On November 9, 2019 the Air Force Museum Theatre at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base will present the world film premiere of The Lafayette Escadrille. The feature length documentary, filmed on both sides of the Atlantic, tells the story of a U.S. unit of volunteers, under French command, who came forward to fight for France during World War I.
The film draws a dotted line from Dayton and the Wright Brothers to one of the founders of the fighting unit, Norman Prince. That line continues on to France, to early flying and the advent of American military aviation.
In the aviation world, Dan Patterson is an historian, photographer, and commentator for WYSO. He's also one of the producers of the The Lafayette Escadrille and tells us in this interview how the project began.
Dan Patterson: This film began several years ago as I was beginning to work on magazine article about the unit, and we quickly discovered that this is a story really that's been lost to history. And so, the more we dug into this, the more fascinating it became.
The project started when I met one of the descendants of the original pilots, Norman Prince. This is his great grand-nephew, Norman was killed before he was able to have children, and what we found out is Norman Prince learn to fly in a Wright Flyer. Wright State has a photograph of Norman Prince at Huffman Prairie, so he is the link in the chain between the early experiments of the Wright brothers and military flying, and that alone is a great story.
Jerry Kenney: So, there's definitely a connection to the Miami Valley, or several?
DP: Absolutely. Yeah.
JK: Yeah. Tell us a little bit about working on the film. When did you start this?
DP: This project started about four and a half years ago, actively working on the film. I met Regis de Ramel, the descendant of Norman Prince,10 years ago, and pitched the idea eventually to Air and Space Smithsonian Magazine and Paul Glenshaw and I did an article for the Air and Space magazine, and the film has kind of percolated out of that project.
JK: You are one of three producers?
DP: That's correct.
JK: All right, and some filming [was] done on both sides of the Atlantic?
DP: That is right. We've made two filming trips to France in the last four years, which is a nice gig to do. We filmed in 40 locations in France, nearly all the locations where this unit flew and lived and fought.
JK: I imagine that with filming here and across the ocean, I imagine there's some beautiful cinematography in here.
DP: There is. We worked with a couple of really great videographers. I've done a little bit of filming, not a lot, but the country of France is really a character of the film because the First World War was mainly fought in France. These guys went to fly for France and France has never forgotten what they did. These guys are revered in France. The French Air Force still maintains the unit and Mirage jets are flying with the unit insignia, which is an American Indian had painted on the tail right now.
JK: And they've been referred to as the founding fathers of American combat aviation.
DP: That is correct. Several of the pilots fought in the war from the day it began to the day it ended. They actually survived all of it. They were not flying, and when it started, several were in the French Foreign Legion. James Norman Hall, who flew in the unit, was sent to France to write an article about the unit for Atlantic Magazine. So, there were various ways for people to get there. The United States was neutral, so you couldn't... a United States citizen really couldn't fight in the war but they figured out how to get there. And then the unit was formed in 1916 and they immediately went into combat, and then the unit fought the rest of the war on every front.
JK: Was there anything that like just jumped out at you as a surprise during your research on this?
DP: The sense of volunteerism, American military volunteerism, really jumps out in this story. And they were honoring Lafayette, who was the original military volunteer who came [and] volunteered with George Washington to fight in the American Revolution. So, there's a real sense of paying it back, honor, liberty, fraternity, it's all there.
JK: You mentioned travel to locations here and in France, a challenge in itself, but what were some of the other big challenges for you in this production?
DP: The challenges have been finding the descendants of some of these guys, that we've actually found several sons and daughters of the original pilots, who are quite old now, they're in their 90s, but they have vivid recollections of... the ones that knew their grandfather and the ones that only knew them from the legend the family has, there's photographs and there's diaries... and these guys wrote a lot of letters, which is a wonderful resource. One challenge is reading their handwriting. Not really easy to read some of the handwriting from 100 years ago.
JK: This film, the Lafayette Escadrille, will be shown on Saturday, November 9th, and let's tell people how they can get involved. It will take place at Wright Patterson Air Force Base.
DP: It's at the Air Force Museum Theater, on their giant digital screen.
JK: Yeah, amazing.
DP: It's hundred-foot screen. And, seeing your own work on a screen that big can be intimidating, but it's pretty cool. The film is shown at 7 o'clock on November 9th. Call the Air Force Museum Theater to find out how you might be able to attend.
JK: Sure, and you've got a VIP early reception.
DP: We have a VIP reception and then the next day we're having a two hour symposium with the descendants of these pilots. The French three-star general we interviewed in the film is coming from France to be part of this symposium. And there's the historians from the museum and some of the authors who have have written about these guys who we interviewed also are all going to be in one place,.
JK: The descendants have to be pretty excited about this.
DP: They're pretty excited because this is the first documentary made about the Lafayette Escadrille. There have been other movies made about the unit, which the families really did not like, Fly Boys being one of them. There was a lot of Hollywood license taken with the story and we have made sure the families are pleased with our effort.
JK: Dan Patterson is an aviation commentator for WYSO. Dan, before we leave, I just want to ask you, you've got a project underway that really has nothing to do with aviation.
DP: There are no airplanes in this project, which is also coming to a conclusion, University Cincinnati Press has agreed to publish a book about surveying early America in the seventeen hundreds and the thread through the book is George Washington, who was a surveyor when he was 16, surveyed Ohio when he was a young man, didn't really survey after that, but he surveyed his whole life and he understood the value of measuring the land, and it's just a fascinating project.
JK: Oh, great. We'd love to have you back in to talk about that project once it's going to be released.
DP: It'll be published on Washington's birthday, February 22nd next year.
JK: Great. Dan Patterson, thanks so much.
DP: Thank you.