Creating WW1 Vintage Aviation Photo’s….

I want to have a mix of sketches and photos in the journal.  The photos would be real scenes from The Blue Max story line, but want an edge of fantasy so the reader can still use their imagination to remember the story the way they saw it in their own minds eye. The experiments with sketches and clouds got my mind going on using photo collages, taking real WW1 photographs but combine, planes skies and figures so I could compose my own picture to match the action in the story.  I intentionally am fuzzing out the detail to leave the end result abstract.  Lots of potential here.

First came a vintage plane crash image.


Than a picture of Mr. Von Richthofen


Then a stormy sky….


Put them together and filter the image to make it more abstract….

albatros pic copy

Drop the image in the journal and there you go…..

Journal Pic

Not perfect, whites are too bright, tabs to big,  resolution is not great, but it has a lot of promise!

Creating my vintage tabletop!

My vision for this journal is that it is packed full of artifacts, maps, reports.  This means not only will I be photographing pages in the journal, but I will be unfolding and photographing larger exhibits as well.  To do that the copy stand surface has to be large and the table top becomes as important of an element as the journal or the pen.  I have been building the large copy stand but was really unsure what material to use for the top.  I toyed with using black epoxy or some kind of fancy wood veneer but did not want to spend a fortune. I was digging through our garage when it dawned on me that our old butcher block kitchen table from years back was buried in the garage somewhere and being used to store gardening supplies.  I started researching “do it yourself” websites for aging butcher block and found some great videos that convinced me I could come up with something convincing by carefully beating the crap out of the old table top. I was on my way to creating a vintage table top!

This first set of images shows the table itself cut down to size and placed on the copy stand.  I sanded it many times with a vibration sander with sandpaper from 120 to 220 grit to get it as smooth as possible.  Once that was done, it was time for the fun part.  The last picture in the lower right hand corner are my “implements of destruction”.. Chain link, bolts and nails in a sock, various pieces of metal that I could indent the surface by wacking it with a hammer to make it look old.  The trick was to be random but with an eye for composition.  Hard to explain, but you did have to think about it so that the markings feel random and are not a distraction in the final picture


This series of pictures shows the finishing of the butcher block.  I used about three coats of an oil based walnut colored stain.  Brushed it on and wiped it off with a towel.  I did do a test sample first on one of the scraps.  One of the random discoveries was that if I scored the butcher block joints with a nail the stain sticks in the groove and gave it a plank board look.  By doing this at every other block it simulated larger planks than the narrow butcher block pieces.  Somehow this felt more like an old table you might find in the squad meeting room to me.   I finished it off with about four coats of a hand rubbed polyeurathane finish, sanding with very fine steel wool in the end.  Likely it is too shiny right now, may have to use the steel wool to dull it some.


Here are some test pictures of the finished table top with the journal on top of it.  Almost looks like a 1900’s era table from an old school building.  Ton’s of room for larger exhibits to be composed if needed.


Here it is with the journal open.  My camera has very limited f-stop control so it is not possible to get the table and journal in full focus.  Santa is bringing me a better camera so I expect the photo quality to be much better on the final.


And so you get a sense of where I am going with this, here is the same picture after adding a sketch and some text in photoshop.  The sketch is a scan of a hand sketch where the backround color has been made clear so the paper shows thru.  That means things like shadows from the pen actually show up.   Once you place the layer over the photograph you erase the lines that overlap the pen so it looks like it goes under the pen.  I also made the layers slightly tranparent so that it receeds.  Still some white hot spots showing and I am not happy with the resolution of the sketch especially if you zoom in, but overall I am pleased with the quality and feel.


More adventures to come, need to see if I can age the journal itself so that it looks as old as the table next.

For those that have to look up…..

As an aviation enthusiast, the people of the world are divided into two groups.  Those that have to look up and those that don’t.

child lying on a grass field

I am somewhat blessed in my neighborhood.  I have a small municipal airport to the northeast as well as two military bases not too far away.  Not so close to be a nuisance, but close enough to provide regular entertainment.  If you happen to spend a day on an outdoor project on the weekend and you pay attention you can see a lot.  Twice a day a jetfighter will go ripping by high overhead.  You have to work to find it because the sound and the jet are not in the same place.  During fire season the big C-130’s will go rumbling by far on the horizon.  If you’re lucky on a Sunday you might see a group of four V-tailed aircraft flying in tight formation (wow, who gets to do that!!).  In spring the CAF comes to town and all day long they fly trips with B-25’s, B-17’s and occasionally P-51 Mustangs.  Very little yard work gets done on those days.  Of course not all the entertainment is motorized.  We get flocks of canadian geese flying in very disciplined “vic” formations.  A treat for those that really pay attention is when the Sandhill Cranes come to town.  They fly at 3,000 to 5,000 ft. so you can barely hear them, you almost think you are imagining it and you have to squint your eyes to find them.


