafayette squadron trained. He was 28 years old when World War I began. His illustrations were often published with his poems, both of which commented on the social scene around him.
Several members of the Escadrille first enlisted with the French Foriegn Legion as early as 1914, including Kiffin and Paul Rockwell. The Rockwells came from Asheville, North Carolina. Their family had military roots that stretched back to the French and Indian War. Kiffin was one of the first members of the Escadrille, and one of the first killed. After his death, squadron mate Raoul Lufbery flew across the German lines, trying to entice German pilots into the air so that he could avenge his friend’s death. Brother Paul Rockwell worked the rest of his life to preserve the memory of the squadron.
Lafayette Escadrille co-founder William Thaw was an aviator before the squadron was formed. After his Foreign Legion infantry service, he was transferred to the French Air Service, where he trained to fly Caudron Bombers. He flew several combat missions and was eventually promoted to Captain before joining the Lafayette Escadrille.
The Training Site at Pau
The original hangars of the Escadrille's training site at Pau were designed by Gustave Eiffel. This picture was shot in 2006, before the hangars were torn down. They probably were the home to trainers known as “penguins,” Bleriot monoplanes whose wings were clipped so short that they could not fly. The trainees used them to learn how to handle an airplane on the ground. They progressed to Bleriots with full-size wings for their solo flights.
Just before a parade honoring the Escadrille by their French comrades, Courtney Campbell put on an impromptu aerobatic display as he returned from a mission. At the top of a loop, his Nieuport's lower left wing tore away at the root and fluttered away. Campbell was somehow able to keep flying and brought his plane in for a safe landing in a beet field.
Georges Thenault and Fram
Captaine Georges Thenault, “… loved his dogs – I think they ranked higher than the children," says his granddaughter Catherine. During his time with the Lafayette Escadrille, he had a beloved German Shepherd named Fram.
Nancy Hall Rutgers (shown here with her husband Nick) is the daughter of James Norman Hall, an original Escadrille pilot and author of Mutiny on the Bounty. She commissioned this replica SPAD XIII to be built for the Vintage Aero Flying Museum in Colorado and painted in her father’s squadron colors.