Before it became a battle skill, flying was first a question and a plane was a toy piloted by an eccentric character with lots of free time. World War I changed all of that. When it came knocking and looking for heroes, aviation had to hurry up and grow real fast.
The subjects of Flagler Museum’s fall exhibition are no stranger to the spotlight and under no pressure to impress. They already made history a century ago. Through watercolors, recruitment posters, photographs, publications, and plane models, Knights of the Air: Aviator Heroes of World War I explores the popularity of these master air acrobats and their crucial role in winning the war. The exhibit, which closes Dec. 31, was planned to commemorate the 100th anniversary of America joining the war.
The first gallery sets the mood and gives a taste of aviation in pre-war times with pictures of the Wright Brothers and American pioneer Glenn Curtiss. In a photograph titled Aerial Locomotion, Curtiss appears in his biplane and facing the camera; a subtle smile emerges from under his thick moustache. It is obvious he is having a good time.
A colorful poster advertises a friendly encounter known as Grande Semaine d’Aviation de la Champagne, which France hosted in 1909 and rewarded pilots based on speed, altitude, passenger capacity and distance. Curtiss won the speed race trophy after traveling 12 miles in 15 minutes and averaging 47 miles per hour. He went on to set up flying schools for civilians and the military in Miami Beach and the Everglades. A 1917 school advertisement included here calls out for college graduates between 21 and 27 years of age.
Another poster sounds the alarm with bold black letters reading “Public Warning.” It features different models of airplanes used by the Germans and the British and educates the public about the differences. A small advisory in the middle reads “note especially the sloped-back wings of the German aeroplanes.”
Air demonstrations were popular in South Florida as evidenced by two curious images depicting Canadian pilot J.A. McCurdy in 1911. He is seen flying over West Palm Beach and Lake Worth – notice Flagler’s Hotel Royal Poinciana in the distance – in his biplane, which features the typical stacked-wing design many aircraft sported in the first years of aviation. Viewers are also introduced to the first members of the First Yale Unit, whose flight training brought them to West Palm Beach in 1917 and included Lake Worth’s seaplane ramps as training ground. The group, which had David McCullough as instructor, initially settled at The Breakers Hotel.
Upon entering the war, it didn’t take long for stories of air battles and survival, hard landings and incredible maneuvers to circulate. A striking portrait by Wilhelm Koerner used in a Saturday Evening Post story and featuring a handsome aviator in his leather overcoat, with goggles resting over his leather helmet, explains why the ladies developed such a strong crush. The young recruits were skillful Casanovas. Let’s just say they had a more sophisticated method to frighten a girl into giving them a hug, no need for a horror movie.
“Wait Till You Get Them Up in the Air Boys,” a 1919 tune written by Lew Brown and featured in the show goes: “You can make them hug and squeeze you too, for if they don’t, just say you won’t come down until they do!”
The image of the young, brave fighter pilot became a powerful symbol despite the fact that his life expectancy was typically under two months. We learn that about half of the 180 Americans who volunteered to fly for France prior to the United States entering the war died or were captured. Both sides knew exactly how to use the image. Commercial and war propaganda campaigns were born to motivate soldiers, seduce consumers into buying pilot-sponsored products (Camel cigarettes) and gather support from those back home.
Germany exploited its star warrior, Manfred von Richthofen, aka the Red Baron, whose haunting image is featured in the second gallery room along with a model of its notoriously bright crimson Fokker triplane and a reference to 82 aerial victories. The Allies had their own “Ace of Aces,” a nickname given to American Edward Rickenbacker after 26 aerial victories. Originally a race car driver, Rickenbacker went on to command the 94th Aero Squadron and after the war, owned the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and became an airline executive. (He is played by Fred MacMurray in the 1945 biopic Captain Eddie.)
Pictured nearby in full uniform standing in front of a propeller is Thomas Hitchcock Jr., a daring pilot from South Carolina, who fought at the Western Front in 1917 as part of Escadrille N.87 Les Chats Noir (the Black Cats) before being wounded in 1918. Featured in the exhibition is the thermos waterproof watch he was wearing when he was shot down. Years later, during World War II, Hitchcock died while testing a P-51 Mustang.
The black-and-white photographs lend an expected touch of romance to this fascinating story of courage, blood and fame. Meanwhile, the watercolors provide the action shots. They serve as the show’s special effects. Although fact-based, they exaggerate the risks taken by the fighter pilots while other materials in the exhibit downplay the dangers.
Take World War I Dogfight, a dramatic painting by Norman Blaine Saunders showing biplanes teaming up to destroy an observation balloon that has caught fire and is folding in half. Black smoke and flames have already forced pilots out of their planes while others are just arriving. It’s a waltz of engines, a tango made for more than two. But viewers learn that such a scene is unlikely to have happened. In reality, pilots knew better than to fly this close to one another.
One drawing for the weekly A Hall of Fame of the Air comic strip depicts a bed-ridden pilot in bandages with broken arms and legs. The caption makes light of his severe condition: “While his jaw was being fixed up, he became interested in dental surgery.” Another page contains cut-out instructions to assemble a modified Ford V-8 engine sport plane.
Knights of the Air can be easily walked under an hour but needs at least that much to be truly taken by it. The aviators effect was so powerful, it lived on after the war ended and enchanted movie audiences as well as future recruits in wars to come. It appears that effect is just as strong today.
Knights of the Air runs through Dec. 31 at the Flagler Museum. Museum prices: Adults: $18; $10 for youth ages 13-17; $3 for children ages 6-12; and children under 6 admitted free. Hours: 10 am to 5 pm. Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. For more information, call 561-655-2833 or visit www.flaglermuseum.us.