My favorite “looking up” story was when I was playing in the surf in San Diego at Swami’s Beach on a crowded summer day.  A P51 Mustang came ripping along the coast at maybe 100 feet above the water.  My jaw dropped, I started blabbering like an idiot to a young man next to me  trying to explain the history of the fighter and what a rare treat he had just experienced.  He was polite enough, but probably thought I was  little deranged.


So why do we look up?  A hobbiest’s interest?  The thrill of flight?  The suprise of what you might see?  Probably a bit of all three but there is something a bit primal in it, not unlike watching the night sky for shooting stars.  It is unique because you are both appreciating the natural  beauty of the sky and clouds, but also the machines and the men and women flying them.  Most of us keep our feet on the ground 99% of the time, but when we watch someone else fly it lifts our spirits and gives us a thrill as we imagine ourselves weaving through the clouds.

Sometimes people have to look up for different reasons.

I had a unique experience this week visiting a recently completed Children’s Hospital. They had an MRI room that was specifically designed for small children.  MRI’s are large frightening machines.  They make noise.  If you are a child and you need an MRI something very serious is going on in your life.  Generally you have to sit still for an extended period of time ( and we all know how much children love having to do that!!)…. most likely lying on your back looking up at the ceiling.  The designer for this room tried to make the room less frightening by making it look like a forest with blue walls, cove lighting, murals of grass, trees and squirrels.


The special touch that caught my eye was in the ceiling right over the platform.  A small video screen was built into the ceiling and it projected a view of the sky.  It was framed with green tree tops, what you might expect to see if you flopped down in the grass in a forest and look up at the sky.  Three Fokker Dr1’s did a slow, silent dance, swooping, diving in a random circuit.  It was calming, mesmerizing and was intended to distract a child from the fear and intimidation of their procedure.  In a sense the designer was trying to distract you from the cold steel beast of an MRI machine by observing animations of machines made of wood and canvas from an earlier era.  More subtley the designer attempted to tap into a bit of the “wonder” that attracts people to look up in the first place in a setting where a child has no choice but to do the same.  My jaw dropped when I saw this too, just like at Swami’s Beach.  Among men and women in business suits I grabbed my i-phone and started filming the animation.  I pointed out to the tour guide that these planes are Fokker Dr1’s, the same planes flown by Baron Von Richtofen and the Flying Circus.  Once again he was polite enough, but I think he thought I was a bit deranged.

I made a short video so you could appreciate it (added the audio because I couldn’t resist).  Hopefully you will never need to see it in person, but the designer tapped into something that will resonate with anyone who considers themselves among “those that have to look up”.


Albatrii Attack!


Well the “Konrad” fountain pen arrived from the folks at The Goulet Pen Company, carefully packed and full of many “down home” touches, like a personal note in one of their other ink colors on the reciept and an unexpected tootsie pop attached inside the box ( I ate it right away).  After carefully watching the video on filling the pen, had a bit of a road trip and brought the sketch pad and pen along to try it out.  Calligraphy is not my thing but I have three distinct memories about ink pens.  The first was the old fountain pen set in the marble base on my dad’s desk ( not to be messed with), the second was a set of calligraphy pens made specifically for left handed people (me) that barely made it out of the package (good idea but my penmanship sucks!).  The third was what any tired old architect remembers which was my set of rapidograph pens used for drafting on mylar.  Much clogging, much cleaning, etc etc.

From the first stroke the flex tip foutain pen has been a joy.  We have gotten so used to the compromise that comes with the convenience of felt tip pens that are inconsistent or tips that get crushed that I was amazed at how light a touch produced a clean crisp line with the fountain pen.  Being able to lean a bit more on the tip and get a thicker line is the same functionality on my blue tooth ipad stylus so it was interesting to see the same result in an actual fountain pen.  After messing around on the road trip this morning I was ready to give it a try on an appropriately themed sketch for this blog.

I did a pencil sketch first of an Albatros DIII, just light line to get the proportions right. Then I inked over it to get the overall lines, trying to keep it loose and not look like a trace job.  I erased the pencil and started adding detail. Again the goal here is not to do an absolute photographic ink drawing, but to get the feel of a field sketch, something you could do in an hour or so.  Here is the result.


I was really pleased with the feel of it, still cartoony but reasonably accurate.  Of course once you’ve drawn it once, a shame to not play with it a bit, so I scanned the image, and started looking for a stormy sky.  I wanted a more surreal feel so I filtered a good image I found online to make it more abstract.  I clipped the sketch and turned it into flight of three Alabatrii.  I made each smaller image slightly transparent to give a feeling of depth.  Also added a shadow around the clipped image that makes no sense other than to give it a more collage feel.  I really liked the result, not to far off from what you might see in a graphic novel.



