How the Royal Flying Corps' 'Superman' 'Image Masked a Crisis of Nervous Disorders During WWI

By Joseph Hayes on at

As the Great War was concerned there are few figures glamorised more than the fighter pilots of the Royal Flying Corps. As ‘knights of the skies’, fighter pilots were immortalised as full of derring-do and 'can do' spirit. Anyone who’s enjoyed the irreverence of Blackadder Goes Forth will remember the flying ace Lord Flashheart and his enormous ego. He may have been a braggart, but he is indefatigable and his actions match his words.

But this elite image caused as much trouble for pilots as it benefited them. As historian Dr Lynsey Shaw-Cobden highlights, fighter pilots were thought of as ‘supermen’ beyond the conditions and trauma that soldiers suffered in the trenches. With so much expected of them and fighting in very particular conditions, fighter pilots were under significant strain.

The British stiff-upper lip was the default attitude in the Royal Flying Corps. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this was pilots not being provided with parachutes, as it was thought that having no escape route would keep them better focused on their duty. While the stresses of combat took their toll, as they did with so many soldiers on the ground, it was only one of many things pilots were up against in the skies.

Aeroplanes were a quite new technology at the time and had generally been considered something of a plaything for the upper-classes. Nobody really knew what unknown effects they had on the people flying them, issues that were compounded by the hurried training pilots initially received. As we now know, flying at high altitudes can cause some bizarre symptoms, and WWI pilots ended up suffering as a result.

Many of the effects were fairly normal, including things like anxiety and loss of memory. However, in one particular case a pilot waved his hands to happily greet not one, but five hostile planes. Other cases involved drowsiness and falling asleep at controls mid-flight, and it became obvious that the Royal Flying Corps had a serious problem on its hands.

The problem in question would become known as ‘anxiety neuroses’ and it was distinct from the shell-shock suffered by the Tommies fighting in the trenches. The direct cause of this was the flying into high altitudes, depriving the pilots of much-needed oxygen. As a result the entire nervous system of the flyer could collapse under such pressures.

With 2,454 recorded incidents the condition was incredibly widespread. Some highly decorated pilots of the First World War suffered from neurosis conditions, including Mick Mannock, an iconic figure who shot down at least 50 planes by himself. He would later go on to receive the Victorian Cross after being killed in duty.

Mannock’s particular concern was that his aircraft would go up in flames, and he carried a pistol to shoot himself should that fateful moment come. Mannock was able to deal with his nerves by joking with a dark-humoured wit to take the pressure off, but this problem became a plague on the RFC.

It was one thing to diagnose the problem and quite another to bring in the measures to treat them. The stiff-upper lip spirit meant that nervous collapse was seen as a moral failing, rather than the physiological issue it was. When oxygen masks were suggested as one way to curb the problem, these were rebuffed as unpatriotic by those who thought pilots should be engaging the enemy with their full face in view.

Remedies for the nervous symptoms were often do it yourself and quite generalised. Some of them involved suggestions of garlic, blood draining and also laxatives. Naturally the nervous flyers' issue could not be solved this way. Attempting to combat the altitude-based symptoms was one thing, but fighter pilots were also having to cope with pressure of being shot at.

It certainly didn’t help that the culture had built up around the RFC whereby reserve and strong gallantry was praised over the caution that might have otherwise saved the pilot’s life.  One of the medical officers who recognised the real problems behind the condition was Surgeon H.V Wells, but he was transferred into Naval service before he could bring his findings to bear.

The Royal Naval Air Service was also under stressful conditions, and the war-time pressures of providing support to convoys of merchant ships. However, they differed substantially in how psychological conditions were dealt with. Rather than expecting pilots to silently deal with their conditions, the Naval Services preferred to nip the problem in the bud by moving those susceptible to nervous conditions away from direct combat.

This option was not available to Royal Flying Corps pilots. They needed to battle through the problem, especially given increasing challenges from enemy aircraft.  It wasn’t until the Battle of the Somme that the RFC would get a proper the wake-up call to examine the flyers’ nervous problem.

The Royal Flying Corps had a substantial hold on the Somme area during the early periods of the offensive.  However, increased German resurgence was taking its toll on the British flyers both mentally and physically. The RFC lost 308 pilots and many ‘nervous flyers’ were reported, setting off alarm bells with so many pilots incapacitated.

Nervous conditions amongst pilots were being examined in detail, for the first time. The result was the book The Medical and Surgical Aspects of Aviation written by former air force officer Dr H. Graeme Anderson.

This book took a comprehensive look at the health problems aviation inflicted on pilots, with reasoning on both the conditions themselves and also how they could be combated - ensuring that recruits were of the proper standing. However, there was one thing that would certainly make health and safety departments of today balk, with Anderson suggesting that pilots should have a stiff drink in order to calm their nerves.

To tackle the problem, the Royal Flying Corps used breathing tests for lung capacity. This, along with with stress tests, meant potential problems could be rooted out before the pilot went into battle. Pilots pron to nerves and panic attacks were given a period of recuperation, and with this treatment many pilots were able to go back into service after they were considered fit.

The Royal Flying Corps would go onto play a vital role in the British victory through their ability to offer support and gather vital information. If anything the War had shown that airpower was indispensable, and would be a key part of future military action – first in the inter-war era and then the Second World War.

While the war may have ended on 11th November 1918, the effects of flight upon the nerves would continue to be studied. The way flight was regarded by science was fundamentally different than it had been before the First World War, with greater recognition of the physiological effects it could have.

Although, the Royal Flying Corps were dealing with considerable pressure at the time, they ultimately managed to turn the situation around, developing treatment with a focus that enabled many airmen to permanently recover from the dreaded flyer’s nerves. Those treatments are still important today too, and as historian Dr Lynsey Shaw-Cobden reflects, the ‘Nervous Flyer’ debate was an important step on the development regarding the modern understandings of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Featured image: Wikipedia