Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, January 14, 2023

The Yanks Meet the Camel

Restored Camel of Colorado's Vintage Aero Flying Museum

By Kimball Worcester, Assistant Editor

For those readers who think Snoopy was the only American to fly the Sopwith Camel, we have a surprise for you.

AEF aero pursuit squadrons are generally known to have flown French planes, SPADs and Nieuports. Indeed, before the arrival of the AEF, American pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille had been flying French planes for several years. But after April 1917, the newly arrived pilots of the American Air Service took what their veteran allies supplied them. For two AEF squadrons under British command (the 17th and the 148th ) the plane designated was the Sopwith Camel F.1. This plane was renowned as the most productive fighter of the war, downing more adversaries than any other fighter from either side. Once mastered, the Camel had remarkable qualities of maneuverability. Such mastery came at a price, however—the Camel killed nearly as many pilots in crashes as did German fighters in combat. 

Testing Night Landing Flares on a Camel

There is some hearsay that the British initially fobbed off on the Americans the Camel with the most problematic engine, the 165 Gnome Monosoupape, which allegedly had an unfortunate tendency to burst into flames. The new kid in the game is rarely seen to merit the best equipment. One is reminded of the Nieuport 28s, also with fire problems, that the Americans flew before the French provided them with the illustrious SPAD XIII. In any case, such famous U.S. pilots as George Vaughn (America's third-ranking Air Service ace), Elliot White Springs, Errol Zistel, and Larry Callahan were members of the 17th and 148th squadrons.

Insignia of the 185th Aero Squadron

The 185 Aero Squadron, which remainded under American command, enjoyed the distinction of flying Sopwith Camels at night Perhaps it is no wonder they scored zero victories in their sorties of October and November 1918. This is not to say its pilots lacked skill; two of their participants were already aces, Jerry Vasconcells and Harold Hartney, both of whom previously acquired their ace status with the 27 Aero Squadron. The challenge and danger of flying the notoriously fickle yet rewarding Camel certainly intensified by the night. There were no navigational aids even close to what were  developed by the Second World War; indeed,  in daylight weather conditions obscuring visibility routinely grounded all flying. There were efforts to create landing lights on the plane itself, notably the Holt flare system (Capt. Holt, RFC), which was a step in the right direction but which also created subsidiary problems with glare and flash that could interfere with vision. The night fighting 185th Squadron has one more distinction: it was the first ever to employ the  night-navigating bat, the only true flying mammal, as its emblem.

Originally presented in the winter 2012 issue of the Journal of the World War One Historical Association


  1. For the record, the second highest scoring American Ace of the First World War was not Vaughn, it was Lambert. William C. Lambert is credited by the RAF with 22.5 victories. Lambert flew for the RFC during the Great War, enlisting before America became involved.
    For definitive proof, as provided by the USAF and the RAF, see the incredibly well researched book by Prof. Sam Wilson: Bill Lambert, World War One Flying Ace. Available on Amazon.
    Thank you.
    Joe Unger