In the end I grabbed the image as my desk top, and with two monitors it looks like a full on attack!!!  Too much fun, more experimenting to come in the future.


Thanks again to The Goulet Pen Company folks for luring me into the world of fountain pens!

Valiant Hearts – A Game….or is it ?

I read about Valiant Hearts (by Ubisoft) before it came out but lost track of it.  Jim “Bayonet” MacKay ( one of my squadmates ) reminded me about it so I gave it a second look.  If you were a fan of Grim Fandango or Monkey Island the format will be familiar to you.  A puzzle game with plenty of hints and visual cues so you don’t get stuck.  A compelling story line that ties the game play together.  But there is so much more here…a somber soundtrack, references to historical letters, battles and maps, historical fact pop-ups that are themed to align with the action and even the images you encounter during the game play.  Well anyone who combines adventure games with graphic novel artwork and World War 1 military history deserves some recognition on this blog, so here are some images, the website and a video trailer for your entertainment!


This episode focuses on the Battle of Marne.


Some of the facts show images that are used in the graphic novel.  Note the stacked rifles holding up the flag.  The image makes an appearance at this setting at a train station.


And of course I have to include some images with aircraft.  Nieuport 11’s and Albatrii? Have not played any levels with aircraft but they look promising.


Sometimes historical facts are stranger than fiction…. this generals headgear is certainly a good example.

Pic1(  von Guber looks familiar doesn’t it?)

Each episode has 7 levels, a single expisode costs $4.99 on i-tunes, you can buy the remaining 3 episodes for $8.99.  Hard to not support Ubisoft’s effort to tie heartfelt story telling, graphics and military history with the World War 1 Centennial.




It Starts with the Pen……

The previous post with the diary of Zenos Ramsey Miller was an “ahaa” moment for me. I was so focused on developing the sketchbook in a digital format that I lost sight of what a real wartime journal might look like.  I realized that the emotion and hand built touch of an actual ink pen is pretty hard to simulate in photoshop or sketchbook programs.   I started researching fountain pens and found this article in a blog by

It was the sketches themselves that hooked me.  They have that “off the cuff” feel that I would expect in a soldier’s field sketch when he has very little time to capture an emotional scene



When you look at the detail the line weight can be fat or thin, rushed or careful and all of this is coming out of single fountain pen.


It is so close in character to the vintage sketches in the example journal that my gut says I am on the right path for the type of work I want to do.


The way a flex nib fountain pen gets such variation is that the tip is split down the center.  As you lean on the tip the metal flexes and the tines spread apart allowing more ink to flow.

Pen Nib Pen Tip


It is interesting how parallel this experience is the bluetooth type of ipad stylii that are available out there.  These bluetooth pens sense the position of the pen on the screen using wireless technology and there is a give to the tip that senses pressure to deliver a thinner or thicker line based on how hard you press the pen.  Digital or Analog, getting a feel for how the pen works and how the ink flows is key to sketching.  As with all new things on the internet, I discovered the fountain pen culture is its own world, deep and wide.  Pages of products, passionate reviews of custom inks, training videos on how to use the pens, store them, clean them.  I had no idea how developed the “fountain pen” community is.   I settled on the Konrad’s Flex Fountain Pan manufactured by Noodler and their custom black ink.  I purchased it from The Goulet Pen Company and hope it arrives soon!  If you are interested in digging in, here is the website with the training videos.

What does resonate for me is the simplicity.  One pen to master, myself and a sketchpad.  I could see how Unteroffizier Gerhardt Rupp could have stowed these away in his kit bag and pulled it out in a moments notice out in the field.  Will keep you posted on my progress


“Dairy of a World War 1 Ace” (TBMP Returns!)

This blog has been in serious hibernation for three or four months, but real life has settled a bit and I now have time to get back to my long term project.  The Blue Max Project (TBMP) goal is to develop a companion exhibit to accompany Jack Hunter’s novel “The Blue Max”.  It will be told from the perspective of the Unteroffizier Gerhardt Rupp, the informant and smuggler of contraband at the Aerodrome Bruno Stachel was stationed at.   The format will be in the form of a journal and a sketchbook.  It will be images of pages of that journal with artifacts like maps and reports, and photographs folded inbetween the pages.  Once enough content is complete I intend to issue pages serially on this blog as the story develops.

