The Lafayette Squadron
Celebrity Race Across The World
When a bunch of maverick American pilots went on leave during World War I, they got so drunk that they arrived back at base with a lion cub.
Naming the animal Whiskey, after buying it for 500 francs from a Brazilian dentist, they told anyone who challenged them that this was merely an exotic breed of African dog. And when they were ordered to keep it in a cage, one flier retorted, ‘Why put him behind bars? He’ll see all the bars he needs with this mob.’
Contrast that with the wild and crazy escapades a century later of pop star Harry Judd, the drummer with ageing boy band McFly. Harry has also been let loose in Europe . . . with his mum. The two of them sat on a train across Poland, with a bag of wool and a tapestry kit, sewing diligently.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that we’ve lost the spirit of adventure somewhat.
Adventure at any price was the goal of aviators such as Kiffin Yates Rockwell and Victor Chapman, one a Yale drop-out and the other a Harvard graduate, and both the rebellious sons of wealthy U.S. families.
To see footage of these courageous and outrageous men, some with just a few weeks to live, is astonishing, and unmissable
Desperate to encourage the States to join the war, France recognised the propaganda value of this volunteer squadron defying U.S. neutrality before 1917
They were two of the wildest pilots whose story is being told in The Lafayette Squadron (PBS America), a two-part documentary continuing this evening. PBS excels in wartime histories, albeit with an American slant, and this one benefited from the celebrity of these airborne heroes at the start of the cinema era.
Desperate to encourage the States to join the war, France recognised the propaganda value of this volunteer squadron defying U.S. neutrality before 1917, and reported every dogfight and every crash. Some of the pilots loved the fame, such as Norman Prince, a law graduate whose tycoon father controlled the Chicago stockyards.
Prince secretly learned to fly at the Wright Brothers’ school, before boarding a ship under an assumed name and sailing for France with the ambition of founding an all-American air corps. He wasn’t above claiming enemy kills when no other pilot could corroborate his word, which offended the sticklers — and he loved posing for the cameras.
Rockwell, a very different character, loathed the fame, and seemed to have a death wish. He flew incessantly, to the point of exhaustion: photographs show he appeared to age ten years during six months in 1916.
During his final dogfight, chasing down a German spotter plane over French lines, he flew straight towards it, so close that observers on the ground thought he was trying to ram it. A bullet hit him in the chest and he died at the controls, his biplane plunging to the ground so fast that its wings were torn off before it crashed.
To see footage of these courageous and outrageous men, some with just a few weeks to live, is astonishing, and unmissable.
Even the excitement of tapestry couldn’t keep Harry happy, trudging across Eastern Europe on a budget (Pictured: Harry Judd and Emma Judd)
Thrills are in short supply on Celebrity Race Across The World (BBC1). Even the excitement of tapestry couldn’t keep Harry happy, trudging across Eastern Europe on a budget. The most exciting moment of the episode came when former All Saints singer Mel Blatt and her mum got separated for an hour. Mel boarded a train, mum didn’t. But they were reunited at the next stop . . . phew!
Exhausted and fed up after more than three weeks of travelling, none of the celebs cares who wins. They just want the trip to be over.
But the show remains enjoyable for the glimpses it offers of sights and cities off the usual tourist trail. Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina looked delightful, Belgrade in Serbia slightly less so. And who wouldn’t want to unwind in a baroque Budapest spa?