15 October 1987
Dear Senator Marshall,
I am taking the liberty of writing to you to express my thoughts regarding the significant factors that may not have been fully explored in the controversy surrounding the NFB film "The Kid Who Couldn't Miss".
My main concern is regarding the film's suggestion that Billy Bishop landed his Nieuport 17, removed the Lewis machine gun mounted on the upper wing and fired a number of rounds into the tail assembly of his aircraft. It seems to be suggested that he then threw the gun away and took off again. I would like to comment on three things:
Now, let's look at the real problem. The 110/120 horsepower Le Rhone rotary has the characteristics of all early rotary engines - they have a high idling speed in proportion to the full power r.p.m. They simply do not "tick over" as a radial or in-line engine would do - in fact, with their fixed-pitch wooden propellor, they idle at about 45% full engine speed (500 r.p.m. as against 1150 r.p.m. for take-off at full power, - this compared with the average modern light aircraft with brakes having an idiling speed 600-650 r.p.m. against approx 2700 r.p.m. at full take-off power!). The blip switch of a rotary engined aircraft is the only means of further reducing the engine speed and subsequently, power and propeller thrust. But if the pilot of a rotary engined fighter lands and there is no one to assist him while he gets out of the aircraft, what does he do?
There is no question that Hollywood stunt pilots would find a way to do it alone (taxi the aircraft up an incline)but we are talking about the reality of uncertain terrain in war time conditions.
On the second point, the damage to Billy Bishop's aircraft was, as you may know, revealed in a report dated June 30, 1917 made to Headquarters of 13th Wing by Captain Grid Caldwell, his Flight Commander* which clearly states "damage done: 17 bullet holes, trailing edge of lower plane shot away in two bays". It does not indicate whether it was the port or starboard lower plane. The fabric just ahead of the trailing edge undoubtedly began to shred after a concentrated burst and, subsequently, began to peel back to the trailing edge of the wing.
There have been suggestions by people who lack knowledge about such things that if the aircraft had been shot up to that extent in the morning, then it could not have been flown by Bishop later that day. This is a totally false statement. Had our own Nieuport 17 suffered such damage, we could have it in the air again within a few hours due to the extremely rapid drying "dope" used to attach the fabric patches. The technique we would use would be the same as in WWI. The mechanics of the time were used to this kind of problem, which highlights one of the advantages of a fabric covered aircraft.
On the third point, I am intrigued by the suggestion that any pilot would fire a machine gun into the relatively fragile structure of a WWI aircraft before flying it again. Given that the structure of the Nieuport 17 was basically a fabric-covered, wooden, wire-braced frame (with tail assembly and ailerons having a light steel tube perimeter), - can you imagine anyone doing that? The chance of severing some vital member is quite real. If he did that, his next take-off would be his last. On the question of the missing Lewis machine gun, there are several possibilities. The Lewis machine gun on the Nieuport 17 can be swung down into the muzzle-high position by the pilot by the simple action of pulling a cable release to the front lock and pulling the butt downward to put it in a position for the removal of the empty cartridge drum and replacing it with a full drum. It is possible that Bishop found that the gun may have jammed in that position interfering with his vision and, at the same time, being in a useless position causing nothing but aerodynamic drag. It would be a simple matter to loosen the thumb screw on the main clamp, unscrew the Bowden cable and throw the gun overboard. One other strong possibility is that the gun became dislodged and twisted off it's mount during the gyrations of aerial combat. I understand that this would not have been the first time that this would have occured.
I do hope that the forgoing might be of some interest and value in your deliberations.
National Aviation Museum