In some ways I have been stumbling in the dark on my own vision of what this journal might look like and how rich in detail it might be.  In September I grabbed my mail and was walking up back to my house, paging thru the new issue of Air and Space and literally stopped in my tracks when I ran into this article by Rebecca Maksel called “Diary of a World War I Ace”.  This article included multiple images from the diary of Zenos Ramsey Miller, a World War I ace that served in the 27th Aero Squadron in France in 1918.  Here is a link to the article ( all images below are from Air & Space Smithsonian September 2014 )


The images themselves just raised the bar of what TBMP is trying to achieve.  It reinforces so many things that were floating around in my head.  The idea that photos, reciepts, menu’s would be included in a journal as artifacts.


The idea that sketches would be simple or sophisticated, silly doodles or serious field sketches and that these sketches could be paired with photographs and maps the reinforce “The Blue Max” story line creating a new level of immersion in the World War I era and Jack Hunter’s wonderful book.




Wow!  Clearly I have my work cut out for myself.  Expect more regular posts in the future. Behind the scenes I will be writing and sketching, but my posts will focus more on technique, “Selecting a Fountain Pen”, “How to make journal entries look old in Photo Shop”, “How to build a home-made copy stand” and whatever other hurdles show up along the way.  I’m sure I will throw in some teasers and samples of the work itself as it develops.

That’s all for now, nice to be back.

(PS  I added the images of the diary to the drop down menu under sources, too good to not refer back to from time to time)

Juri’s Last Stand (Ilya Muromets over Folkestone)

August is the one year anniversary of The Blue Max Project so I wanted to do something special.

A passion for aviation, military history, storytelling, graphic arts and the flight sim community is what drives this project..  If I can find something that touches all of them at the same time, even better!

 The video and story below started with an experiment to see if I could place the Russian Ilya Muromets S-22 bomber inside the Rise of Flight flight sim mission builder (thank you Duck).  It led to a mission that I built that sent six bombers over Folkestone for a bombing run.  I recorded the mission that consisted of all AI planes, no real players flying.  One of the joys of simulations is that they generate their own random events.  This one was visually stunning and I felt I needed to do something with it.  Of course the actual “characters” and setting made in the mission made no sense at all.  The Russian bombers belong on the Eastern Front, not here across the English Channel, hugging the cliffs of Dover and they certainly wouldn’t be bombing an Entente port.

 I dug into the history of the town of Folkestone to see if it had ever been bombed during the war.  This port was rarely attacked and the town itself was relatively untouched until 1917.  It is sometimes referred to as the “Tontine Street Air Raid” and occurred on May 25, 1917.  Twenty three German Gothas where on route to attack London, but hit bad weather and had to return. On the return their flight path crossed Folkestone so they decided to drop their bombs over the city instead of carrying them all the way home.

 Folkestone was the primary staging port for sending soldiers across the English Channel to the front.  Tens of thousands of men from various countries filled the town, marched up and down its streets, drank pints in their pubs.  The townhouses and homes had been taken over for the duration of the war to provide housing for the soldiers as well as over 65,000 Belgian refugees.

 It was Friday around six o’clock on a warm spring evening.  The Whitsun Bank Holiday was on Monday, so mother’s where out with their children shopping and soldiers were in the pubs warming up to the weekend.  Airfields and Military bases were nearby, so the sound of bombers overhead or the sound of distant explosions was nothing out of the ordinary for people living in the town.  When the Gothas started dropping bombs on the town itself it was a complete surprise.  Stokes Brothers Green Grocers was full of people and took a direct hit.  The scene was tragic and grisly.  Over seventy people were killed and another thirty injured, most of them women and children.

 The final bit of history is about the Ilya Muromets S-22 bomber itself.  This airplane was designed and constructed in pre-war Russia by Igor Sikorsky in 1913.  It was initially conceived as a luxury airliner with ample cabin space and seating.  It could hold sixteen passengers and had wicker seats and large side windows for views.  When the war broke out the aircraft was converted to military use and fitted with bombs.  It was the most advanced four engine bomber in its time.  It dominated the skies over the Eastern Front during the early stages of the war, flying over 400 sorties and dropping 65 tons of bombs.  German Albatrii stayed away from them because their formidable gun platform made them difficult to shoot down.  As the war dragged on a lack of parts crippled the Imperial Russian Air Service. By 1917 very few of these planes were still flying in combat and those that were flying were  relegated to the secondary role of trainers and transport planes.

 Clearly more than enough here for a good story ….and no, I’m sure Russian bombers never bombed Folkestone, but it wouldn’t be a story if some it wasn’t made up right?


Juri’s Last Stand

(Ilya Muromets over Folkestone)

By WWGeezer

My name is Donat Federov and I am an old, old man.  Yes, I was a navigator in the Imperial Russian Air Service, but I was no hero.  I wanted to be a pilot, but in my military career I only flew for a few short minutes and those are minutes I try to forget.  There are just a  few of us left from the Great War, and every Spring, when Victory Day comes around, they dress us up in our old uniforms and put us on display in front of the tenement building where I live.  I shouldn’t complain, Ilga takes good care of me.  She makes sure I’m comfortable.

