Air combat as depicted in the movie Flyboys

Flyboys tells the story of the Lafayette Escadrille, young Americans who volunteered for the French military before the U.S. entered World War I, and became the country’s first fighter pilots. The movie’s depiction of air-to-air combat uses MANY CGI effects to make a visually exciting movie (though the plot is a bit dull, IMHO). However these exciting combat scenes bring up a few questions:

  1. What happens to all the bullets? Were the civilians of France routinely injured by falling lead?
  2. Powered flight was still in its infancy at this point. Were aircraft really as maneuverable as depicted in the movie? It seems like these rather flimsy airframes would fall apart under the stress of the violent maneuvers these pilots make.
  3. At one point, the arch nemesis in the movie pulls his plane up next to the dying hero’s plane (both planes are in flight). Much to the nemesis’ surprise, the hero pulls his sidearm and fires, hitting the bad guy. Would this work? The bullet is fired 90 degrees from the planes’ direction of travel. Once the bullet left the barrel, wouldn’t it start falling behind the speeding aircraft? In order to hit the dastardly German, our hero would have had to lead the target, yet the scene does not seem to show this. Could one make a fatally accurate shot this way?

Not that I’m aware of; but I’m sure it happened. One of my favourite WWII photographs is of an English man sitting outside reading the paper as the RAF and Luftwaffe fight overhead. He’s got a gigantic sun umbrella set up over him and the ground around him is covered in scattered empty brass cartridges ejecting from the planes above.

Short answer “No.” It’s all Hollywood. Later aircraft were quite manoeuvrable, but not the ones in use in 1914/1915/early 1916, for the most part.

It happened quite a lot- The Nieuport 17’s top wing would break if put into too steep a dive, for example.

It’s unlikely, but possible- the key is to aim ahead of your target.

Pilots early on in WWI (1914/1915) used to shoot at each other with pistols and rifles quite regularly, although more for the hell of it that with any hope of actually bringing down the other plane.

Officially, pilots were issued handguns so that they might “give a good account of themselves” (defend themselves) if forced down behind enemy lines. RFC pilots in particular made a point of ensuring their revolver was functioning before a flight; besides being for self-defence the revolver was also carried to allow the pilot to shoot themselves if their plane caught fire (the RFC didn’t issue parachutes to aeroplane crews during WWI).

I was going to edit this into my previous post, but the boards timed out on me…

At any rate, WWI aircraft were very slow (top speed less than 200km/h). A .45ACP cartridge moves at 1,000feet/sec; meaning the Hero wouldn’t have to aim very much ahead of the enemy pilot to hit him. It’s still a highly unlikely shot, unless you invoke the corollary to the Stormtrooper Effect (ie, the harder the shot is, the more likely the Hero is to be able to pull it off.) :wink:

You might want to read Above the Battle by Vivian Drake. Its an account of the air war in WWI, written during the war by a British pilot. A bit thin on details, but still quite interesting. I find it rather shocking that they’d give a pilot less than 100 hours (or something similar) flight time before sending him into combat.

If the two planes were at the same speed, then wouldn’t the enemy plane have no velocity relative to the bullet?

Yes, it would. In an ideal world, you wouldn’t have to lead your target at all in this situation, because your target is not moving relative to you. You might have to lead your target slightly in reality to compensate for the drag produced on the bullet by the air rushing backward* past the plane, but I agree with your analysis of the physics here- you don’t need to lead your target to compensate for your speed because you have no speed relative to your target.

*From a physics standpoint, we can think of this as a 100 mph headwind or as the plane moving forward at 100 mph. It’s the same problem, because the only thing moving is the wind relative to the two planes.

So the hero dies but in a last minute twist to the plot kills the the top bad guy.

Was it really necessary to tell us the plot asking your question?

Thats one movie I shan’t bother with that I might otherwise had watched.

The movie doesn’t revolve around a single character. You’ll spend more money on popcorn than the movie rental so knock yourself out.

I disagree. the Nieuport 17 was quite manueverable. that’s different than being easy to fly. It had a rotary engine as did the German aircraft. The rotating mass of the engine required different stearing input depending on which way it was banked. None of the planes were particularly fast so pulling 3 or 4 g’s would occur at fairly radical changes in direction.

You made a bad assumption. The end of the movie remains unspoiled for you so go ahead and watch it.

The hero didn’t die at the end, he was only wounded.

You say it as if it was a bad thing…
More RAAF pilots where killed during training than in combat.

