Death on Wires: the fake war diary & photographs of a Flying Corps Pilot
August 15, 2013 8:50 PM   Subscribe

In 1931, Gladys Maud Cockburn-Lange, presented some amazing photos from her deceased husband's days as an RAF pilot in World War I. They were hailed as "the most vividly realistic of all the air records that came out of the war," as they were taken from a camera that was mounted on the plane (example photos). The photos were published in British newspapers in 1932 and years to come, and bound with the diary of the pilot in the book Death in the Air: The War Diary and Photographs of a Flying Corps Pilot. Except it was all a hoax.

The story was well-written, and when accompanied by these dynamic images, it was easy to get swept up.
Reading it, you get to know the squadron: Jock, Canada, Mick, Chilly, Tod, Rex, Kaffir and all the others. When one is missing after a run-in with the enemy, you suffer. When the author gets depressed and hits the bottle, you worry. When he meets a girl, you cheer.
There was also information about how the pilot found the camera on a downed German plane, complete with a miraculously undamaged lens and ultra-fast shutter. He wrote of how he mounted it to his plane, and set up the camera to capture a single image when he fired his machine gun. The public clamored for more information, and journalists wanted to meet the widow of this amazing pilot, photographer, and writer, but Cockburn-Lange politely declined, staying hidden from the public eye. Most wanted to know more about the pilot and his life, but some were skeptical from the beginning (Google books preview). How was it, if the images were captured when he fired his gun, were there British planes focused in the frame? And why were the tires of the planes so clean, when the runways were all dirt? How did he capture so many images, when pilots didn't fly that often, and there wasn't a skirmish in every flight? But the images were still stunning, and the story stuck. Some images were used on book jackets, and many people bought copies of the astounding images.

The truth wasn't discovered until the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum received a donation from a friend of the deceased World War I fighter pilot, Wesley David Archer. No one had heard of this pilot, but aviation researcher Peter Grosz recognized the images. With the help of Karl Schneide, a curatorial assistant, the duo dug up the true history of Gladys Maud Cockburn-Lange, or rather Gladys Maud Archer, "Betty" Archer to her friends, and her husband, pilot-turned-model-maker, Wes Archer.

The Archers moved to Cuba, where Wes passed away in 1955. The Havana post of the American Legion buried him with full military honors. Betty then moved to Puerto Rico, where she lived until her death in 1959. Though there was speculation that the photos were fake, their secret was not fully debunked during their lives.

Parting notes:
posted by filthy light thief (5 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I have a beautiful h/c edition of a Jane's guide to Great War combat aircraft which features one of these shots, hand colored, as the cover image.
posted by mwhybark at 8:56 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have a beautiful h/c edition of a Jane's guide to Great War combat aircraft

Shit, I had that same book, but must have got rid of when I moved overseas after university. I haven't thought about it in at least 20 years. That cover image brings back memories.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:06 PM on August 15, 2013

Awesome post, by the way.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:12 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

It's a fine and amusing book, since the interior is largely shovelware repros of declassified military test and analysis sheets. Which annoyed me at first and then I came to recognize it as monetized disintermediation, with the cover image standing as a sort of "boojums inside" metasignpost letting it be known that all may not be as it seems w/r/t declassified military intelligence data.

Over the past twenty years, watching the sim community debate this or that performance stat, it sure seems likely that interpretation is likely.

Speaking of things in the air, have you seen "The Wind Rises," KokuRyu? I forget if you are still in the East.
posted by mwhybark at 9:13 PM on August 15, 2013

Not yet. We have been in Canada for a few months and go back to Japan after Christmas.

Besides, this post reminds me of Goshawk Squadron by Bruce Robinson!
posted by KokuRyu at 11:26 PM on August 15, 2013

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