Reading about World War I aviation has been one of my continuing passions since I was a child. I possess a very large library, mostly of pilots' memoirs and diaries, and of fact books about aircraft and tactics. I think there is much to learn from the accounts of the early aviators, especially those who had to test themselves and their machines in war, and not all of the lessons are confined to aeronautics.
This morning, I made a point of reading about the Royal Aircraft Factory's creation, the B.E.12. The Royal Aircraft Factory, or RAF, was the government's official supplier of aircraft for the military, and as such, had a near monopoly on aircraft design, if not on production. It was run by government appointees, whose primary purpose (as is the goal of all government bureaucrats) was to protect their own jobs and privileges. Few had any experience of front-line flying and, what is even more extraordinary, they were determined to adhere to their preconceived notions of what the army needed despite all evidence and all reports of fatal failure. It was this mindset which produced the B.E. 12.
This was a purpose-built airplane designed to replace its predecessor, the B.E. 2. The B.E. 2 was the Royal Flying Corps' standard reconnaissance plane during 1915 and 1916, and at the outset of the war it filled its role well. It was a tractor bi-plane (it had the engine in the front), with a high-set top wing and a fan-shaped tail that gave it rather the appearance of an ambitious box kite. Though very slow, it was valued for its stability, a prime asset in its role of photographing enemy installations and helping to range artillery fire. However, as the war went on and the German air service developed new and better technologies, the B.E 2 acquired the macabre sobriquet of "Fokker fodder." This was due to the fact that the Fokker monoplane, a relatively speedy little fighter equipped with a machine gun synchronized to fire through its propeller, made mincemeat of the old, slow, inadequately armed B.E.'s.
Nonetheless, the Royal Aircraft Factory was wedded to the idea of a slow, steady observation plane, and against all evidence and reason, continued to build the B.E. 2's and to equip the RFC squadrons at the Front with them. The slow, slightly armed B.E. 2's were being shot down at an alarming rate, causing a member of Parliament to declare that the RAF's insistence on obsolete technologies was killing British pilots, and that their deaths were 'murder.' The Factory's response was the B.E. 12.
Now I took the time this morning to read about the B.E. 12 because I had read previously that it was one of the worst fighter airplanes produced during the Great War, and I wanted a detailed account of its design, manufacture, and performance at the Front. And, indeed, it appears that the 12 was everything I had previously heard about it.
Based on the obsolete B.E. 2, the B.E. 12 was intended as a front-line reconnaissance aircraft which could also be used as a fighter. A number of modifications were made to the old B.E. 2 to create what was to be an answer the lethal challenge of "the Fokker scourge." For example, the front seat was removed, and replaced with a fuel tank, thus putting fifty gallons of kerosene directly in front of the pilot, indeed, at his feet. This meant that if the tank were struck by a bullet and set on fire, the pilot was bound to be burned to death. Indeed, since the airplane, having been shot down, would be in a dive, the flames were sure to be blown back onto him. And since the British Government steadfastly refused to provide its pilots with parachutes (even though they had been available for years, and were issued to German aviators), the result of this modification was to ensure the pilot an agonizing, fiery death. But this was not enough for the institutional wisdom of the Factory. They slung a second fuel tank from the underside of the top wing, exposed for all the world to see. When this was set ablaze, it burned off the wing, causing a fatal crash.
The old B.E. 2's had originally not been armed, and it was only when the Germans began blasting them from the skies that the RFC began to put machine guns on them. But the British had no synchronizing gear at the time, and so the guns could not be made to fire forward. Instead, several complicated mechanisms were tried to enable the pilot to shoot over or around the propeller, all of which were woefully unsuccessful. Still with no means of firing through the propeller, the designers of the B.E. 12 mounted a machine gun on the side of the airplane's nose, and attached metal plates to the propeller tips, hoping that any bullets that struck them would be caromed away. (Of course, a bullet striking a prop blade square-on was bound to shoot it off.) The offset position of the B.E. 12's gun meant that the pilot could not just point the plane at his enemy and fire. Instead, he had to aim through sights mounted on the outside of the struts above the gun. He thus had to lean out of the cockpit in order to aim and fire his gun, while still performing the aerobatic maneuvers of the dog fight.
Now bear in mind that the chief purpose of the B.E. 12, as with its predecessor, was reconnaissance. The solo pilot was expected to fly the airplane and take photographs with the view camera hung on the outside of the cockpit. These primitive air cameras used glass plates - yes, glass - which had to be changed by hand with each exposure. Thus, the pilot had to lean over the side, view through the camera, take a picture, offload the glass negative, put it into the storage bin inside the cockpit, take out another, lean out again, and replace the plate, all while flying the airplane. And not just that - he also had to be on the lookout for enemy aircraft which might sneak up on him at any moment and try to kill him.
While it might have been possible to fly the B.E. 12 with one hand and take pictures with the other, a division of attention among three critical tasks was, simply, impossible. Yet this was precisely the challenge which was handed to British pilots when the B.E. 12 was forced upon them by the government bureaucracy. (Remember that the average age of a fighter pilot on the Western Front was nineteen or twenty years; thus, boys, many of them scarcely trained to fly, were being asked to undertake this impossible task.) And all of this was to be accomplished in an airplane that was almost certain to catch on fire and burn its pilot to death.
Yet this was the best that the government could do to address the slaughter of British pilots: Tanks of kerosene at the pilot's feet and over his head, a machine gun placed so that it was nearly impossible to aim, a camera that required an extra pair of hands to operate; and it was still slow and inadequately armed.
Now why do I raise all this? Because we, in this nation at this time, are about to have forced upon us the B.E. 12 equivalent of health care reform. It is a program designed by bureaucrats whose agenda is their own power and perquisites, and not the health and lives of the citizens. A program that is being cobbled together in face of a crisis using old solutions that were proved no longer to work, exactly as was the B.E. 12. And though members of Congress have not even read the 1000-page-plus bill, the president demands that it be sent to him in a matter of weeks. This is nonsense, it is idiocy, it would not be tolerated in any rational system of government. But in the past decades, the left has so stirred the populace to near hysteria regarding health care that no one dares challenge anymore the wisdom of the government taking charge of it, on any terms at any cost. Instead, only aspects (and precious few aspects) of this monster, life-altering legislation are being debated, for the simple reason that almost no one knows what is in the bill, nor what to expect if it passes.
But we do know what to expect, based on prior experience with massive government programs such as this: waste, fraud, incompetence, indifference to individuals, more bureaucracy, higher taxes, the substitution of statistics for humanity, and, as with the B.E. 12, unnecessary suffering and death. When the government takes over health care in this country (which it will do given the climate of hysteria, and the craven response of the opposition), it will cease to be health care and will become health corruption. It will be a government power-grab disguised as a humanitarian effort; it will be the B.E. 12 in which all of us will be forced to fly, whether we like it or not.