Do you remember the first time you were on an airplane? My first flight was when I was in 4th grade to visit relatives in Arizona. Many of us experienced our first flight on a commercial airliner, complete with cushioned seats, in flight movies, and a snack. But what do you think it would have felt like to have your first flight in the open air cockpit of a Curtiss Jenny during World War I? (My guess: loud, bumpy, and no snacks). Native Virginian Thomas Love Chrisman did just that when he left school at the University of Virginia to serve in World War I. Flight was still in its early stages during these days and Chrisman documented many of the accidents the cadets had during their training with photographs. Chrisman wrote on the back of this photograph at right that this was an “unusual entry into barracks”. Fortunately for Chrisman, his first flight was more successful.
Chrisman faithfully wrote home to his mother, Louisa B. Chrisman and described in great detail his experiences. She in turn gave the letters to the local Clarke County newspaper who published his accounts. Here is an except from his description of his first flight:
“While you were getting ready to take your trip Monday a.m. I was undergoing one of the greatest sensations of my life-e-g., my first flight…As strange as it may sound I found myself marching along wondering if my feelings weren’t similar to those of a prospective bridegroom on his wedding eve, in that I was entering into an existence which might prove wonderfully happy or fatal…
At last my turn came and I climbed into the “cock-pit” all dolled up in helmet and goggles…The lieutenant told me that my first trip would be a joy ride at 1000 feet and that I was to look around and enjoy the scenery… After turning the propeller over two or three times to prime the cylinders the mechanic said “contact” and after hearing the lieutenant repeat “contact” the mechanic gave the propeller one little yank and the old ninety-horse power Curtiss was off with a roar…we taxied (bumped along on two wheels and the tail skid) to the opposite end of the field…Having arrived there and turned into the wind, the lieutenant looked back (he’s in the front and the most dangerous cock-pit) and yelled (engine is running) “are you ready?” That “are you ready” made me feel funny…I managed to shake my head, however, (after making sure I was strapped in tight) and he “gave her the gun” (opened the throttle).
She started to roll along on the ground and I felt the body come up to a horizontal position as we gained speed rapidly. We were then riding along on two wheels and the sensation was just like one experiences in an automobile as it goes from low to high speed. Presently it seemed to ride exceptionally easy and but for the throb of the engine we were apparently floating. I peeped out and saw the ground was about ten feet below and falling lower all the time…I realized for the first time that my future existence depended upon the will of the lieutenant, and the strength of a few little cables that hold the wings of the plane.”
Once in the sky, Chrisman notes: “In general the earth seems to have a beautiful green carpet on it and is apparently very smooth. We have been climbing steadily and the altimeter now shows 1000 feet. Thus we ride around and enjoy the view when suddenly the roar stops and as the nose points down you hear the wind sing by the wires of the wings and you realize (after making sure your breakfast isn’t in your mouth) that the engine is cut off and you are gliding to earth at about 80 miles per hour. The average “landing” is rougher than the “take off” but not objectionable. He gets close to the ground and runs paralel [sic] to it until the wheels settle to earth due to loss of speed.”
Chrisman survived the war, returned to Virginia, married, and had two daughters. He would later serve again in World War II as part of the 8th Army Air Force stationed in England. His first experiences with flight are very different from ours today.