The War In The Air

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 223rd installment in the series. 

February 7, 1916: The War In the Air 

While thrilling, spiraling “dogfights” between biplanes are one of the iconic images of the First World War, most of this activity took place in the last three years of the war, from 1916 to 1918. In the first year or so there was relatively little aerial combat, reflecting the limited conception of air power prevailing on both sides: scout planes used for reconnaissance and artillery spotting were generally unarmed, there were no heavy strategic bombers to worry about, and designers faced major technical obstacles in developing fighter planes, including the placement of guns relative to the propeller. In fact in some cases, early aerial combat actually consisted of shooting at the other plane with a rifle or pistol (with predictably scant success). 

All this began to change as both sides figured out ways to position machine guns so the pilot could use them effectively without destroying his own plane. One solution was positioning the machine gun on top of the biplane’s upper wing, above the pilot, so it could shoot over the propeller – although this made it harder to aim as well as reload. A less elegant (and rather dangerous sounding) solution was to put the gun in front of the pilot and simply affix steel plates to the rear surfaces of the propeller, so any bullets that happened to hit it would bounce off – but this made the propellers less efficient. Another approach involved putting the propeller at the back of the plane, in a “pusher” configuration, to give the gun a clear line of fire, but these planes were generally too slow to catch the enemy.

The decisive solution came courtesy of a Dutch inventor and aviator named Anthony Fokker, who established an aircraft factory in the German city of Schwerin. Probably building on the earlier work of a Swiss inventor named Franz Schneider and a French inventor named Raymond Saulnier in 1913 and 1914, Fokker hit on an idea for an “interrupter” or “synchronizer” gear, which connected the machine gun’s firing mechanism to the propeller via a “push rod” powered by the engine’s oil pump drive, so that the gun only fired when the propeller was out of the way. 

This ingenious system, allowing much more accurate fire without as many safety worries, was first employed by Fokker in his Fokker E.I. (above), a single-seat monoplane (Eindecker) fighter copying the basic design of the earlier M.5K reconnaissance aircraft. The E.I.’s debut on the Western Front in June 1915 was followed by a period of terror among Allied aviators, who suddenly found themselves completely outgunned, in what became known as the “Fokker Scourge.” This limited the Allies’ ability to conduct reconnaissance and artillery spotting, in which aerial observers helped direct artillery fire against enemy positions – the most important function of aviation during the war. 

With their scouts falling prey to the new generation of fast, well-armed German planes in their own airspace, the Allies were determined to wrest back control of the skies. This led to the design of two new planes in France and Britain. The French produced the Nieuport 11 (below), a small, nimble plane with an 80-horsepower power engine and a top speed of 97 miles per hour, making it more than a match for the E.I., with an 80-horsepower engine and a top speed of 88 miles per hour. The Nieuport’s machine gun was mounted to fire over the propeller (it was later replaced by the French version of the synchronizer gear, which went into service in mid-1916).

Meanwhile the British produced the de Havilland DH2 (top), a rather odd-looking but sturdy single-seat biplane with its propeller in the rear-facing “pusher” configuration. The designers addressed the earlier problem of slow speed in pusher aircraft by simply installing a more powerful engine, with 100 horsepower and a top speed of 93 miles per hour, again making it more than a match for the Eindecker. 

On February 7, 1916, the first unit of DH2 pusher fighters arrived in St. Omer, France, with orders to fly in larger formations for protection, spelling the beginning of the end of the “Fokker Scourge” – but this was hardly the end of the German threat. The rest of the war would see a fierce competition between German and Allied aircraft designers, as planes grew faster and more maneuverable, and their weaponry more deadly. In fact the DH2 itself would soon become obsolete, as the British produced their own planes with synchronizer gears, first introduced in the Sopwith 1½ Strutter, which first went into service in April 1916. 

Tactics were also evolving rapidly on both sides. One of the most important tactical innovations of the war, later in 1916, was the German introduction of the “Jagdstaffel” or hunter squadron, usually abbreviated “Jasta” – large fighter units which quickly deploy anywhere on the Western Front to establish local aerial dominance. The most famous Jasta would be led by Manfred von Richthofen, better known as “The Red Baron,” and earned the nickname “Flying Circus” because its traveled aboard its own trains like a circus.

