Barely a decade after the Wright Brothers achieved powered flight in 1903, aircraft had become part of the military arsenal. More than 800 New Zealanders served as air or ground crew in the war between 1914 and 1918, the vast majority of them in the European theatre. A small number also saw action in East Africa, the Mediterranean and Middle East. These men played their parts in the development of a new and primitive weapon into a key element of warfare.
The exploits of elite airmen in the First World War created a somewhat romantic concept of fighter pilots as ‘knights of the air’ bound by some sort of chivalric code. The reality of aerial warfare was very different: operational careers were more often than not short, and brutal deaths common. Safety measures were almost non-existent – although balloon observers were provided with parachutes, those for aircrew were not introduced by the Germans until 1918 and the Royal Air Force in the mid-1920s. Consequently, by late 1918, many of these heroes were dead.