From time to time I find myself in the study of some aficionado of aviation – former Flying Magazine editor Stephan Wilkinson, for example – admiring the cargo of his bookshelves. Many a volume that I would like to sit down with on a rainy afternoon; many that I have never heard of.

The lavishly illustrated large-format ones you find remaindered at booksellers aren’t likely to be the most interesting; it’s rather the old cloth-bound volumes, mostly now out of print, that will take you deeply into other worlds of flight.

It is seldom convenient to note down titles in those situations, but one pilot sent me a nice little book of his that might save one the trouble.

Searching for the Epic of Flight / 107 Books Briefly Noted is its title. The British-born author, Robert J. Hing, intersperses his capsule reviews with his own reminiscences, and modesty does not keep him from including a couple of his own books among the aviation classics. The reader may judge for himself whether they ascend to the level of some of the others, like Sagittarius Rising, The Spirit of St. Louis, Night Flight or Gravity’s Rainbow. (I’m not sure what the rather dense Pynchon novel is doing here, nor St. Ex’s perennially beloved and terminally tedious Little Prince; but you don’t have to buy the whole list, and probably couldn’t even if you wanted to.)

I’m indebted to Hing for calling my attention to Winged Victory, a novel about Camel pilots in World War One. Somehow, I had gotten this far in life without ever having heard of it, although it is, according to its cover blurb, “the greatest novel of war in the air.” The paperback, which stupidly has an SE-5, not a Camel, on the cover, arrived the day after I ordered it from Amazon; this “one click” stuff is like rubbing a lamp and having a genie see to your wishes – although, like wishes, Amazon often does more harm than good.

A charcoal self portrait of Yeates aged 18.

The author, V. M. Yeates, is not to be confused with the poet W. B. Yeats, whose limpid sonnet on the death of an Irish airman is, to my knowledge, his only work on an aeronautical theme. Yeates flew Camels on the Western Front in 1918, dividing his efforts between air combat and ground attack. The novel is pretty clearly autobiographical; one way you can tell is that, like real life, it has no discernible plot. It’s remarkable that Yeates manages to keep you engrossed for hundreds of pages in what is basically a monotonous series of “jobs” – sorties of an hour or two, sometimes several in a day, a few miles into “Hunland,” looking for the odd hapless Pfalz or Albatros or reconnaissance two-seater to sneak up on and send down in flames, or plunging into a cauldron of machine-gun fire to drop a couple of 25-pound bombs or spray a trench with bullets. Movie-style mass dogfights are rare and brief; German pilots, whose equipment the protagonist, Tom Cundall, considers inferior to the British, are depicted as generally, and wisely, avoiding engagements with Camels. Most days end in a drunken haze, alcohol lubricating, as no doubt it always has, the wheels of war.

Like real life, it has no discernible plot“.

Much of Winged Victory – the title alludes, I think ironically, to the Hellenistic statue, triumphant but headless, that greets visitors to the Louvre – deals with Cundall’s fluctuating feelings about his trade: exultation or relief over his victories and escapes, disgust with the mechanical slaughter of men just like himself – for what? For usury, explains a fellow pilot, who, persuasively enough, sees this mad war as redounding principally to the benefit of international industrialists and financiers.

Woven through this tapestry of daring, terror and growing doubt are the shining threads of flight. Yeates evokes Turneresque skyscapes – the tawny eruptions of evening cumulus, the pools and filigrees of mist, the leaden overcasts and the opalescent voids – that every pilot will recognize.

Weather has a leading role in the drama. “Dud” weather means safety – you can roll over and sleep, the morning job won’t go – but also the boredom of empty hours. Good weather means danger – but also the fun of “contour chasing” over the war-blasted landscape at 20 feet and diving to radiator-cap level to terrify the occupants of British staff cars encountered by chance on country roads. Pilots who joined their squadrons during winter months were likely to survive longer, because they would fly less; but in any season many novices died within weeks of arriving. The longer a pilot survived, the longer he was likely to; learning mattered.

Sopwith Camel full size replica.

Most pilots today can have little idea of the sensations of flying an aeroplane like a Sopwith Camel. So-called because of the slightly humped silhouette of its forward fuselage, the Camel was a tiny thing, its empty weight about that of a modern two-seat homebuilt.

It was armed with two forward-firing machine guns. You did not so much climb as slither into its well-like cockpit. Pug-nosed, it was quite tail-heavy; aft CG caused a lack of longitudinal stability which, combined with minimal vertical tail area and the concentration of mass at the centre of the aircraft, made it very agile. It was virtually incapable of prolonged coordinated flight, but Yeates considered that its willingness to fly somewhat sideways made it a harder target; an enemy could not be sure where it was going. Several engines were used, the most powerful a 160-hp Gnome swinging a 9-foot propeller at 1,400 rpm; this gave an initial rate of climb of 1,200 fpm and a service ceiling near 20,000 feet, where neither aeroplanes nor pilots were at their best. Cundall’s squadron flies the more common 110-hp Le Rhône-engined variant.

All Camel engines were rotaries – quaint parodies of a radial engine, now extinct, in which the crankshaft stayed still and the engine spun around it. The scheme was ingenious, with a high ratio of power to weight and good ground cooling. There was no oil pump; centrifugal force carried castor oil outward to the rockers, whence it continued overboard. The Gnome engine lacked even a throttle, the pilot controlling power stepwise by cutting ignition to various numbers of cylinders.

The main character trait of the rotary was its powerful gyroscopic couple, which caused an aeroplane to pitch when yawed and yaw when pitched. It was said – falsely – that the Camel could make a 270-degree turn to the right faster than a 90-degree one to the left, but it seems to me more likely that it could enter an accelerating evasive dive very rapidly to the right, when the gyroscopic couple pulled the nose downward, whereas when turning to the left the aeroplane tended to raise its nose and slow down. Maintaining altitude, a Camel makes the same turn rate and radius in either direction as any other aeroplane at the same bank angle and speed.

Between its marginal stability and the peculiarities of its handling, the single-seat Camel presented novice pilots with a difficult transition. Many crashed. Yeates gives a vivid account of his protagonist’s maiden flight, which he survives by the skin of his teeth. Once pilots became accustomed to the aeroplane, however, they found it congenial and pleasant to fly; Tom Cundall feels that his helpful Camel flies itself when he takes it out on a sortie while staggering drunk. It has always been so with pilots and aeroplanes: Pilots’ unconscious adaptations eventually make them and their machines one.

Winged Victory takes place in northern France a few months before the end of the war. Although Yeates describes the Allies as enjoying air superiority, the Camel had by then been surpassed by heavier, more powerful and faster fighters, notably the Fokker D.VII. Cundall increasingly encounters those “new Fokker biplanes” and attaches an obsessive, sinister significance to the “extensions” of their upper wings – just aileron horn balances, actually. It was the D.VII, half again as heavy as the Camel, with thick cantilever wings and a liquid-cooled Mercedes inline-six engine, that the Allies would single out for confiscation after the armistice, and that would continue in military service in various countries throughout the 1920s. It, and not the agile Camel, pointed the way to the biplane fighters of the postwar decade.

Victor Maslin Yeates flew 163 “jobs,” was shot down twice, and himself shot down five enemy planes in the spring and summer of 1918. He wrote the novel the year before his death at 37, in 1934, of tuberculosis. It was a great favour to posterity. Winged Victory is a vivid evocation of experiences that one longs to have had, but is not eager to undergo. One feels harrowed, mud-spattered and war-weary after reading it. Just a touch of PTSD; it will pass.


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