|A black executioner
By : Deborah Susan Jones : Editor
"The SE5a has turned out a dud . . . It's a great shame, for everybody expects such a lot from them . . . it is a rotten machine." So wrote the British Ace Albert Ball in the Spring of 1917 after re-positing back to England from the War-torn Western Front together with an elite group of pilots to form a new fighter group built around the crucially important "Scout experimental 5." Certainly at that stage of the Great War the German fighter aircraft were a very serious threat - faster - more manoeuvrable - a higher ceiling and a quicker climb rate made them deadly opponents that had to be stopped, but not everyone shared Ball's view.
Many pilots considered the SE5a to be the best single-seat British fighter aircraft of World War I. The first production aircraft from the design factory at Farnborough was powered by a 150hp Hispano-Suiza engine and were simply designated "The SE5a". Later models had a 200hp version of the engine or a Wolseley Viper engine.
Both SE5 & SE5a models equipped twenty-four squadrons of the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force in France, Palestine, Macedonia, Mesopotamia and the United Kingdom and also one of the Royal Australian Air Force and two of the United States Air Service on the Western Front and were associated with some of the War's most famous pilots; Beachamp-Proctor, Bishop, Mannock and McCudden.
To counter the German superiority in the air, British Air Staff wanted a fighter aircraft superior to that threat. Sopwith came up with the legendary Camel and The Royal Aircraft Factory designed the "Scout Experimental 5" and the first machine was tested by Albert Ball and his negative views of the aircraft were reflective of his familiarity with his slow but highly maneuverable Nieuport 17 but he was proved to be in the minority given by the success of other pilots with the aircraft, including Lt. Rhys-Davis who shot down Werner Voss, Richtofen's number two ace, in the type. In fact the SE5 was a very stable gun platform and was faster than Ball's Nieuport.
The painting shows an SE 5a in United States Air Service markings. My graphic design training was probably what initially attracted me to the emblem of the 25th Aero Squadron of the United States Air Service, a caricatured executioner, which lead me then to make this painting concerning an SE5a flown by pilot Reed Gresham Landis (1896 - 1975) but gaining any really accurate information about him, the unit or the markings had been a long-running effort. As ever, my entry into "the realm of knowledge" about an aircraft, and most especially its markings, are entirely from excitement about the visual aspect, rather than initially any historical research, which always then follows. I am always fascinated about the historical timeline that causes my pictures to happen - Bishop, McCudden, Mannock, such were certainly the names associated with this aeroplane and yet it was the colourful markings of the 25th Aero Squadron that caught my eye when applied to this classic plane, created by H.P. Folland's design team; perhaps that this painting exists at all was because the plane was easy to fly and so, when passed to forces outside the RAF as a "trusted steed of the air" it avoided, whether by design or default, any knock-on problems once in other hands, be they experienced or not as the case may have been, the markings and the plane thus come together, while its contemporary, the Sopwith Camel, being a "bitch of the air" in contrast that the Americans did not like at all, perhaps denied me the opportunity, at least until I discover one, of striking US markings on another W.W.I British front line fighter?
Thus it is that I end up being inspired by markings that might not otherwise have existed on this plane. I like that sort of timeline in my Art. If you do know of any great looking Camels that have such an interesting visual lineage I'd love to see the reference material, always worth reflecting on for a potential painting!
Reed Landis is credited with nine enemy aircraft and one kite balloon and the bulk of his training and front-line experience was with the Royal Flying Corps' no. 40 Squadron, a unit that also produced Mick Mannock and Captain G.E.H. McElroy and as far as I have managed to research Landis' score was achieved solely while with 40 Squadron, but this is open to conjecture.
Landis was born July 17, 1896 and by the time he was twenty years old was enlisted as a private in the 1st Illinois Cavalry and served on the Mexican Border but in early 1917 transferred to the aviation section of the Signal Corps and after completing ground school tests was sent to England for flight training.
His RAF career has received little publicity but we can say that at least most of his active service was spent with 40 Squadron on the SE5a even if we know little of the details of this deployment. He seems then to have been posted from the Front back to England to join the 25th Aero Squadron which was newly forming and then was sent to be part of the new 4th Pursuit Group with Landis being promoted to the rank of Major, but whether he took part in any meaningful front-line patrols or fights is unclear, at least to me.
He was awarded the D.F.C. by the British and the D.S.C. by his own country.
After the Great War he worked as a pioneer in civilian aviation with American Airlines, served as chairman of the American Legion and later established and Advertising Agency in Chicago called The Reed G. Landis Company.
World War II recalled Landis to the US Army Air Force in 1942 in which he eventually reached the rank of Colonel.
He has previously published his memoirs in 1919 titled On the Roof of the War.
He died at the age of 78 in May 1975 in Arkansas.
Deborah Susan Jones : Editor