The Great World War I Dogfight Photo Hoax

You are probably familiar with the famous Cottingley fairy photography hoax (there’s even a movie about it starring Peter O’Toole) in which two young British girls fooled much of the world—and credulous believer in the supernatural Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—into thinking that they had captured photographic proof that the fairy folk of legend existed. That hoax, however, was a mere bagatelle compared to this one.

In the early 1930s, a Mrs. Gladys Maud Cockburne-Lange said she was the widow of a Royal Flying Corps pilot. She presented  stunning photographs of scenes of aerial combat during World War I, apparently taken in the air from a combat biplane. Her late husband, she said, had defied the RFC’s regulations and mounted a camera on his plane, tying its shutter action to his machine gun. The resulting photos were the first  visual representation of British and German planes fighting each other taken from the air. They showed  bi-panes crashing into each other, being shot to pieces, catching on fire, and even pilots falling from the sky.

All previous photos of  WWI aerial “dogfights” had been taken from the ground, so this unexpected  trove of photographs caused a sensation.  The images were rapidly sold to newspapers, galleries, and publishers. Mrs. Cockburne-Langes sold 34 of the photos to one  publisher for  $20,000, a huge sum during the Great Depression, and they were later published in a popular book, “Death in the Air: The War Diary and Photographs of a Flying Corps Pilot.” by an anonymous author.

Unlike the fairy photo hoax, however, the truth about these photos took hald a century to uncover.  In 1984, the Smithsonian Institute received a donation of materials from Wesley David Archer, an American pilot who had served with the RFC and then…wait for it… became a special-effects technician in Hollywood.  Air and Space Museum curator Karl S. Schneide and Peter M. Grosz, an aviation expert, investigated the materials, and discovered  that in  some of the photographs, the wires holding up the model airplanes used to create the illusion of mid-air dogfights had yet to be airbrushed out. The materials also contained a diary entry that revealed the entire scheme.

“Gladys Maud Cockburne-Lange” was actually Betty Archer, Wesley’s wife. The couple decided during the Depression to use Wesley’s special effects skills to  acquire some much needed cash, and succeeded spectacularly.  After selling the faked photos, the two escaped to Cuba with the equivalent of about $350,000 in today’s currency, and lived out their lives in relative comfort. This explained the mystery of what had become of Mrs. Cockburne-Lange, who vanished shortly after pulling off the scam.

In retrospect, one can argue that the fake photos should have been exposed long before. Some skeptics had questioned the apparent shininess of the wheels of the planes—a small detail Archer had missed—and the photos including British planes suggested that Archer was attacking his own comrades. Human beings, however, are wired by evolution to trust, because without trust, civilization is impossible. Con artists take advantage of that important feature of humanity, to the detriment of us all. As mutual trust declines, so do the prospects for a productive, ethical, functioning society.

Here are some of the photos:


Pointer: “Mysteries of the Museum”

Sources: Imaging-Resources, Wichita Special Collections, Gizmodo

5 thoughts on “The Great World War I Dogfight Photo Hoax

  1. I never knew this story. Thanks for posting it. Yes, people do trust, especially if it’s published (though I suspect it’s less so now than it would have been in the ’30s).

  2. I like that show, it covers things you thought you now or didn’t realize you didn’t. If I ever run out of story ideas a few shows of that should recharge me…

  3. I know those WWI planes were slow, and dogfights were a fairly close-range affair, but did nobody question that second photo at all? Counting our hero’s plane, that would put six aircraft in a space about the size of a large suburban yard, all flying at intersecting vectors. Does that seem realistic?

    “…the two escaped to Cuba with the equivalent of about $350,000 in today’s currency, and lived out their lives in relative comfort.”

    I take it they either died or left Cuba before 1958, then?

    • People really had no feel for the mechanics of air travel in general, and WWI dogfights specifically.

      This is true today regarding the realities of what a fighter pilot actually does. Vectors, aircraft performance envelopes, and weapons performance are all little understood.

      Hollywood does not help, either.

      • I can see that being the case in 1930. But nobody with any kind of aviation experience ever looked at those photos in the fifty years before the hoax was exposed, and thought, “that don’t look right”? I suppose these pictures lost a lot of their appeal once much better photos from WWII started to stream in, perhaps that explains it. I don’t know much about this story, but I imagine that these photos made a big splash at first, and quickly faded into obscurity.

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