It was Nov. 19, 1915. British pilots were attacking Ottoman forces at Ferrijik Junction, a rail and logistics hub. The tiny planes involved in the attack swooped and dove as they dropped bombs and fought off enemy fighters. But then, one of the bombers took heavy fire as it conducted its bombing run, crashing into the nearby marshes. But then a hero emerged.
The attack on Ferrijik was focused on cutting Turkish supply lines, and a large mix of planes had been assembled to conduct the attack. One member of that aerial force was Royal Navy Squadron Cmdr. Richard Bell Davies. Davies had already proven himself earlier that year, pressing a bombing attack on German submarine pens in Belgium despite taking heavy damage to his plane and a bullet wound to his thigh, flying for an hour after his injury before landing safely.
During the attack on Ferrijik, Davies was flying a Nieuport fighter, helping to protect the bombers so they could do their mission as effectively as possible.
A younger pilot, Flight Sub-Lt. Gilbert F. Smylie was one of those tasked with actually dropping the bombs. His plane was equipped with eight, and he came in low and slow over the railway to get his ordnance on target. But the heavy ground fire of the Turkish defenders got to him before he dropped his load.
Smylie quickly began losing altitude, but he kept his plane headed toward the target and then released all of his bombs at once over the rail station. One failed to separate, but the other seven fell to the earth from low altitude. Despite shedding all that weight, Smylie couldn’t get his plane back up to altitude, so he turned it toward a dry marshbed and carefully set the plane down.
He attempted to restart his plane, but that failed, and so he decided to take the machine offline permanently to prevent its capture. Smylie set the bird on fire, trusting the fire to set off the bomb and destroy the plane completely. But then he saw something he almost certainly could not have predicted.
A Nieuport fighter was descending toward him. At the time, an airplane had never been used to rescue a downed airman, so the idea of a one-seater descending to save him must have seemed like insanity to Smylie. But, to ensure that this pilot wouldn’t be killed by the exploding bomb, he pulled his pistol and shot the munition to set it off, destroying it before the other plane was too close.
The Nieuport, with Davies at the controls. landed in the marshbed with Smylie even as Bulgarian rifle fire began to crack overhead. Davies’ Nieuport 10 had only one seat, but was originally designed and constructed with two. Important flight controls had bars running through the converted cockpit, and the whole thing was covered with a cowl.
Smylie scrambled into the tight quarters of the former cockpit, contorting himself around a rudder bar and pressing his head against an oil tank, and Davies took off. The explosion of Smylie’s plane had temporarily slowed the enemy fire, and the two pilots were able to escape before the Bulgarians ramped their fire back up.
After about 45 minutes, the pair reached safety, but it took two hours to extract Smylie from the confined quarters.
Smylie received the Distinguished Service Cross for his work that day, and Davies earned the Victoria Cross with his bravery. This first search and rescue from the air would spur the development of dedicated tactics and techniques that have carried forward to today.