THIS debut novel is very much fact-based. Its main character is Frederick George ‘Dusty’ Dunn, the son of Wylam miner Thomas Dunn, whose previously unsung exploits as a young pilot in the First World War were unearthed by research carried out by Roy Koerner and Aubrey Smith, members of Wylam Local History Group.
Their work and the untold story of Captain Frederick Dunn was recounted in Issue 140 of The Northumbrian magazine and led to his descendants, including the author’s parents, visiting the village’s war memorial project. It inspired journalist Vera Wood to undertake further research into his wartime experiences. On writing this book, she says: “I have tried to keep as historically accurate as possible, although the affair Fred has with a young wartime widow is my invention.”
Fred’s parents moved to London in 1908 to work for a wealthy family as domestic servants and through this connection Fred studied engineering. In early 1914, when he was only 19, he became one of the youngest Royal Aero Club qualified pilots. Then, when war broke out that August, although he had only 40 hours’ solo flying experience he volunteered for immediate active service with the Royal Flying Corps.
In France he flew countless photo reconnaissance missions, was invalided home after surviving a crash, then worked as a test pilot, trained new pilot recruits and ferried replacement aircraft to squadrons near the front line. As the death rate among the men who flew these unsophisticated aircraft soared, Fred returned to France, flew many more missions, survived another crash caused by engine failure, and completed his war service as flight commander of a training squadron.
His first peacetime job was as a test pilot for the new Tarrant Triplane, the biggest plane ever built, and that was when his luck ran out. He flew the prototype on its maiden flight in May 1919, but it crashed and he died from his injuries.
Many tributes were paid to the pivotal role this ‘brave and brilliant airman’ played in aviation development. In a letter to Fred’s father, director of research General Robert Brooke-Popham said: “He was undoubtedly the best all-round pilot I have ever seen. His death is a distinct loss to British aviation.”