“Mr. Fedorov, is this spot okay?  Do you need a blanket?  You look very handsome in your uniform.  The parade will come by soon.  If everything is okay, I will leave you alone and come back in an hour.”

I force a smile, try to make her comfortable, “Everything is fine Ilga, this spot is fine, you can go now.”

I manage okay, but this time of year is hard.  I can hear the marching band approaching from far down the street.

Ratty tatt tatt

Ratty tatt tatt

I think back on what I learned in the military, the three rules a good Russian soldier must follow.  First, you must obey your Kapitan, and if you don’t you may be shot.  Of course if you do, you may be shot as well.  Second, you have to look out for your Komrades first and yourself second, because the value of the individual is highly overrated.  Third and most importantly as a good Russian soldier you have to be strong, because if you are weak you will never survive the first two rules.

Ratty tatt tatt

Ratty tatt tatt

 The marching band is almost here, the snare drums stop so the sound of their boots dominate.

Clump, clump, clump

Clump, clump, clump

The streets are crowded and the parade passes by.  In my wheelchair I sit below most of the people and I stare at their backs.  I look down at my folding wrinkled hands, bracing myself for what comes next.

Clump, clump…..BOOM!

Clump, clump…..BOOM!

I jump every time the beater hits the drum, I can’t help it.  It’s the same every year. Once the memories start pouring out, it’s impossible to put them back.

Clump, clump…..BOOM!

Clump, clump…..BOOM!

It was May 1917 and our Otryad had been stationed in Folkestone for the better part of a month.  Stavka sent us here to shuttle parts from our Entente friends back to Russia.  It was an easy assignment, boring really.  Six flight crews jammed into two floors of an apartment above a drapery shop on Tontine Street.  Stokes Brothers Grocery store was across the street and it was the one place in town that we could find decent Vodka.  When our planes were loaded up for the flight back home, we would spend the late afternoons at the large living room window drinking and playing cards.  I was the youngest, barely sixteen years old, being trained as a navigator.  I become close friends with the other pilots, Ernst, Ivan, Konstantine, Mikhail and of course Vladimir.  Vladimir was not much older than me, but more experienced and had just gotten his first assignment as a pilot in the Ortyad.  We would laugh, drink, tell jokes and play cards, watching the troops marching down the hill to the waiting ships.  We used to wonder how many ever came back.

Our Kapitan was Juri Argeyev.  He was a bear of man, old by World War 1 standards, almost thirty five.  He did two things well… drinking Vodka and telling stories.  If he happened to do them together it was certainly going to be a long night.  He dominated our card playing with his commentary and there is very little about his life we did not know.  In 1913 he was trained to fly the Ilya Muromets by its creator Igor Sikorsky when it was first introduced.   The aircraft  was going to bring  air travel to the common man in Russia and Juri was going to lead the way.  When the war broke out the S-22 was converted to a bomber and Juri came along for the ride.  To hear him describe his wartime accomplishments you would be surprised that the war was not already over.

He talked about the Ilya Muromets like they still dominating the skies, but we all knew better.  We struggled to keep our six planes in the air.  The bullet holes from past adventures were patched with bedroom linens and cardboard.  The engines were a collection of spare parts scavenged from other aircraft.  Even though our planes were modified as transports, Juri insisted that each plane carry one bomb, “just in case”.   We knew this was a joke, Juri’s last bombing run was years ago.  The single bomb hung from the bomb rack, like an artifact from a past era.   A wired circuit with a red lever was bolted to the floor next to it and we were careful to keep the cargo clear of it . You bombed by sighting through the bomb bay door and released the bomb by smacking the lever with a carpenter’s hammer that hung from a leather strap on the wall.  A far cry from the sophisticated drift sights and levers in the shiny new Handley Page bombers that the English had lined up row after row on the grassy airfield.

When Vladi and I had time on our hands we would wander thru the Aerodrome looking over the Sopwith Camel’s and SE5a’s,  wishing for real combat instead of spending our days loading crates and making deliveries.  Juri came up behind us and put his two big arms around our shoulders and led us back to our S-22’s. “Komrades, don’t waste your time with these English toys.  You are flying the Tsar’s most beloved aircraft,  designed and built by the hands of the Russian people.  Donat, look at your friend Vladimir, he is flying his own plane now.  If you pay attention and do everything I tell you, someday soon you will get your chance as well!”

As we approached our side of the field we noticed an Australian pilot with his head in the door looking into the cargo area of Juri’s plane. “Christ all mighty, you guys really still fly these things? Aw look, little Ivan brought some bombs along, thinking you might see some action eh?”

