Fire in the Sky: The Australian Flying Corps in the First World War

Fire in the Sky: The Australian Flying Corps in the First World War

Fire in the Sky: The Australian Flying Corps in the First World War

Fire in the Sky: The Australian Flying Corps in the First World War


"I half rolled, and there before my eyes was as perfect a target as I had ever seen in my life. A pressure of a thumb, a short burst, a puff of smoke, a flash of flame, a hole on the clouds-and it was over." - Lieutenant Robert McKenzie, No. 2 Squadron Australian Flying Corps.

When World War I began in August 1914, airplanes were a novelty, barely a decade old. Despite this, Australia was one of just a few nations outside Europe to establish a military flying school and corps. From a first class of four student pilots the Australian Flying Corps would grow to number almost 4,000 by the armistice. Its young volunteers were pioneers in a completely new dimension of warfare as they struggled for control of the skies over the Western Front and Middle East. Using private letters, diaries, and official records, historian Michael Molkentin reveals, for the first time in more than 90 years, the remarkable story of the airmen and mechanics of the Australian Flying Corps. It is an extraordinary tale of heroism and endurance; of a war fought thousands of feet above the trenches in aircraft of timber and fabric. Fire in the Sky takes readers up into this chaotic tumult and into the midst of a war from which only one in two Australian airmen emerged unscathed.


In the years leading up to the First World War, aviation was in its infancy. It was a novelty practised by gentlemen enthusiasts who, despite their zeal, had difficulty convincing governments and militaries of the usefulness of aircrafts to national defence.

Australia was among a very small number of nations outside of Europe in ‘making a start’ with military flying before the war. in the two years preceding the conflict, the government of the day showed great foresight by investigating the implications that ‘flying machines’ (as they were then quaintly known) might have on the nation’s defence. the Central Flying School was established in the sheep paddocks of Point Cook, Victoria, in the months leading up to the war. Its first four student pilots began their training as the nations of Europe mobilised.

From these humble beginnings, the Australian Flying Corps came to field eight and a half squadrons overseas during the war. Over 500 Australian airmen served in the units, flying in Mesopotamia, Palestine, Britain and on the Western Front between 1915 and 1918. By the Armistice, they had distinguished themselves in the full gamut of operations demanded of the flying services: reconnaissance, bombing, artillery observation, ground attack, offensive patrolling and even battlefield resupply from the air. Two officers came home having commanded wings; nine had led squadrons. There were 57 Australian aces. One Australian received a Victoria Cross and 40 had received the Distinguished Flying Cross. Two, in fact, received this award three times, being among just four British and dominion pilots to do so during the war.

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