I was watching the TV show Countdown the other day and when the contestants took a short break from their word and maths games, Suzie Dent, the mistress of Dictionary Corner went into her usual talk about words. In this particular episode she decided to talk about the word pilot which inspired me to write this entire blog post on the subject.
The word pilot comes from the French word pilote which in turn was derived from the Latin word pilotus. Back in the 16th century the word pilot denoted someone who steered a ship and the term is still in use today mostly referring to those who fly aeroplanes.
Baron Von Richtofen: The Red Baron
Baron Manfred Von Richtofen was an ace German pilot in World War I. He flew a red triplane and was one of the most feared pilots in the skies. He was born in Kleinburg, near Breslau in 1892 and began the First World War as a cavalry officer serving on the eastern and later western front. Trench warfare soon made cavalry units outdated and Richtofen became bored with dispatch work and applied to transfer to the newly formed German Imperial Air Force.
At the beginning of the war it was felt that officers should not be pilots and Richtofen started his flying career as an observer. Times quickly changed though and after meeting the ace pilot Oswald Boelcke, Richtofen asked to be trained as a pilot. He started out badly crashing on his first solo flight but later Boelcke, who had created Germany’s first fighter squadron, Jasta 2, asked him to join.
Fighter combat in WWI evolved quickly. At first aircraft were used for reconnaissance but then aircraft from opposing armies took pot shots at each other with rifles and then later, fixed machine guns. British aircraft were ‘pusher’ aircraft with a propellor at the rear to push the plane along. This meant that a machine gun could be placed at the front so the pilot could shoot at whatever was ahead. Aircraft with propellors at the front were better and faster but how could a gun shoot through the propellor blades?
In 1915 Fokker produced the first fighter plane with a machine gun synchronised to the propellor so the machine gun could fire through the arc of the propellor. This gave the Germans a considerable advantage in the air.
Richtofen’s first confirmed kill came in September 1916 and he ordered a small silver cup engraved with the date and type of aircraft he had shot down. He continued this tradition with his next victories until he had 60 cups but by then the war had limited supplies of silver in Germany and he had to stop. His kills and victories however went on.
In January 1917 he assumed command of Jasta 11 which came to be known as Richtofen’s Flying Circus and which many celebrated pilots of the time joined. In late 1917 he began to paint his aircraft red and also began to use the Fokker Triplane, one of the most famous aircraft of the period.
Richtofen was shot down in April 1918 and killed. He was flying low while chasing a British Sopwith Camel piloted by rookie pilot Wilfrid May of 209 squadron. May’s flight commander Captain Arthur Brown intervened to help May but the dogfight drifted over British lines and the fatal shot to Richtofen is thought to have come from a machine gun on the ground. The British buried the Red Baron with full military honours.
Amelia Earhart was the first famous female aviator of the 20th century. She was one of the first of many female pilots. She was born in 1897 and in 1920 she paid ten dollars for a ten minute flight in an aeroplane. The short flight changed her life and afterwards she knew she had to be a pilot. She worked at a variety of jobs to fund her flying lessons. In 1921 she purchased her own aircraft and the next year flew up to 14,000 feet setting a new record for a female pilot.
In 1928 she was asked to join the crew of an aircraft that was to cross the Atlantic. The flying crew were a pilot and mechanic and Amelia was basically a passenger and admitted that was the case. ‘I was just baggage’ she told the press. Even so, she was the first female to cross the Atlantic in an aircraft and she and the crew were treated to a ticker tape parade in Manhattan and a visit to the White House to see President Coolidge. Later, in 1932 she flew solo across the Atlantic arriving in Ireland on May 20th. Amelia made many other trips and also competed in long distance air racing. She became a celebrity in America and in 1937 began a round the world flight. Amelia piloted a Lockheed Electra 10E and the only other crew member was navigator Ted Noonan. The pair departed from Miami on June 1 and after numerous stops in South America, Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, arrived at Lae, New Guinea, on June 29, 1937. The final 7,000 miles would be over the Pacific. The duo left Lae at 10:00 am on July 2nd and were heading for Howland Island, a small coral island in the Pacific. The US coastguard had sent a cutter there to assist with navigation. As Amelia neared Howland Island the coastguard picked up various messages and it became clear that the Electra was lost and could not see the island. The last transmissions stated that fuel was running low and that they were flying at 1000 feet. The coastguard generated black smoke in the hope that the aircraft could see them but the aircraft never appeared. The coastguard cutter initiated a search an hour after the last message but nothing was found. The next day the US Navy began a search which lasted for three days but no trace of Amelia Earhart was ever found. Some thought the aircraft had ditched in the sea and that the crew had drowned. Various other theories were put forward: The two managed to get to Gardner Island but died there or perhaps they were captured by the Japanese and shot as spies. The mystery has continued to this day.
