WW1 Flying Aces: Tribute to ‘The 20 Minute Club’

As we approach the 100th Anniversary of the end of WW1, I’ve submitted a tiny painting as part of an exhibition.  It’s prompted me to look into the life of a Flying Ace.

The term Flying Ace was first used to describe the French Pilot Adolphe Pegoud who was a high scoring fighter Pilot in WW1.

And according to this article by the Imperial War Museum, the Term Flying Ace is generally taken to mean any fighter pilot credited with shooting down 5 or more enemy aircraft.

The Aces were seen as chivalrous heroes engaged in honest and impressive combat. However, they were young men barely out of school.  The reality of the life of a fighter pilot was far from glamorous.

Flying a plane in WW1 was cold, terrifying and exhausting.  And they took to the skies barely 11 years after the Wright Brothers invented the airplane!

What was it like flying one of these bone shakers?

Made from wood, wire and canvas planes took off at 60 mph and flew at 60 mph.  However, by the end of the war the engine size had increased to 400 horsepower.

It can’t have been glamorous sitting in a freezing cold cockpit, so flying suits were designed for warmth.

According to Major Bill March, Historian with the Royal Canadian Airforce: “Basically pilots looked like Eskimos flying with goggles. They couldn’t hear very well, it was absolutely freezing with a biting wind cutting across their face.”

An average day for a Pilot comprised a mission in the morning, back for lunch, with another mission in the afternoon.  Then they’d join their mates in the bar in the evening for a few drinks.

What about the training?

Pilot training was basic, and at the beginning of the war, it wasn’t uncommon for pilots to be deployed with no more than 10 hours training.

They were called ‘The 20 Minute Club‘ because the life-expectancy of a new pilot in combat in 1916-17 was 20 minutes – extremely short.  Even in World War 2 the life-expectancy of a Spitfire Pilot was only 4 weeks, and during the Battle of Britain 544 British RAF Pilots died.

But combat inevitably took it’s toll on the Pilots, both mentally and physically.

Every man has a bank account of courage, and it gets spent and it expires.  There were occasions when it was quite clear to other members of the squadron that a man had reached the end of his tether.  You could see if from his mannerisms, he had been broken.  Nightmares were not uncommon – usually about burning aircraft – the worst way to die for a pilot.

Who was the most famous Flying Ace?

The most famous Flying Ace was Captain Manfred von Richtohofen.

His first mission on the 17th September 1916 he shot down his first plane over the Somme.  Over the next 17 months he would shoot down a further 79 pilots and was credited with 80 aerial victories.

In this Article in the Daily Mail ‘Bravery of WW1 Suicide Club‘, his victims were members of the Royal Flying Corp – eager boys of 18, with barely a dozen hours of flying hours behind them, lacking skill, training flying unreliable aircraft.

‘The Red Baron’ as he would later become known as, was the highest scoring Flying Ace of the war.  He was given command of the ‘Flying Circus’ a unit comprising Germany’s elite fighter pilots.  At 25 he was eventually killed in action in April 1918.  Following his death allied troops recovered his body and he was eventually buried by the British with full Military Honours.

To honour the bravery of the soldiers and airmen of WW1, in conjunction with the Royal British Legion, the SAA (Society for All Artists) is holding an exhibition of small paintings featuring the Poppy. Hundreds of Artists have submitted a small 4 x 4 inch painting.

Here is my contribution to this exhibition which is a Watercolour.

The Title comes from Rupert Brooke’s Poem The Soldier

There is a Corner of a Foreign Field which is Forever England” 

Watercolour painting of the shoulder of an airman with a World War 1 Plane in the background


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