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The flying was dangerous, even without the war. The rudimentary biplane designs made from wood and fabric had barely progressed past the Wright’s first flight a short 13 years before.
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In celebration of this 100th anniversary of WWI, four collaborators from across the U.S. — including one from Dayton — released a documentary about the Lafayette Escadrille.
Local aviation photographer, historian and author Dan Patterson is one of the producers and the art director of a 20-minute documentary version for The United States World War One Centennial Commission titled "The Lafayette Escadrille."
The film makers collected original film footage, photographs and historical records and conducted interviews with descendants of the pilots. Film of replica WWI aircraft in dogfights over the Pennsylvania countryside is used to give a pilot’s perspective of the close combat between the fragile airplanes.
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“A group of Americans volunteered and flew for France at the very beginning of WWI, years before the U.S. entered the war. Flying was the latest hottest thing to be doing, and they wanted to go fly for France,” Patterson says.
“Originally there were 6 or 7 pilots in 1916 when the unit was formed. By the end of the war, 38 Americans had flown with this unit. Many of those who survived went on to do remarkable things and others went on to be broken men. It’s a great story.”
Patterson said he first wrote about the story of the Lafayette Escadrille while co-authoring a book with retired British Air Marshall Ron Dick titled “American Eagles, a history of the U.S. Air Force” in the late 1990’s.
“But this story needs to be told again and again,” Patterson says.
The film’s producers tracked down the families of the Escadrille pilots and some interview footage is included. “The descendants of these men picked up the mantle,” Patterson says.
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Descendants of Lafayette Escadrille pilot James Norman Hall (who also coauthored Mutiny on the Bounty) flew in WW II and Vietnam, and one is currently commander for a squadron in the Oregon Air National Guard. “So, in one American family, there’s an unbroken century of service flying American military aircraft,” Patterson says.
“And that’s our story. That’s what the film is about.”
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This is the first film for Patterson, who has added many titles to his early photographer moniker.
“It won’t be the last,” he added with a chuckle.
Patterson has written over 40 books on aviation and was honored in 2003 as the National Aviation Hall of Fame’s first winner of the Harry B. Combs Award for Excellence in the Preservation of Aviation History. He has been a lecturer for the Smithsonian Journeys Program. He is currently the Artist in Residence for the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park.
Patterson says the 20-minute version of the film will be screened at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force Theatre before it opens, and the feature-length film should be ready for release Armistice Day, (Nov. 11) 2019.