Had it not been for that crazy beagle, Snoopy, Charlie Brown's dog, a considerable number of us would never have had any familiarity with that small, curious aircraft from the First World War, the Sopwith Camel.
Snoopy's weekly exploits from his doghouse into the hostile airspace over enemy territory made the delayed delivery of the Sunday comic strips an almost bearable experience. If he was not in a heated dogfight with the infamous Red Baron, then he was stealthily moving behind enemy lines forever losing his heart to lovely French lasses.In truth, it was a Sopwith Camel flown not by Snoopy but the Canadian air ace Captain Roy Brown that shot down, in 1917, Germany's best-known fighter pilot Baron Manfred von Richthofen, called the Red Baron.
All of this information was front-page news once again in England because of the passing of the man who gave the world, among other aircraft, the Sopwith Camel.
Sir Thomas Octave Murdoch Sopwith died several weeks ago in his manor house outside Winchester in southern England. He was 101 years old. His only son, Thomas, said that he had simply died of old age after living "a rather marvelous life."
He was born to wealth in 1888, the eighth child, hence the Octave, to the parents of seven daughters. He was educated at Seafield Engineering College.
Young Sopwith was a restless and energetic man. He raced cars, boats, flew in balloons and played every sport possible. However, when he saw his first airplane, he fell in love with flying - a love affair that lasted all of his life.
When he was 22 he purchased an airplane kit, assembled it and then flew the contraption without a lesson. It crashed, of course, but he survived uninjured. Later he took three lessons, taught himself the rest and, in time, held Britain's 31st aviator certificate.
On his 100th birthday he reminisced about his early flying years. "We had lots of crashes in those days, but, bless you, it was fun."
Sir Thomas decided in his mid-20s that there was a great future in aviation. He focused his attention on aircraft production. To raise money for his first aircraft manufacturing company he performed stunt flying around England. He came to America in 1911 to fly in stunt circuses near Boston, New York and Chicago. He also won a prize of $20,000 for a pioneering flight across the English Channel. By 1912 he had saved just over $50,000 and was able to establish the Sopwith Aviation Co. in England.
When World War I broke out, fewer than 100 people worked at the Sopwith plant, but in the next four years the number of employees grew to 2,000. The various models of Sopwith military aircraft were given names like Camel, Snipe, Pup, Dolphin, Salamander, Cuckoo and Buffalo.
All told, 6,000 Camels and more than 10,000 other Sopwith military planes were produced for use in World War I.
There was a considerable amount of romance and adventure associated with the white, silk scarfed fighter pilots of the First World War. However, they had little effect on the sluggish trench warfare on the ground.
The major breakthrough achieved by Sopwith in those early days of aircraft design and production was the development of a synchronized machine gun that could fire through the propeller.
The first of Sopwith's aircraft to make use of this new invention was the Camel. The name was given to the aircraft because of the large hump on the fuselage which held the machine gun.
The famous Camel was a flat-nosed, one-engine biplane - technically, a fighting scout aircraft - that first saw combat in 1917, the fourth year of World War I.
The Sopwith Pup, another of Sir Thomas' creations, achieved the distinction of being the first aircraft to operate from the deck of a British aircraft carrier, the HMS "Argus" in 1919.
(To be continued.)
-Jim Kimball is a Salt Lake travel consultant.