Flying ace an interesting character

Published 1:19 pm Sunday, January 18, 2015

I knew Col. Bill Lambert, an Ironton resident and World War I ace, for a few years near the end of his life.

He gave me his autographed book “Combat Report” about flying in WWI. I noticed it is available on the Internet. One guy was asking $96 for his copy.

I got acquainted with Bill and took him to Air Force Association meetings. He smoked a pipe and had a patent on a prop to help hold the pipe in his mouth. He needed it to hold his pipe since he had false teeth.

Email newsletter signup

I think maybe he blew on the pipe occasionally since his shirt usually had small scorched spots and a few burnt holes. He also painted pictures of his combat flights. I have one of his autographed pictures of his favorite combat airplane, the SE-5a.

The SE-5a was a superior fighter aircraft favored by Col. Lambert. It had a top speed of 135 mph and more high altitude capability than other fighters of that day in 1917, when it was produced at the Royal Aircraft Factory in England.

Bill told me that the most bothersome part of the fighter duties was flying low over the German trenches and strafing the troops. He told me that later in the war he had a nervous breakdown and I wonder if in part, was it due to watching the troops die as he flew over them.

Bill called it nervous breakdown but it was also called at that time “shell shock” or “battle fatigue.” The condition is now known as PTSD, or posttraumatic stress disorder. He also told me about the fighter pilots having late-night parties and then going out the next morning and fighting the Germans.

He told me that he introduced Scotch on the rocks to the Englishmen. He said the easiest target were the tethered artillery observation balloons. The balloons were sitting ducks since they could not be retrieved fast enough to escape the high-speed fighters.

Bill was an ace with 18 victories, as noted on the Internet, and he was credited with 22 victories in the early Air Force Association almanac magazine issues but nowadays, he has been dropped off the list.

I suppose that they dropped him since he was actually fighting under the control of the British of what is known as the Royal Air Force.

One time when we visited Bill, he showed me his watch, which he had hanging on the wall at the head of his bed. He said when he was forced down by a lucky shot into his gas tank from the trenches, he quickly got out of the plane. When he realized he had forgotten his watch, he reached back in and grabbed it and ran for the friendly trenches. He relied on the watch to warn him when the fuel was running low.

The tank level gauges were not very reliable back then. Even today they are not all that infallible. He also showed me a piece of airplane fabric that he said was from the Red Baron Triplane after it was shot down.

Bill was a very interesting character. Perhaps I’ll be able to write more about him in later columns.

Don Lee, a pilot flying out of Lawrence County Airport since 1970, has been in charge of equipment and grounds maintenance for the last several years. He can be reached at