I'm sure many of you heard about Sir Douglas Bader and Alexey Maresyev - two WWII aces who continued to fly and fight after losing their legs. But they were not the first amputees to score air victories. In search of their gallant forerunners we should look for the Great War heroes. And one of them is Yuri Vladimirovich Gilsher of the Imperial Russian Air Force.
He was born in Moscow in 1894. After graduating from the Alexeevsky Commercial School he planned to study civil engineering. Upon the outbreak of war he enrolled in the Army, joining the Nikolayevsky Cavalry school on December, 1914.
After a short period of service with the 13th Dragoon Regiment he insisted on transfer to the air service. When his request was granted, Gilsher entered flight school in Gatchina, near Saint Petersburg, and finally left to the front with the newly formed 4th Army Air Detachment (November 19, 1915).
Here Gilsher is second from the left, holding a puppy:
A few weeks later, an accident with a propeller blade seriously injured his left arm. After recovery, Gilsher completed advanced flight training at Odessa, then returned to the front on April 5, 1916, posted to the 7th Fighter Detachment.
He scored two victories in April 1917, both on 13 April, when he downed (along with Lt. Donat Makeyonok and Second Lt. Vasili Yanchenko, the latter being Russia's second highest-scoring ace of the war) two Hansa-Brandenburg C.I aircraft. However, within five weeks of returning to duty, he suffered another accident; on 9 May 1916 he crashed his Sikorsky S-16 two-seater (shown below). The pilot and the observer, Second Lieutenant Kvasnikov were badly injured.
In Wikipedia or elswhere you can read a fairy tale of Gilsher shooting an Austrian Oeffag C.III only six days after the amputation of his leg! Don't you believe it. Yuri returned to the front only in November 1916 and it took weeks if not months before he was able to fly with a prosthetic leg. Remarkably, the medical commission stated that the Air Force service "does not require a serious physical effort", so his request, submitted to the Command on October 29, 1916, was granted.
Here we see Gilsher (sitting) near the Nieuport 10 fighter in Galicia, December 1916:
Appointed temporary commander of the 7th Fighter Detachment, he transferred to a new Nieuport 21 fighter. Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, Air Force Chief, characterized him as "an excellent combat pilot, resolute, courageous and cold-blooded... sporting high morale, he is an outstanding fighter and commander. "
His first two successes were scored in a single day, 13 April 1917, with subsequent victories following on 15 May, 17 and 20 July.
His final victory was on 20 July 1917 when he and Vasili Yanchenko shared a victory near Tarnopol, in modern-day Ukraine. However, Gilsher's Nieuport, in his combat with at least 10 German planes, was hit by enemy fire and broke up, resulting in pilot's death. Yanchenko wrote to Gilsher's father: "Attacking the second airplane, your son closed the distance to 70 metres. But the nemy fired first. Nieuport engine fell out from the frame, its wings collapsed and like a stone it fell... "
Special thanks to alexww1 @ LJ for the illustrations (1, 3, 7, 9).
Pictures 2, 4, 5, 6 are from Flying Aces by D. Mityurin, Y. Medvedko, A. Loiko, edited by B. Stepanov, GIZ Saint Petersburg 2006.