The Dangers of Flying
The aircraft of the 1914-18 period were visibly frail and delicate and quite unlike the capable machines we know today. First World War aircraft were prone to structural or mechanical failures and could easily catch fire. Armament was limited to rifle-calibre machine guns and protection for the crew through armour and parachutes were only beginning to be used in the closing stages of the war. Aircrew operated with few aids to navigation, and were usually exposed to the elements while in flight.
A number of Australian Flying Corps personnel had narrow escapes with their aircraft both during operational service and flight training. To illustrate just how precarious flying in this period could be, I have reproduced below a letter written by 2882 Air Mechanic Sydney H. Banks-Smith in July 1918. Banks-Smith originally enlisted in the 5th Field Ambulance in 1915 before joining No. 8 (Training) Squadron, Australian Flying Corps in February 1918.
The material does not express the Memorial’s viewpoint but embodies the attitudes of the period in which it was created. The text remains as written.
My dear Miss Keighley
Thanks so much for the nice parcel which has just this minute reached me it will be most enjoyable after my exciting adventure this afternoon which took the form of a crash in a wheat field. The pilot & I went up about 3 o’clock, to do aerial firing with 500 rounds of ammunition. Well we had only been up about ½ an hour when the engine started to give forth flame and black smoke and the plane began to vibrate. We were up 2500 ft when the pilot beckoned to me & shouted the engine’s “conking” out so we had to plane down from that height. Of course I was horror stricken I thought the engine was on fire or the crankshaft broken. I’ve never been so full of fear in my life. Well we came down very quickly with no power & the pilot made for a wheat-field and when we touched the wheat the left wing tip hit first as the machine was not flying level. As soon as the tip touched the wheat the pilot levelled out. The undercarriage axle hit the wheat next & the sudden shock momentarily made the tail lift up & the sudden jolt threw me forward so I grabbed the wind shield. Luckily the pilot was able to pull the elevator hard up which threw the tail on the ground & we ploughed along through the wheat for a couple of hundred yards & then stopped.
Oh dear me to show you how frightened I was, when I saw a crash was inevitable I took my goggles off saying to myself well I won’t have some of this glass in my eyes.
When we had stopped the pilot told me to get out & see if anything was broken but wonderful to relate only one of the rubber shock absorbers was broken & also the tail skid.
I had to walk back about three miles through fields to the drome but they had already been told by someone who was in the air at the time & saw it happen. I learnt later that the cause of the engine failing was an inlet valve was stuck open & would not close. That is generally the cause of an engine catching on fire. So we were lucky that did not happen. I thought it had at first as I saw great streaks of flame coming out of the exhaust pipe.
Well Miss Keighley I must close now as I can scarcely keep awake as I arose this morning at 5 o’clock. I shall enjoy that cake before I got to bed & the socks later
Best wishes from
Yours very Sincerely Syd
Unfortunately this letter proved to be Syd’s last, as he was killed in a flying accident two days later along with Lieutenant George R. Thompson, No. 7 (Training) Squadron, AFC. The Officer Commanding, No. 8 (Training) Squadron, Major A.W.L Ellis describes the events of that day in the following letter of condolence:
8th July 1918
Dear Miss Keighley
I am sending to you by Sgt Munro the personal things which belonged to the late 1AM Banks-Smith. I regret that his pocket book and watch were too badly damaged by fire to send on to you. Banks-Smith was flying with Lieut G.R. Thompson and whilst diving on a target the wings collapsed with the result that the machine nosedived into the ground.
Death was undoubtedly instantaneous and neither of the occupants would possibly know anything about the machine catching fire after impact with the ground. Banks-Smith was buried with full military honours at Leighterton Cemetery on the 5th July. I am writing to his Mother as soon as the estate is properly fixed up and will give her all particulars.
He was a fine soldier and always did his job well and will be very badly missed in the Squadron. I trust that the fact of his dying whilst doing his duty for his King and Country will help to allay the grief, which his parents must suffer at the loss of so fine a son. I shall be only too glad to supply any information which you should require at any time and also photos of the grave if you would like them
AW Ellis Major
OC. No 8. T.S.
These two letters are part of a much larger collection of Private Records relating to Sydney Banks-Smith. The Banks-Smith collection is housed in the Australian War Memorial’s Research Centre and covers the period 1915-1920. A link to the collection’s individual record can be found here.