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No. 2090:
Mercenary Pilots

Today, flying mercenaries. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

When I took two Chinese-American friends to the Aviation Hall of Fame in our Lone Star Flight Museum, they paused by the exhibit on Claire Chennault in real reverence. Sterling Seagrave, who writes about mercenary pilots, calls the audacious American hero Chennault "one of those superheated men on horseback," 

Faced with a Japanese invasion in 1937, Madam Chiang Kai-shek recruited Chennault to build a Chinese Air Force. He, in turn, hired American pilots and formed a group that became known as the Flying Tigers. They came to China, on tourist visas, in a soldier-of-fortune tradition that'd been around as long as flight. 

Paramilitary pilots are a variant on the barnstormer that runs the gamut from hero to cynic. We find them in other WW-II theaters, in the Spanish Civil War, the WW-I Lafayette Escadrille, and back further still. In 1911, pioneer airplane builder John Moisant sent an aerial circus to do stunt flying in El Paso. But Mexican rebels were camped just across the Rio Grande, so the Mexican Government hired the flyers to scout rebel positions. 

An odd sidebar here: The pilots didn't want the rebels shooting at them so they dropped cigarettes and oranges, and they put on air shows. The president of Mexico himself pinned a medal on one pilot, but his government nevertheless fell to the rebels three weeks later.

On the other side of the world, Italians were fighting Ottoman Turks in North Africa, and an Italian pilot dropped four small bombs on the Turks. It was an omen of things to come even though he did little damage. A year later, Greece and the Balkans were fighting the Turks, and now Russian flyers joined them. 

One Russian dropped six bombs on a Turkish Fort in Greece and did some damage. But rifle fire punctured his gas tank. He landed, patched the tank, refueled, and got back to tell the Greeks that the fort was vulnerable. Greek ground forces were able to capture it. 

Meanwhile, back in Mexico, the new government proved ineffective and fell under a new rebel attack. Now civilian pilots joined both sides. All this was done in airplanes that would strike us as no more than box kites. Most had no Mercenary fuselage, only an open latticework with the pilot practically sitting on a wing.

When Pershing arrived to fight Pancho Villa in 1916 he brought along the far more advanced Curtiss Jenny and achieved very little with it. But the Army was new to aerial combat, which, for five years, had been the province of civilians. 

And so it went. After the Lafayette Escadrille, many pilots went to Poland to fight the Communist Bolsheviks. Then a new generation fought on the procommunist side of the Spanish Civil War. 

Heroes, idealists, adventure-junkies, cynics, zealots; I guess it depends on our allegiance. When I was ten, I lived in real fear of an Axis victory, and Claire Chennault was pure hero. But then so was another soldier-of-fortune pilot -- Smilin' Jack in the comic strips. Indeed, I had trouble telling them apart.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

S. Seagrave, Soldiers of Fortune. (Alexandria, BA, Time-Life Books, 1981.)


1911 Moisant airplane
This replica of a 1911 Moisant airplane in the Cradle of Aviation Museum is shown with a manequin of Harriet Quimby, who died in one when she crashed in 1912.  (Photo by JHL) 

Curtiss Triad
This replica of a 1911 Curtiss Triad in the Lone Star Flight Museum is rigged for water takeoffs and landings. It is otherwise very similar to the Curtiss airplanes that were being used in Mexico by 1913.  (Photo by JHL)