Laughing, he tilted his cap back on his head and started to walk away, but Juri followed him. “Listen Durak you need to get your head out of your miner’s tunnels.  Russia was the first country to dominate the skies of this Great War.  The S-22 is better than anything Mr. Chamberlain can muster.   We can sink any German ship in single pass and I have done it myself many times. ”   Vladi and I glanced at each other and rolled our eyes.

We watched as Juri followed the Australian up the path to the main headquarters of the Base Commander.  What had started as a friendly conversation had turned into a heated debate and Juri waived his arms wildly.  Vladimir and I were embarrassed when we saw the Base Commander came out to see what the commotion was about.

A few minutes later Juri came back quite excited. “ The Komandir has given us special orders!  They think that the Central forces may be sending a flight of Gotha’s to attack London this evening.  The Entente fighters are moving everything they can to bases near London today so this airfield will be empty.  I convinced him of the dominance of Imperial Russian Air Service and  he agreed that we should be responsible for defending Folkestone while they are away!”

Vladimir and I tried hard to not start laughing.  They were having some fun with Juri, he was just too headstrong to understand it.  The German U-Boats fired on the  Port of Folkestone now and again just to keep everyone honest, but the town of Folkestone had never been attacked.  All Juri got us was a long night at the airfield instead of the comfort of our flat on Tontine Street.  We spent the morning getting the S-22’s loaded up for our trip back home on Saturday.  Since we had a long night ahead of us, Juri had as break early for lunch and a game of cards back at the apartment.

It was a beautiful Friday afternoon and the streets were jammed.  Soldiers arm and arm, singing and drinking, mothers pushing their baby carriages, storekeepers minding their carts.  Juri was in fine form, puffed up with his new “orders”.  The Vodka flowed and so did the stories.  By 6 o’clock it was time to get back to the base and Juri was drunk.  He stumbled out of his chair and addressed us all.  “ Komrades it is time!  The people of Folkestone have put their lives in the hands of Mother Russia and we must show them what it means to be brave.  Just like Ilya of Murom, we need to put on our armor and ride our horses into battle….”

The speech continued as we gathered are gear.  I joked quietly to Vladimer.  “Vladi, we are lucky these orders are a joke.  Juri is so drunk, the only thing he will be riding is his wicker chair when he falls asleep in the cockpit of his beloved S-22.”

In the distance I could hear the drone of bombers, and Vladimer whispered back.  “ Listen to all those bombers…must be sending most of the Entente forces after those Germans.  Now that I have my own plane, I would give anything to fly it in a real battle instead of providing bus service for the Imperial Russian Air Service.”

We grinned at each other and started to head down the stairs to the waiting cars. The bombers were really loud now, must be right overhead. Eighteen men hurrying down stairs makes a lot of noise so we barely noticed.  Laughing, talking,  squeezing down the narrow stairs with our gear.

Clump, clump, clump

Clump, clump, clump

Clump, clump…..BOOM!

We fell on top of each other in a heap.  The windows on the first floor shattered around us.  The air was filled with dust and smoke.  My ears were ringing, people were screaming but I couldn’t hear anything.  We tumbled into the street and it was filled with rubble.  Stokes Grocery Store was gone.  It was a horror, people running, kneeling, bleeding.  Bodies and parts of bodies where everywhere.  I saw a baby carriage rolling slowly down the hill unattended, in flames.  Dark shadows of Gotha bombers rumbled overhead as they headed out to sea.  Vladimir and I started trying to look for survivors, help the wounded,  when Juri came from behind and hit me hard on the back of the head. “What are you doing you stupid Mudak’s.  We have our orders.  The cars are in the alley, grab your gear and let’s go!”

He was right, our three cars were waiting for us, but the drivers were gone. With Juri, bullying us along we packed into the cars and I got behind the wheel.  Our progress was slow. We weaved our way through the crowds and debris while ambulances and sirens wailed. By the time we made it to the airfield it was almost dark.  Vladimir and I exchanged looks when we notice Juri was sound asleep in the back seat.

As the car came to a stop he roused himself and jumped into action. “ Komrades! No time to unload the supplies,  start those engines and lets get into the air!”

Juri was flying lead and after the engines  started he rolled out on the grass runway.  The S-22 easily pulled up and rose into the sky. Juri was right about one thing, these old birds were tough, they pulled up fast even fully loaded.  Were we ready for battle?  I think not.  Thank god the Gotha’s were long gone by now.  I came up behind Juri, sitting in his wicker chair.  I leaned on the steel ladder for leverage and looked over his shoulder.  The town of Folkestone and the port were alive with search lights scanning the skies, nervous that the Gotha’s might return.  Some of them even tracked our bombers and I began to be concerned. “ Juri, these English have not seen too many S-22’s, do you think they can tell us from a Gotha?”

