Camel Pilot Supreme – Annette Carson

Review by Adrian Roberts.

One of the many glowing tributes to D’Urban Victor Armstrong after his death reads: “I am sure that when the next generation is born there will be many tales told to youngsters … of the exhibition flying and marvellous work at the Front which your son did … and the tales will be told scores of years from now by thousands…” Alas, no. Unless a pilot was awarded a VC, was one of the very highest-scoring aces, or unless he published his memoirs, his name is just another on a memorial stone to all but a few enthusiasts and researchers. Armstrong is only slightly better known as he features briefly in Cecil Lewis’ memoir Sagittarius Rising. We therefore know he had a reputation as the most daring and skilful aerobatic pilot of 1917-18, in the Sopwith Camel, and was certainly well-known throughout the RAF. He was also a leading night fighter pilot, and was trusted by Sir John Salmond to teach both sets of skills to other units and to the Americans and French. His death on 13 November 1918 terminated what would certainly have been a very promising career, too early to achieve fame.

Annette Carson has been the team manager of the British Aerobatic Team, as well as being an historian, and she has set out to show Armstrong was a key figure in the development of aerobatics. The problem is that it is very difficult to flesh out a full-length biography of a man who died aged 21, leaving virtually no written material, and with only the basics of his service history in the official records. She had some luck in that a distant relative of Armstrong’s gave her his photo album, which has some of his annotations (many of the photos appear in the book). Numerous eulogies survive which are bound to be positive, but it seems safe to say he was an extrovert and popular young man. She skilfully gives us the background to the units and campaigns in which he served, and gives a masterful description of the development of aerobatics, especially as applicable to the Sopwith Camel. Inevitably, however, he remains a shadowy figure. He seems to have had a fiancée, but there appears to be little information on her or how they met. 

Undoubtedly, his aerobatic performances were legendary. There are numerous accounts of him looping so low his wheels brushed the ground, and rolling or recovering from spins so low his wingtip appeared inches from the ground. In later years such antics would have resulted in instant disciplinary action (rightly so). At the time, though, his performances seem to have been tolerated, or even sanctioned, to show the Camel, which was dangerous in inexperienced hands, could be mastered. 

Sadly, Armstrong met his death two days after the Armistice when his Camel impacted the ground during a low aerobatic routine. The official report blamed an error of judgement. Cecil Lewis also suggests this. In this book, Carson, with the help of a professional accident investigator, demonstrates reason to believe there is another explanation. Her theory is plausible, but relies partly on speculation. It is entirely right to try to find reasons to absolve a deceased pilot of blame, but sadly in the history of aviation there are too many examples of great pilots who made one fatal mistake. It does not mean they were not great aviators. Armstrong may well rank among the greatest aerobatic pilots of all time, certainly of his era. It would be interesting to know how he compared with Ernst Udet, whom Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown believed was the greatest aerobatic pilot of the time, or how the Sopwith Camel compared with, say, a Pitts Special or Bücker Jungmann. Either way, Carson has ensured Armstrong can take his rightful place in aviation history.

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