Death in the Air

Death in the Air: The War Diary and Photographs of a Flying Corps Pilot, published in 1933, purported to be the diary of an anonymous World War I RAF pilot killed in combat. The manuscript, which included numerous spectacular shots of aerial combat, was presented to the publisher by a Mrs. Gladys Cockburn-Lange, who claimed to be the widow of a British pilot.

The photos attracted enormous interest, since there were very few images of World War I aerial combat in existence. However, many people were skeptical. Why was the name of the pilot not revealed? How could the RAF have had no knowledge of these photos? And how could such clear shots have been taken with a camera mounted on an airplane (given the state of camera technology during WWI)?

The photos weren't definitively debunked until 1984 when archivists at the Smithsonian realized that "Mrs. Gladys Cockburn-Lange" was actually Betty Archer, the wife of Wesley David Archer, a model maker in the film industry. Archer had created models of all the aircraft, and then had superimposed images of the planes onto aerial backgrounds.

The Photos
Below are examples of three of the faked photographs, along with the captions that accompanied them in Death in the Air.

"His wings suddenly collapsed and floated past me"

"Just as he left the burning plane"

" group as 'twere"

Links and References
Brugioni, D. (1999). Photo Fakery. Brassey's: 100-102.
Park, E. (Jan 1985). "The Greatest Aerial Warfare Photos Go Down in Flames." Smithsonian: 103-113.
Photo Categories: Staged Scene, Models and Cutouts, Death, Military, War, Planes, 1920-1939

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