“ Don’t be a fool Donat, the Base Commander gave us our orders, I’m sure he has informed the battleships that we are in charge of defense.  Go back to the side window and keep an eye on the others for me.”

The S-22 had large side windows that gave a clear view of the horizon.  I was proud of my Otryad when I saw them flying in a handsome spread formation.  The searchlights were frantic but my Russian friends flew with discipline and order.  We would teach these English dandy’s how real pilots performed in battle!  Vladi was Juri’s wingman.  As he pulled up I had a clear view into his glass cockpit and he gave me a small nervous wave.  The S-22 had a steering wheel much like a car.  Vladi had his left hand on the wheel, and was waiving with right.  Suddenly a huge flack burst exploded above his right wing.  I could see his head jerk to the right as he looked over his shoulder to assess the damage.  Almost immediately his plane tilted to the left and began to pass underneath us.

Juri yelled out. “What the hell is he doing?”

I crawled over to the other side window, just in time to see Vladi’s plane pass by.  There was an old castle on the top of the mountain with heavy rubble walls along the cliff.  Vladi was heading straight for it.  I could see the top gunner pounding on the hatch trying to get his attention.  It happened so fast, the impact, the explosion and the crumpled bomber slowly sliding down the hill.

Juri continued to yell. “ Did you see that!  There is German ship in the harbor, it shot Vladi down!  I saw the flash.  It’s right in front of us!”

“Juri your wrong, I was watching.  It was a warning shot, the English don’t know what we are, but they didn’t damage his plane at all.  Vladi panicked.”

Suddenly I was on my back.  Juri’s big fist had backhanded me across the face.  I was seeing stars.  I lifted myself and looked at him as he spoke.

“ You idiot, don’t disagree with me. You’re nothing… barely a navigator.   I know what I’ve seen.  Open the bomb bay door and get ready to release the bomb.  I will call it out.”

Still dazed, I kneeled besides the bomb rack and opened the bomb bay door.  The turbulence filled the cabin with noise.  I looked at the hammer on its leather strap and a sick feeling rose up inside me.  I knew Juri was wrong.  He was drunk.  The flak was distant, it was a warning shot, but if we drop this bomb the English will be sure we are enemies and shoot us all down.

Juri turned to me, holding the steering wheel with his left hand, pointed towards the hammer with his right and nodded to me.  I looked him right in the eyes and slowly turned my head side to side, letting him know I had no intention of releasing this bomb.  His eyes grew big and his face turned red.  He reached down on his right side and pulled out his service revolver, pointing it at my head.


He meant it, I knew it.  He was my Kapitan.  I was only 16 years old and he was a seasoned veteran, perhaps he saw something I didn’t see.  My hand was shaking when I pulled the hammer off the hook.  I tried to convince myself that I was doing the right thing.


I slammed the hammer onto the trigger and watched the bomb drop.  I had a perfect view over the ship below.  Juri may be a drunk and a Huiplet, but he knew how to drop a bomb.  I could see it went right into the smoke stack.  For a split second, nothing…and then a small flash, than the whole smoke stack burst with fire and smoke.  Suddenly the cabin shook and filled with light.  Was the bomb really that big?


It wasn’t our bomb, it was the ships below shooting at us.  No more warning shots from the English, they were sure we were enemies now.  I crawled on my hands and knees and lifted myself up to look out the large side window.   The night sky was filled with flashes as the flak exploded.  The fully loaded S-22’s lumbered across the bay with nowhere to go.  I had already lost Vladimir, but now I had to watch as each of my Komrades in the Otryad struggle to stay in the air.

The first to go was Ernst and his crew.  On quick explosion and both his elevators burst, ripping them apart and large pieces spinning away.  His plane made a slow, sinking tilt to the side and headed straight down to the ocean.

Another flash and boom to the east, and saw Ivan’s bomber shudder in the sky.  At first I thought he might be okay, still flying straight and level.  A second boom and his rudder exploded.  A third boom and half the struts on his right wing split and the top and bottom wing started to separate.  With each burst the whole plane shook and pieces and parts flew in all directions.  Amazingly he continued to fly straight and level as his plane fell apart right in front of me.  The top wing lifted up and the ailerons twisted away.  The framing around the first set of double engines separated from the lower wing and tumbled forward, both propellers still spinning as the engines fell out of the sky.  By the fourth explosion, Ivan’s plane was just debris spread out over the sky, fluttering  and  twisting its way down, making a pattern of splashes in the dark water below.

The last plane I saw go down was Konstantin’s.  A direct hit right above the cockpit where the double fuel tanks sat.  The double explosion was huge and engulfed the whole front of the plane in flames.  His bomber looked like a streaking comet as it dropped from the sky.  Among the smoke and flames I could make out the silhouette of the top gunner, slowly crawling up towards the tail of the plane as if he could find some refuge there.  I had to turn away, I couldn’t watch any more.