As for the OP

1- Probably, but I’m sure most aerial fighting happened over or around ground battlefields, so the civilian population wasn’t very exposed to that. Or at least they had other, more pressing things to worry about.

2- Not by a long shot. As said, the good guys plane, the Nieuport 17 had an alarming tendency to part ways with the lower wings (not the upper) on dives, hard maneuvers, high speed level flight or the pilot sneezing too hard. The problem was that the lower wing was much smaller than the upper, using a single spar along its length. Any fluttering and the thing came apart.
The Fokker Dr.1 was much more sturdy, three interconnected, thick wings with a D box spar at the front.
Definitely no vertical maneuvers, zooming up or chasing a foe on an extended dive. Although those planes where quite nimble, they didn’t have the power, and most importantly, the power to drag ratio to zoom around like that.
Also all that pulling-along-the-other-plane really buggered me, the throttle on those planes was too crude a thing for doing that; at least on the casual manner that it was shown.

I started to wonder about probabilities, and just for fun crunched some numbers.

Lets start assuming:

  • Nieuport 17 was fitted with single machine gun (Vickers?), don’t know ammo capacity, but let’s assume 100 rounds
  • rifle bullet range may vary depending of angle, altitude and caliber, but let’s assume 4 km as realistic estimate
  • assume stochastic bullets distribution

So, that would be some 100 bullets over 50 square kilometers, approx. 2 bullets/square km.

  • assume maximum realistic population density of European city at around 5000 people/square km (cite)
  • assume average area of single human 1 square meter (well, rounding greatly for simplicity)

That give us 1 of every 200 square meters covered by human being.

So, chances of somebody being hit by bullet are closing to 0.5%, if dog fight is over densely populated European metropolis, with every citizen strewn across the rooftop.

Since actual average population densities were much smaller, most of people in area more or less covered, and probably some 50% of bullets (those aimed above horizon) at final moments of their parabolic curve (and thus carrying little energy to do harm or penetrate rooftops and such), not to mention those lodged in enemy aircraft… so we can conclude that chances of being hit by stray bullet from airplane were marginal, but non-zero.

I don’t know where you get your information, but there certainly were vertical manuevers, at least for the higher-powered late war planes. The Fokker D-VII was especially noted for its ability to go vertical. The Immelman turn was used quite a bit (tho the original one actually resembles what would now be called a high yo-yo). One misconception tho is that such fancy manuevers were the favored means by which aces got their kills-in reality most kills were made on a non-manuevering unaware target.

Vickers had a 250 round belt, as did the German version of the Maxim.

The Lewis gun (the one on the Top wing aka the one with the drum mag) had a 47 round magazine.

The best book I’ve found on WWI air fighting and planes is “The First of the Few”. Search on that title at Amazon if you’re interested. It goes into a huge amount of detail about this subject and is a splendid source of information. Reading it allows one to nitpick other folks, ie., the big problem with the Nieuport 17 wasn’t the wings coming off, although this did happen, but instead the longitudinal seam on the upper covering on the top wing which was exactly at the center of maximum pressure on the covering. This gave the wing a tendency to shed its fabric if a dive was too steep, which would ruin a pilot’s whole day.

Another thing - the most jarring error in “Flyboys” was the fact that, while most of the WWI fighters had rotary engines, this was not depicted in the movie. All of the planes shown used regular radial engines. This was especially irritating as, with computer graphics, it shouldn’t have been dificult fot eh movimakers to do it correctly.

A few other points.

Rotary engines had no throttle they were either on or off. The pilot used what they called a blip switch to shut off the engine or a cylinder to reduce speed for landing or maneuvering.

The Dr-1 triplane was only used for a short time late in the war only 300 or so were built, it really was not a good aircraft.

Zeppelins did not fly in daylight!

The average life expectancy of a Sopwith Camel (the most successful fighter aircraft of WWI) pilot was two weeks (including training). That would be enough time for a couple of dozen sorties at most, and probably a lot less given how unreliable the aircraft were.

Thus, most pilots spent more time in training than they ever did in combat.

Of course, they might have lasted a bit longer with more training, but probably not. The Camel itself was just as likely to kill you as the enemy, so the more training you got the more likely you were to get killed by your aircraft.

I should have said, no vertical maneuvers as depicted on the movie. As in a Nieuport going up vertically from level flight pumping lead into Hun like a frigging F-18. That kind of thing. :slight_smile:

That’s not completely true, most rotary engines did have a carburetor that allowed adjustment of the mixture, usually just the fuel flow. They where very crappy at it though.
Blipping the engine was mostly done for landings.