John McGavock Grider was an American pilot attached to the Royal Air Force in World War One. After months of training, and impatient for action, he was finally given orders to fly to France. He collected his brand-new S.E.5a fighter from the Brooklands depot and wrote in his diary “it certainly is a beauty.”
May 14 1918. I gave my new plane a work-out in the air to-day. It flies hands off; I put it level just off the ground and it did 130 [m.p.h.]. Then I went up high and did a spinning tail slide. Nothing broke so I have perfect confidence in it. I’ve been cleaning and oiling the machine-guns, tuning up the motor and testing the rigging. The best part of it is that it’s mine – no one else has flown it and no one else ever will. It’s painted green and I have named it the Julep and am having one painted on the side of the fusilage.
To-morrow, I’ve got to synchronize my gun-gear, set my sights, swing my compass and then I’m ready. Death bring on your sting, oh, grave hoist your gold star!
The bus certainly is plentifully supplied with gadgets. The cockpit looks like the inside of a locomotive cab.
It has two guns: one Vickers and one Lewis. The Vickers is mounted on the fuselage in front of your face and fires through the propeller with a C.C. gear to keep from hitting it. The Lewis is mounted on the top wing and fires over the top of the propeller. It has two sights: a ring sight and an Aldis telescopic sight. I set both sights and both guns so that they will all converge at a spot two hundred yards in front of the line of flight. When you aim, what you really do is to aim the plane and the guns take care of themselves. The Vickers has a belt of four hundred rounds and the Lewis has a drum of one hundred and we carry three spare drums.
To change drums you have to pull the gun down on the track with your hand and then take off the empty drum and put on the full one. It’s not hard to do unless you let the wind get against the flat side of the drum, then it will nearly break your wrist. We’ve practised changing until we can do it in our sleep. The Vickers is the best gun by far.
‘War Birds’, Cornstalk Publishing Company, Sydney, Australia, 1928.
Grider was well aware that the life of a fighter pilot at the Front could be short. He mentions the possibilty of death several times. Training could be almost as dangerous. His diary is a catalogue of dead and injured pilots who never made it to the fight. He arrived in France on 25th May – “Here’s where we sober up and get down to real serious work.” John Grider was reported missing in action on 18th June.
The photographs show S.E.5a aircraft built by the Vintage Aviator in New Zealand. These are “reproductions”, made to original specifications, not “replicas” which may have modern components under the skin.