Juri and I were the only ones left.  He had continued straight out to sea after our bomb drop.  He cursed as he tried to control the airship against the angry skies around him.  He stomped on the foot pedals and turned the wheel hard side to side as he jinked about, attempted to make us a hard target for the gunners below.  We were almost clear of the harbor and I was beginning to think we might get away when  I was blinded by a flash directly in front of us.  I felt the sting as shattered glass smacked against my face and the cabin filled with noise.  The whole front canopy was shattered and Juri was slumped over the steering column.  We still where headed out to sea, but the engines grumbled and popped, stopping one by one.

I crawled along the floor, grabbing what I could for leverage, trying to get to the pilot’s seat.  My hands were bleeding from the glass shards.  The turbulence whipping through the open canopy was deafening.  I grabbed the steel rungs of the ladder and pulled myself in front of it.  We were slowing down, and the nose of the plane pitched higher and higher.  My back was pressed against the ladder.  I reached out with both hands and yanked Juri by the collar trying to dislodge him from the seat.  Finally gravity was in my favor and he tumbled to the side sliding towards the back of the cabin.   I climbed over the wicker seat and dropped in front of the wheel.

The plane was almost vertical and it felt like it had stopped in the sky.  No engine sounds, no air noise,  just the distant thumping of the flack.  The open canopy in front of me pointing me up to the sky. I could see stars and the criss-crossing trails of the search lights.  Gravity pressed me into the seat..  The air frame groaned like a sinking ship and it started to drop backwards.   For a moment I felt weightless in my chair and I reached out towards the stars thinking perhaps God himself would pull me from this wreckage.

At last the nose started to drop and the engine sounds and turbulence woke me from my stupor.  I grabbed the wheel with both hands and pushed hard forward to try and bring the nose down.  It did nothing at first but as we picked up speed I could feel some control coming back.  Slowly I pulled the wheel back to level the plane.   For a moment it felt like I might be able to set her down flat on the ocean,  but then she started pulling hard to the left.  I stomped with both feet on the right foot pedal, twisted the wheel hard to the right, trying to level out but it was not working.  Tilting further and further to the left I struggled to stay in my seat.  Finally the left wing clipped the surface of the ocean and the plane cartwheeled violently across the water.  I was thrown from the seat, debris everywhere and came to a slamming stop in total darkness as the plane laid down inverted in the ocean.

The cold sea water rushed in through the open canopy, filling the cockpit with water. There was still a small amount of air captured against the floor boards.  I pressed my cheek against the floor boards and took a deep breath.  I dunked down to see if the side door would open, but it was jammed.  I came up a second time, took another gulp of air and headed for the side window.  The glass we cracked but still in place.  I kicked at it a few times and it broke out.  I crawled through, lungs burning, ears popping.  I pushed off the side of the fuselage with my feet, swam to the  surface.  I gasped for air as my head popped above the surface.  I struggled to tread water in my gear.

I shivered in the cold black water, struggling to breath.  No more planes in the sky, no more flack, oddly quiet.  What had I done?  I knew Juri was wrong, but I still dropped that bomb.  Now my whole Otryad was gone.  I felt so alone.  In the distant I could see a small fishing boat with a head lamp scanning the water, coming my way.  In my heart I hoped it would not find me.  I didn’t want to be saved.  I rose and fell in the  rolling swells and watched as the search lights turned off one at a time.

In the end they did save me.  I was returned home.  The Russian Imperial Air Service had two choices.  They could have imprisoned me as a traitor or celebrated me as the sole surviving hero.  In the end a shortage of happy stories in the paper saved me.  The newspaper accounts in Russia described Juri as the fallen hero who defended Folkestone and chased away the German Gotha bombers single handedly.  I was the novice navigator that successfully assisting  Juri in the bombing of a German U-Boat that had snuck back into the Harbor .  I was given medals and a new uniform, but they never let me fly again.

Ilga was back.

“Mr. Federov, the parade is over, may I take you upstairs now?”

“Yes Ilga, I think I have seen enough.”

“ Excellent sir, I will get you to your room and get you into some more comfortable clothes.  Will need to get your uniform and those medals all put away properly.  We are all so proud of you, we will want you to look good for next year.”

“Yes Ilga, I suppose you will”

And those three rules required of a good Russian Soldier?  Well I followed orders and I wasn’t shot, but I surely did not look out for my Komrades.   For that I was rewarded with medals and this nicely pressed uniform that I must wear once a year and smile feebly at people who want to tell me how proud they are of me even though inside I know I am a coward and a murderer.  If a live another year, I will get to do this again.

To be a good Russian Soldier, you have to be strong.