Flying Elite 

With its speed, daring, and one-on-one combat, the war in the air was widely viewed as the successor to medieval chivalry, a romantic form of fighting harkening back to earlier, more “glorious” forms of war; it certainly stood in stark contrast to the static misery of the war on the ground. E.M. Roberts, an American volunteer serving in the British Army who later became a pilot, recalled the attitude of ordinary soldiers in the trenches: 

I envied the flyers. Here was I in mud up to my knees either in the trenches or on the roads and getting very little out of the war but lots of hard work. The other fellows were sailing around in the clean air while I had to duck shells all the time and run chances of being caught by the machine guns and snipers. Of course the aviators were also being shelled, but they never seemed to get hurt… To me flying seemed the very acme of adventure and I had no notion, of course, how good the German anti-aircraft batteries were.

Like the cavalry it replaced, military aviation tended to be an exclusive club, the preserve of young aristocratic and upper class men who enjoyed relatively luxurious lifestyles (on their own dime) when they weren’t flying. An Italian pilot, Lieutenant Camillo Viglino, noted: “In those days only men from the engineering, artillery, and cavalry units were permitted to volunteer for pilot training. Ordinary infantrymen were not. Pilot trainees, such as myself, who generally came from upper class families, had therefore willingly left a relatively safe environment for one full of risk… “ 

Indeed, while flying was undoubtedly more dashing than trench warfare, it was probably no less dangerous to the participants – and training was almost as deadly as combat, according to Viglino, who recalled, “we had to contribute regularly to the purchase of funeral wreaths for our classmates killed in the training course.” Viglino remembered one grim occasion after two trainee pilots died in a crash: 

On that particular evening, we all went to a small restaurant that we frequented often and ordered steak. Someone in our group noticed that the smell of the steaks resembled that of the charred bodies of the two men and he said so out loud. The rest of us just continued to eat our steak without comment. Today it happens to you; tomorrow it happens to me. It’s all part of the game. 

With aviation engineering still in its infancy, flying also presented plenty of dangers besides the enemy, including unreliable equipment. Malcolm Grow, an American surgeon volunteering in the Russian Army, wrote about an alarming experience over the German lines on the Eastern Front in the summer of 1915: 

We were some miles back of the German lines at a height of about 10,000 feet, I should judge, when the motor suddenly stopped… I did not realize our danger until the Captain shouted: “We are in for it now – motor dead – don’t know whether I can plane back to our lines – or not!” In the gathering gloom below, I saw several red flashes stab upward: then I heard a screech and several distinct explosions above us and to the right. With the motor dead, it was easy to hear the coughing report of the German shrapnel. The earth seemed gradually to float up as we glided swiftly down and forward toward the lines. Could we make it? There was no wind to help us. The Captain devoted all his attention to the machine. Again and again he tried to start the motor, but she remained silent… We were whirling down perilously close to the tops of the pines and I knew the machine-guns and rifle bullets could easily reach us as we crossed the lines. Fortunately the motor was quiet as we rushed along, so that we flew silently and would not be so apt to attract attention…We got over our lines and headed for [a] clearing… If we could just scrape  over the scrub-pines, we could make a landing… He dipped again and I could almost touch the tops of the pines as we shot over them… We glided down into the center of that little clearing, bouncing along over the uneven ground and finally stopped. We both sat still a moment. The Captain crossed himself and I knew he was murmuring a little prayer of thanks.

Still, there were some compensations for all the danger, including the privilege of seeing the world from a perspective still completely unknown to most ordinary people. Victor David Chapman, an American volunteering in the French air force, described the beauty of the French countryside seen from the air in a letter home in August 1915: 

From a good altitude the country looks like nothing so much as a rich old Persian carpet. Where the fields are cultivated one sees the soil now a rich pinky red fading a light yellow, or running into dark browns. The green fields, oblong patches and the brick-roofed villages like figures on the carpets connected by threads of roads and rivers; superposed upon it here and there in big and little patches – always with straight edges – are the woods, a dull, darkish green, for they are pine woods. In the direction of the sun the bits of water shine silver. In the opposite direction they are blue, but the darkest objects to be seen,– making the woods seem pale in contrast. 