Elton John and Take Me to the Pilot
Take Me to the Pilot was a song written by Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin in 1970 and released as the flip side to Elton’s Your Song that same year. Some sources on the internet say the single was a double A side disc but apparently DJs preferred Your Song and that became Elton’s first chart hit.
Neil Armstrong was born on August 5th, 1930. He went on to become a pilot for the US Navy and saw action in the Korean War flying aircraft from the aircraft carrier USS Essex. After the war he became a test pilot flying various aircraft including the famous X-15 Rocket Plane. He joined NASA in 1962 and flew into space aboard Gemini 8 in 1966. The flight was a difficult one as the crew were the first to try a space rendezvous. They docked with a target vehicle in space but a faulty thruster caused the Gemini capsule to roll uncontrollably. Fortunately, Armstrong was able to undock from the other vehicle and stabilise the capsule. Too much fuel was used up though forcing the crew to make an early return to earth.
In 1969 Armstrong flew to the moon on Apollo 11 and became the first man to walk on the moon. It was a tricky mission though and during the landing as the Lunar Excursion Vehicle dropped towards the moon’s surface the spacecraft’s computer kept throwing up ‘1201’ and ‘1202’ program alarms. Neither Armstrong nor Aldrin knew what that was but the controllers at mission control knew. The on-board computer which had less memory than a modern mobile phone, could not deal with all the data it was receiving. Armstrong switched over to manual flight, hopped the lunar lander over a rocky area then finally dropped down safely onto the lunar surface with only a scant few seconds of fuel remaining.
Landing on the moon made Armstrong a hugely famous and popular man and that fame was something he and his fellow astronauts were unprepared for. Armstrong later resigned from NASA and took on a teaching position at the University of Cincinnati. He died in 2012 after suffering complications from bypass surgery.
Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger III
Sullenberger, known as Sully was the pilot of US Airways flight 1549. On take off from La Guardia Airport in New York in January, 2009, his aircraft was hit by a flock of Canada geese and power from both engines was lost. Sullenberger realised that the only thing he could do was to ditch in the Hudson River. He did so and all passengers and crew were rescued safely.
Thunderbirds was a TV puppet series from the 1960s produced by Gerry Anderson. The series was part of an entire futuristic world set in the 2060s which other puppet shows in the Anderson canon all became a part of. Puppet series like Fireball XL5, Stingray, Captain Scarlet and Joe 90 were futuristic TV shows all produced by Gerry and his wife Sylvia.
In Thunderbirds, Anderson tells the story of International Rescue, an organisation created by Jeff Tracy with a secret headquarters on Tracy Island. Thunderbird 5 is a space station constantly monitoring the airwaves down on Earth and listening out for calls for help. When an emergency situation is detected, Thunderbird 1, a rocket plane, is immediately despatched to take charge of the situation and its pilot Scott Tracy will find somewhere to set up a mobile control centre and take stock of the situation.
Millionaire Jeff Tracy is a former astronaut (the first man on Mars if I remember correctly) and it is his sons who pilot the Thunderbird craft designed by their technical genius, ‘Brains’. Jeff’s other sons are Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John, all named after US astronauts from the 1960s.
Scott was named after Scott Carpenter and voiced by the actor Shane Rimmer.
The TV Pilot
Another type of pilot is a TV show. Producers often produce a pilot episode for a projected new series and then decide whether to make a full series depending on the success of the pilot. A famous pilot was the one made for Star Trek. In the pilot episode, Captain Christopher Pike is played by Jeffrey Hunter and he and his crew investigate a distress call from an unknown planet.
NBC apparently weren’t happy with the result and asked for another pilot episode and in that one William Shatner made his first appearance as Captain Kirk. Later the original pilot was re-edited into a new two part episode called ‘The Menagerie’ in which a court martial on the Enterprise views footage from the earlier mission.
Thanks to Wikipedia Creative Commons for the pictures of Manfred Von Richtofen, Amelia Earhart and Neil Armstrong.
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Amongst many other films, Shane Rimmer was in a couple of James Bond films, You Only Live Twice and The Spy Who Loved Me. Also, Gerry Anderson wrote an early screenplay for Moonraker.
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Didn’t know about the Anderson Moonraker script. I always find it interesting that Rimmer actually looks like Scott Tracy. Wonder if they modelled the puppet on Shane himself?