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Falcons of France

Falcons of France

(Charles Nordhoff & James Hall)

Amazon lists this book as written for Young Adults--what used to be known as a "boy's book." Reading it, you realize two things right off. First, boys used to be a lot less sophisticated than they now are, and second, they were a hell of a lot more literate. I reckon that if you sprinkled Falcons of France with some f- and s-words, then added a bedroom scene or two, it would challenge the average college graduate of today.

It's a good yarn, and it's convincing. Both Nordhoff and Hall (the Mutiny on the Bounty guys) were veterans of the Layfayette Flying Corps, and I'm told that Hall was famous or infamous for his stunts, such as doing aerobatics over German ack-ack positions to taunt the gunners on the ground. The part I liked best was how they evidently learned to fly:

Our hero is a Californian who goes to France in the summer of 1917 and is assigned to "the Bleriot school" at Avord. He is very excited about this because the Bleriot system involves no flight instructors. Yes!

Instead, the student pilot starts on a "penguin," a taildragger with stubby wings. You climb aboard, apply throttle, raise the tail, and roar across the field to where an "Annamese" (Vietnamese) Legionnaire awaits. (The Lafayette FC pilots were first inducted into the Foreign Legion, then transferred to "the Aviation.") He turns the penguin around, and you race back to the starting point. Repeat until you get the hang of it.

After mastering the penguin, you are assigned to a "roller," which can fly but isn't supposed to. You go airborne for a few hundred yards, land, go airborne, and land again until you have used up the field; then you get turned around and do it in the other direction.

The next stage is flights around the field, then left and right spirals. "I smashed a landing gear and broke a wing or two," says the Californian, but altogether he seems very pleased with his progress. The big challenges are "going to altitude" (above 2000 meters) and flying cross-country (150-mile triangles). That done, you get your wings and go to the "school of combat," thence to the front.

After that, it's a fairly conventional war story of the time, with so much insouciance (how's that for a Young Adult word?) that after a while you want to knock their heads together. Comes the spring of 1918, however, and the Germans launch their last, win-the-war drive. French and American alike, the pilots lose their carefree ways. Their hands shake, they can't sleep, and they become totally convincing.

Good book. Better than most of what passes for adventure writing today.