Dieselpunks

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Knights of the Air: Willy, the Balloon Chaser

This Thursday, our hero is a pilot who hadn't much luck fighting enemy planes but scored a respectable number of victories downing enemy lighter-than-air aircraft.

Willy Coppens (1892 - 1986) was Belgium's highest-scoring fighter pilot during the First World War, scoring 37 victories by the war's close.

Coppens, who was born on 6 July 1892 in Watermaal-Bosvoorde, joined the army in 1912, serving with the 2nd Grenadiers.  In 1914 he transferred to the Compagnie des Aviateurs.  He subsequently trained at his own expense (along with 39 other Belgians) at a civilian flying school in Hendon.  This was followed by further training in Francet the Farman School in Étampes, France and joined the Sixieme Escradrille as a sergent 1ere class (Sergeant First Class) on 8 April 1917 flying BE-2c two seaters. Later that month, he was assigned to Quatrieme Escadrille to fly a Farman pusher. On 1 May, he received a Sopwith 1½ Strutter two seater and promptly flew it into his first aerial combat.

In mid July, he transferred to the single seater fighter unit 1ère Escadrille de Chasse (1st Pursuit Squadron). He received the last remaining Nieuport 16 in the squadron; everyone else had upgraded to Nieuport 17s. When Hanriot HD 1s were offered to the squadron, he was the only pilot to initially accept one. His enthusiasm for the aircraft type prompted other pilots to also move over to Hanriots.

On 19 August Coppens was promoted to Adjutant (rank more or less equal to Warrant Officer). He continued his nervy but unsuccessful combat career against enemy aircraft until 17 March 1918. On that day he carried out his first attack on German observation balloons, as an aid to a ground assault by the Belgian Army. Though handicapped by lack of incendiary ammunition he punctured two balloons, causing the observers to bail out and the balloons to collapse to the ground. Finally, on 25 April Coppens scored his first victory by downing a Rumpler two seater. On 8 May he finally found his metier, when he shot two balloons down in flames.

German observation 'sausage' (picture signed by Coppens)

A week later, using his usual tactics of close range fire, Coppens cut a balloon loose from its ties. It bounced up beneath him and momentarily carried his Hanriot skyward. After his aircraft fell off the balloon, he restarted its engine and flew back to base. The balloon sagged into an explosion.

From then on, Coppens' record was spectacular. Between April and October 1918 he was credited with destroying 34 German observation balloons and three airplanes, nearly as many victories as Belgium's other five aces combined. Unlike most fighter pilots of World War I, who used .303 caliber or 7.92 mm guns, Coppens used a larger bore 11 mm Vickers machine gun, having upgraded his weaponry prior to June 1918.

Also in June, he was promoted to sous lieutenant, thus becoming an officer. His royal blue plane with its insignia of a thistle sprig wearing a top hat became so well known that the Germans went to special pains to try to kill him. On 3 August he shot down a balloon booby-trapped with explosives that when detonated from the ground narrowly missed killing him.

(via 3-D man @ Flickr)

On his last mission, 14 October, Coppens downed a balloon over Praatbos and was attacking one over Torhout when he was severely wounded by an incendiary bullet, smashing the tibia of his left leg and severing the artery. Coppens crash landed near Diksmuide and was taken to hospital, where his leg was amputated. But he continued to fly after the war.

It was hard to enter the cockpit with a prosthetic leg. Hard but possible.

Having served as a post-war military attaché to France, Britain, Italy and Switzerland, Coppens retired in 1940.  He published his war memoirs, Days on the Wing, in 1931.

He died on 21 December 1986 aged 94.

Sources: firstworldwar.com, theaerodrome.com, Wikipedia

Headline picture: by Stan Stokes @ military-art.com

Views: 1204

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Comment by Pilsner Panther on July 1, 2011 at 3:40am
Also just saying, it doesn't seem like such an "easy" gig when you can have your leg blown off.
Comment by lord_k on June 30, 2011 at 1:52pm

To Jonny B.Goode:

but if you down one it's a legal air victory, just as a downed plane or airship. Willy was one of the few "balloon specialists" - and the most successful of them all.

Comment by Jonny B. Goode on June 30, 2011 at 1:41pm
It's easy hitting really big, stationary targets. Just saying. ;)

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