"Charles Bracelen Flood gives us a vivid account of the Lafayette Escadrille, young American pilots who took to the air against Germany nearly a year before the United States entered World War I. Some were idealists; some adventurers; all were present at the beginnings of America’s combat airpower. All of Flood’s formidable writing skills are on display here, as he tells this important story.
— General Merrill A. McPeak, USAF (Ret.), Former Chief of Staff, U.S. Air Force
If the Wright brothers’ 1903 flights in Kitty Hawk marked the birth of aviation, World War I can be called its violent adolescence—a brief but bloody era that completely changed the way planes were designed, fabricated, and flown. In First to Fly, lauded historian Charles Bracelen Flood tells the story of a remarkable group of men who were at the forefront of that revolution: the daredevil Americans of the Lafayette Escadrille. These men, who flew in French planes and wore French uniforms, showed the world an American brand of heroism before the United States entered the Great War.
As citizens of a nation that was neutral from 1914 to early 1917, Americans were officially prohibited from serving in a foreign army, but many brave young souls soon made their way into European battle zones: as ambulance drivers, nurses, and more dangerously, as soldiers in the French Foreign Legion. It was partly from the ranks of the latter group, and with the sponsorship of a Vanderbilt and an expat American surgeon, that the Lafayette Escadrille was formed in 1916 as the first and only all-American squadron in the French Air Service. Flying rudimentary planes, with one-in-three odds of being killed, these fearless young men gathered reconnaissance and shot down enemy aircraft, participated in the Battle of Verdun, and faced off with the Red Baron, dueling across the war-torn skies like modern knights on horseback.
Drawing on rarely seen primary sources, First to Fly chronicles the startling success of that intrepid band, and gives a compelling look at the rise of aviation and a new era of warfare.
As the war began, a stranded pilot would send a message back to his airfield saying where he was, and asking that the squadron send a staff car and a couple mechanics to repair his plane so that he could fly it back. Often this required a stay of two or three days, and the pilot would return with a big smile and a report of splendid hospitality at the home of the Baron This or the Countess That.
Pilot Ned Parsons found himself in one such emergency when his electrical system “just cut out for good and all.” He glided down into “the park of the chateau,” overshot the flat area, and found himself “hanging head down about seven or eight feet off the ground, and all my weight was on my safety belt.” A peasant came around and asked in French if he could help. But Parsons ended up dropping “squarely on the back of my neck…I awoke with my head in the lap of a charming and very beautiful English girl, whose husband, a French officer at the front, owned the chateau. I was there for several days till the wrecking crew came. Then they had two wrecks to take care of. I was the other.”
The above is excerpted from "First to Fly" by Charles Bracelen Flood. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.