By the same token, pilots and observers noticed that this new, remote perspective seemed to breed a certain emotional detachment from humanity. Vincent O’Connor, a war correspondent, recalled his thoughts flying near Salonika in northern Greece: 

The trenches are like a tapestry at our feet, and we can see their purpose and plan. The sides of the water-courses are white with an inner lining of tents. A village deploys, the totality of its ancient life exposed to our gaze. We see it in the aggregate, and forget that in each homestead there are human creatures, whose joys and sorrows are similar to our own. I can understand now the indifference with which men fling bombs upon a crowded city, as impartial as Fate. Everything, it would seem, is a matter of perspective. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

10 Bold Breaking Bad Fan Theories

Bryan Cranston as Walter White and Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad.
Bryan Cranston as Walter White and Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad.
Ben Leuner, AMC

It’s been nearly six years since Breaking Bad went out in a blaze of gunfire, but fans still haven’t stopped thinking about the award-winning crime drama. What really happened to Walter White in the series finale? What’s the backstory on Gus Fring? And what did Jesse Pinkman’s doodles mean?

While El Camino, Vince Gilligan's new Breaking Bad movie, offers definitive answers to at least one of these questions, these fan theories offer some alternative answers—even if they strain the limits of logic and sanity along the way. Read on to discover the surprising source of Walt’s cancer diagnosis, and why pink is always bad news.

1. Walter White picks up traits from the people he kills.

Walter White is an unpredictable guy, but he’s weirdly consistent on one thing: After he kills someone, he kind of copies them. Remember how Krazy-8 liked his sandwiches without the crust? After Walt murdered him, he started eating crustless PB&Js. Walt also lifted Mike Ehrmantraut’s drink order and Gus Fring’s car, leading many fans to wonder if Walt steals personal characteristics from the people he kills.

2. Gus Fring worked for the CIA.

Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) and Juan Bolsa (Javier Grajeda) in Breaking Bad
Giancarlo Esposito and Javier Grajeda in Breaking Bad.
Ursula Coyote, AMC

Who was Gus Fring before he became the ruthless leader of a meth/fried chicken empire? Well, we know he’s from Chile. We also know that any records of his time there are gone. And we know that cartel kingpin Don Eladio refused to kill him when he had the chance. Since Don Eladio has no qualms about eliminating the competition, Gus must have some form of protection. Could it be from the U.S. government? A detailed Reddit theory suggests that Gus was once a Chilean aristocrat who helped the CIA install the dictator Augusto Pinochet in power. Once Pinochet became a liability, Gus went to Mexico at the CIA’s behest to infiltrate a drug cartel. His alliance with U.S. intelligence kept him alive even as his work got more violent, and helped him bypass the normal immigration issues you'd typically encounter when you’ve murdered a bunch of people.

3. Madrigal built defective air filters that gave Walter white cancer.

Madrigal Electromotive is a corporation with varied interests. The German parent company of Los Pollos Hermanos dabbles in shipping, fast food, and industrial equipment … including air filters. According to one fan theory, Gray Matter—the company Walter White co-founded with Elliott Schwartz—purchased defective air filters from Madrigal and installed them while Walt still worked at the company. The filters ultimately caused Walt’s lung cancer, pushing him into the illegal drug trade and, eventually, business with Madrigal.

4. Color is a crucial element in the series.

Marie Schrader (Betsy Brandt) and Hank Schrader (Dean Norris)
Betsy Brandt and Dean Norris as Marie and Hank Schrader in Breaking Bad.
Ben Leuner, AMC

Color is a code on Breaking Bad. When a character chooses drab tones, they’re usually going through something, like withdrawal (Jesse) or chemo (Walt). Their wardrobe might turn darker as their stories skew darker—like when Marie ditched her trademark purple for black while she was under protective custody. Also, pink signals death, whether it’s on a teddy bear or Saul Goodman’s button down shirt.

5. Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead exist in the same universe.

Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead both aired on AMC, but according to fans, that’s not all they have in common. There’s an exhaustive body of evidence connecting the two shows—and one of the biggest links is Blue Sky. The distinctively-colored crystal meth is Walt and Jesse’s calling card on Breaking Bad, but it’s also Merle Dixon’s drug of choice on The Walking Dead. Coincidentally, his drug dealer (“a janky little white guy” who says “bitch”) sounds a lot like Jesse.

6. Walter white froze to death and hallucinated Breaking Bad's ending.

Bryan Cranston in the 'Breaking Bad' series finale
Ursula Coyote, AMC

In her review of the Breaking Bad series finale “Felina,” The New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum suggested an alternate ending in which Walt died an episode earlier, as the police surrounded his car in New Hampshire. He could’ve frozen to death “behind the wheel of a car he couldn’t start,” she theorized, and hallucinated the dramatic final shootout in “Felina” in his dying moments. This reading has gained traction with multiple fans, including SNL alum Norm Macdonald.

