The Perils of Flight, 1917-18
War Birds describes the experience of Sprngs, Grider and Callahan as they trained and fought with the British Royal Air Force (RAF), Led by General Hugh Trenchard, whose aggressive philosophy was similar to that of his commander Douglas Haig, the RAF was constantly on the attack, probing into enemy territory and paying for its aggressiveness with a high percentage of its pilots and planes. The madness of the trench warfare below was matched above by the primitive canvas-covered machines that flew as high as 20,000 feet but had no parachutes. Though parachutes had been developed for balloonists and were in use by German pilots in 1918, British commanders reportedly feared that if their pilots had parachutes, they would abandon their craft at the first sign of trouble.
When Springs, Grider and Callahan were picked to join 85 Squadron of the Royal Air Force, they were assigned to fly the latest and best airplane the British had developed at the time -- the SE-5a, a sturdy plane with a reliable 'in-line' engine. Its primary advantage was its speed. Its primary disadvantage was its armament, a single Lewis machine gun mounted on the top wing, above the cockpit. Since the pilot could not look through the gun sight when firing, the pilot aimed the plane at an enemy instead. A wire trigger device enabled pilots to fire the gun without reaching up above their heads. The biggest problem with the top-mounted Lewis gun was in changing the circular ammo drums. While flying the plane the pilot had to reach up, pull the gun downward on a rail mounting, take off the empty drum, stow it in the cramped cockpit and then replace it with a new drum. Because of the time needed to accomplish this feat, SE-5 pilots usually flew off to a safe distance from the enemy while reloading. Sometimes this was impossible and for a few critical moments an SE-5 pilot was totally vulnerable to attack.
When Springs and Callahan were detached from the RAF to the U.S. 148th Squadron in the summer of 1918, they were assigned to fly Sopwith Camels. One of the war's most famous airplanes, the Camel was also one of the most dangerous. Its rotary engine and the concentration of weight in its front section (which gave it the hump that led to its name) made it incredibly maneuverable in combat -- it could turn on a dime and often enabled pilots to dodge bullets. But on takeoff the Camel had a dangerous and sometimes fatal tendency to turn into the ground unless the pilot took strong countermeasures against the torque of the rotary engine. Its engine was also extremely loud and sometimes spewed back burned castor oil, thought to be the only effective lubricant for rotary engines. Since castor oil was a natural laxative, the spray from the engine often made pilots violently ill. The Camel's machine gun was mounted on the fuselage in front of the pilot, firing through the propeller. But because the Camel tended to vibrate constantly, many pilots, including Larry Callahan, considered the Camel "a very bad shooting platform."