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.

8 Provocative Facts About the X Film Rating

iStock/tolgart
iStock/tolgart

When the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) introduced the modern movie ratings system in 1968, they couldn’t have known that one of their classifications would become the calling card of pornography. The X rating, intended to denote films not suitable for anyone under the age of 17, went from being attached to Academy Award contenders to filling video store spaces located behind saloon doors. Fifty years after its debut, we’re taking a look at the most infamous letter in moviegoing history.

1. ACCEPTING THE RATING WAS VOLUNTARY (KIND OF).

In 1968, the MPAA and its president, Jack Valenti, introduced a four-tier system to classify films. G was suitable for all audiences; M was the equivalent of PG (which replaced M in 1970), indicating that juveniles should consult with a parent before attending; R was intended for adults, or children only with a guardian present; X marked films that shouldn’t be seen by adolescent eyes. But the MPAA never forced a film studio to submit to its decision. It could release a film with no rating at all. The problem? The MPAA’s arrangement with the National Association of Theater Owners meant that an unrated film would almost certainly have difficulty finding a theater to screen it.

2. A ROBERT DE NIRO MOVIE WAS THE FIRST TO GET SLAPPED WITH AN X.

Immediately after the introduction of the new MPAA system, the advisory board got its first bona fide sample of an X-rated submission: Director Brian De Palma’s Greetings, a 1968 film starring Robert De Niro as a New Yorker confronting the possibility of being drafted, garnered the rating due to its sexually explicit content, including nudity that would likely earn an R rating today. (De Palma would later run afoul of the MPAA multiple times; 1980's Dressed to Kill, 1981's Blow Out, and 1983's Scarface were all threatened with an X before being edited.)

3. FILMMAKERS COULD GIVE THEMSELVES THE RATING.

Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Though it was quickly going to become taboo, there was a time when an X rating for a mainstream film was a badge of honor and an effective marketing tool that signaled a film was being made for discerning moviegoers—not just viewers looking for titillation. Arthur Krim, the head of United Artists, willingly gave 1969’s Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight film Midnight Cowboy an X of his own volition even after he realized the MPAA would give the film an R designation. (The MPAA later applied an R to the movie in 1971.)

4. IT WAS WELCOME AT THE ACADEMY AWARDS.

The X rating was not an impediment to critical or commercial acclaim. In 1970, Midnight Cowboy won Best Picture at the Academy Awards; Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, released in 1971, earned four Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture; Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris (1972), starring Marlon Brando as a sex-obsessed American in France, got two nominations, including Brando for Best Actor.

5. THE XXX MARK MAY HAVE STEMMED FROM AN ALCOHOL DESIGNATION.

A neon XXX sign
iStock/07_av

In the hyperbole of film marketing, studios and advertisers didn’t believe one X was enough. Some films, like 1968’s Starlet!, were advertised as having an unofficial XXX designation to signify it was even more intense than other adult-oriented films. The label may have come from an old practice of denoting the strength of beer with a X, XX, or XXX label.

6. PORN TOOK OVER THE RATING DUE TO AN MPAA OVERSIGHT.

A rating of X in 1969 was no big deal. By the mid-1970s, it signaled to audiences that they were about to watch an anatomy lesson. That’s because the burgeoning adult film industry of the 1970s was screening films in theaters—VHS was not yet a household acronym—and blared advertisements with promises of “XXX” salaciousness. The MPAA never reviewed these films, and titles like 1972’s Deep Throat and 1978’s Debbie Does Dallas used the mark freely. The reason? The MPAA never bothered to copyright X as it applies to film ratings, allowing anyone to use it. In short order, the X rating became synonymous with pornography and grew into a scarlet letter for films. No reputable theaters would book such movies, and few newspapers would take ads for them.

7. PEOPLE COLLECT X-RATED FILMS.

The seedy, lurid films that applied their own X (or XXX) ratings in the 1970s and 1980s have developed a small but devout following of collectors who have a “strong desire to own, preserve, and reclaim erotic history,” according to one aficionado who spoke with The New York Times in 2014. These specialists focus mostly on the 16mm and 35mm films that were produced prior to the advent of VHS.

8. ONE STUDIO SUED OVER IT.

Antonio Banderas and Victoria Abril in 'Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!' (1989)
Antonio Banderas and Victoria Abril in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989)
The Criterion Collection

When the MPAA gave an X rating to the 1989 Pedro Almodóvar drama Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Miramax decided to sue, claiming such a label would harm the film financially. The studio lost the suit, but it signaled the end of the war.

In 1990, a year that saw 10 movies get slapped with an X, the MPAA overhauled the ratings system. It dropped the X in favor of NC-17, which it hoped would distance films with artistic merit from pornographic material. And this time, the pornography industry couldn't co-opt it: Learning from its past mistake, the MPAA trademarked the designation.

Stranger Things's David Harbour Shared Some Season 3 Spoilers—With Absolutely No Context

Matt Winkelmeyer, Getty Images
Matt Winkelmeyer, Getty Images

While Netflix likes to keep the details of Stranger Things a mystery, David Harbour, who plays Detective Hopper, likes to have fun with his fans.

Harbour posted a cryptic image to his Instagram which, while it clearly contains Stranger Things Season 3 spoilers in both the photo and the caption, does not give away any “context,” hence leaving us with very little real information.

Harbour did share that he has wrapped filming on season 3 of Stranger Things—and that we can kiss his mustache goodbye.

The mysterious post raises a number of questions. In the photo, Harbour rocks a hat that supports a local Hawkins business. The hat reads, "Gary's Plumbing & Heating, Warming Hawkins, IN since 1972."

We’re not sure if the hat is referencing the Gary already in the show, as he is the coroner, but we can’t wait to find out.

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