7. Jesse’s superheroes are a peek into his inner psyche.

In season 2 of Breaking Bad, we discover that Jesse Pinkman is a part-time artist. He sketches his own superheroes, including Backwardo/Rewindo (who can run backwards so fast he rewinds time), Hoverman (who floats above the ground), and Kanga-Man (who has a sidekick in his “pouch”). The characters are goofy, just like Jesse, but they may also reveal what’s going on in his head. Backwardo represents Jesse’s tendency to run from conflict. Hoverman reflects his lack of direction or purpose, while Kanga-Man hints at his codependency.

8. Madrigal was founded by Nazi war criminals.

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Uncle Jack (Michael Bowen) in 'Breaking Bad'
Bryan Cranston and Michael Bowen in Breaking Bad.
Ursula Coyote, AMC

This might be one of the wilder Breaking Bad theories, but before you write it off, consider Werner Heisenberg: The German physicist, who helped pioneer Hitler’s nuclear weapons program, is the obvious inspiration for Walt’s meth kingpin moniker. While Heisenberg only appears in name, there are plenty of literal Nazis on the show. Look no further than Uncle Jack and the Aryan Brotherhood, who served as the Big Bad of season 5. At least one Redditor thinks all these Nazi references are hinting at something bigger, a conspiracy that goes straight to the top. The theory starts in South America, where many Nazis fled after World War II. A group of them supposedly formed a new company, Madrigal, through their existing connections back in Germany. Eventually, a young Chilean named Gus Fring worked his way into the growing business, and the rest is (fake) history.

9. Walter white survived, but paid the price.

Lots of Breaking Bad theories concern Walt’s death, or lack thereof. But if Walt actually lived through his seemingly fatal gunshot wound in “Felina,” what would the rest of his life look like? According to one Reddit theory, it wouldn’t be pretty. The infamous Heisenberg would almost certainly stand trial and go to prison. Although he tries to leave Skyler White with information to cut a deal with the cops, she could also easily go to jail—or lose custody of her children. The kids wouldn’t necessarily get that money Walt left with Elliott and Gretchen Schwartz, either, as they could take his threats to the police and surrender the cash to them. Basically it amounts to a whole lot of misery, making Walt’s death an oddly optimistic ending. (This is one theory El Camino addresses directly.)

10. Breaking Bad is a prequel to Malcolm in the Middle.

Bryan Cranston in the series premiere of 'Breaking Bad'
Bryan Cranston in the series premiere of Breaking Bad.
Doug Hyun, AMC

Alright, let’s say Walt survived the series finale and didn’t stand trial. Maybe he started over as a new man with a new family. Three boys, perhaps? This fan-favorite theory claims that Walter White assumed a new identity as Malcolm in the Middle patriarch Hal after the events of Breaking Bad, making the show a prequel to Bryan Cranston’s beloved sitcom. The Breaking Bad crew actually liked this idea so much they included an “alternate ending” on the DVD boxed set, where Hal wakes up from a bad dream where "There was a guy who never spoke! He just rang a bell the whole time! And then there was another guy who was a policeman or a DEA agent, and I think it was my brother or something. He looked like the guy from The Shield."

Fan Notices Hilarious Connection Between Joaquin Phoenix's Joker and Superbad's McLovin

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

There seems to be exactly one funny thing about Todd Phillips's latest film, Joker.

As reported by Geek.com, someone on Twitter by the name of @minalopezavina brilliantly pointed out that Arthur Fleck from Joker and McLovin from Superbad are pretty much in the same costume.

This meme is a nice moment of comic relief in an otherwise very serious movie. In fact, Joker is so dark that the United States Army had issued warnings about possible shootings at theaters playing the film. The warnings coincided with criticisms that the film might be too violent, with fears that the villain-led storyline would result in copycat events in real life.

Both Phillips and star Joaquin Phoenix have weighed in on the controversy, with the director explaining to The Wrap, "It wasn’t, ‘We want to glorify this behavior.’ It was literally like ‘Let’s make a real movie with a real budget and we’ll call it f**king Joker’. That’s what it was.”

All we can say is the amount of chatter behind Joker certainly led to both packed theaters, and endless memes online.

[h/t Geek.com]

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