A new book reveals the untold story of NZ's World War I airmen. This edited extract reveals the life and times of one of them - the unparalleled Keith Caldwell.

Miracles were a rare commodity over the Great War's Western Front, and every airman needed at least one.

In the late summer of 1918, with only weeks of fighting left in the war, squadron commander Major Keith Caldwell got his miracle.

He was flying with a wingman - a Yorkshireman - over territory scarred and cratered by four years of uninterrupted fighting, when he spotted a German aircraft.

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Caldwell opened the throttle and the engine growled. He and his biplane were well-matched: the New Zealander was a tall and athletic pilot, the product of extensive training and blessed with fighting skills honed over months of vicious dogfights.

His weapon, the Royal Aircraft Factory SE5a - the latest-generation fighter - was menacing with its over-long snout, snarling exhausts stretching past the open cockpit, and twin machine guns: it had all the elegance and brutality of a large African cat, an apex predator.

Caldwell and his offsider stalked their prey across the open blue savannah, manoeuvred within striking distance, hunched, then pounced, a final leap to secure their prize.

Then it happened: the two Allied airmen collided.

In concentrating on their quarry they had converged; the Englishman's undercarriage ploughed into Caldwell's upper left wing at 8000ft.

The Yorkshireman came through relatively unscathed, but Caldwell's wing bent and buckled. He wrestled with his quivering, staggering SE5a deep over enemy-occupied territory; his fighter descended rapidly and then entered a flat spin.

Death was only moments away.

Caldwell and wife Dorothy, who farmed in Mangere after the war.
Caldwell and wife Dorothy, who farmed in Mangere after the war.

As one squadron member observed, "Most men - indeed the huge majority - would have become unnerved and paralysed with fear, and resigned themselves to their fate. Not so this tough son of Auckland."

Self-preservation stepped in. Caldwell would not die without a fight.

He stood and placed his left foot on the right rudder, leaning as far out as he could. He gained a tenuous equilibrium, his long leather flying coat whipping and cracking against him in the strong wind.

Another subordinate had seen his commanding officer's SE5a fall and followed him down; the airman gasped as Caldwell momentarily let go of the joystick and waved to him.

The spectator assumed it was a farewell gesture and turned away from the sickening sight of the New Zealander's death plunge.

Caldwell had other ideas. He crossed no-man's land, heading for the Allied trenches.

Heads looked up as he careened over the British troops. It was an impossible sight: Was the pilot flying on the wing?

The mud-brown earth beckoned -- the grave of innumerable men.

He waited for the last moment and, in the heartbeat between flying and crashing, leapt.

He hit the ground, somersaulted a few times and, to the surprise of the horrified watching infantry, simply stood up - a bleeding lip and considerable bruising the extent of his injuries - shook off the dirt, and walked to the nearest trench in search of a telephone.

"Very lucky," he wrote in his flying logbook.

IN FEBRUARY 1918, "Grid" Caldwell was given command of 74 Squadron, equipped with SE5s.

Ira "Taffy" Jones recorded his arrival in the squadron: "He was a big man, with jet-black hair, swarthy complexion, deep-set eyes and a prominent chin, which was a good indication of a determined character.

"It was not necessary to speak with him to realise that he possessed an outstanding personality. He was already famous throughout the Royal Flying Corps as a great fighter and a dashing patrol leader."

At the first opportunity Caldwell gathered the airmen to outline what he required of them.

He wanted everyone to "fight like hell" and, regardless of the odds, he required all men serving with him to go to the aid of a fellow pilot in trouble.

He also let them know that he liked his men to be punctual, and that the squadron would never take off late.

The squadron's famous flight commander Edward "Mick" Mannock informed the unit what to expect from Caldwell: "Our C.O. is the bravest man in the air force and he'll frighten the hell out of you when he leads the patrols."

SEPTEMBER 1918 was Caldwell's most fruitful period of the war.

On September 5 he had his famous collision in the air. All the more astonishingly, Caldwell flew the very next day as if nothing had happened.

The 1970 reunion of the 1914-1918 NZ Airmen's Association.
The 1970 reunion of the 1914-1918 NZ Airmen's Association.

Around midday on September 17, Caldwell was leading a five-strong patrol when his men became embroiled with over 20 Germans.

Caldwell inserted himself into the fight when he saw an SE5a being tormented by a trio of enemy Fokker DVIIs: it was one of his officers, Frederick Hunt.

Caldwell pried one of them off Hunt's back by knocking it out of the sky, but Hunt was still encumbered with the remaining pair.

Caldwell closed to 50 yards and fired. His second target for the day rolled and dived away, but Caldwell was unable to follow because Hunt was still under threat from a Fokker that had height on him.

When the New Zealander appeared, the German wisely dived and flattened out low and turned tail for home.

Caldwell's remaining combat of note in September occurred a week later, east of Armentieres at 12,000ft when, with three other SE5s, he dived on seven Siemens-Schuckert DIVs.

Caldwell engaged the leading machine at a right angle, nearly colliding with the plywood-skinned fuselage.

They turned in towards each other, Caldwell's SE5a bearing down on the Siemens-Schuckert. Then he found himself on its tail at speed, firing at close range.

Desperate, the German pulled his machine into a vertical climb to take advantage of his aircraft's climbing ability.

It was too late.

Caldwell looked over: "I saw the pilot leaning to the left of the cockpit with his head down on his chest."

IN THE 1950s there was a changing of the guard as World War II veterans rose through the ranks; as Lord Tedder told [Sir Keith] Park at the end of his RAF career, "the young must have their turn".

The Great War men relinquished their commands and marched into old age and retirement. In 1960, to keep their adventures alive, [former airmen] formed the New Zealand 1914-1918 Airmen's Association.

The gatherings, initially numbering as high as 200 attendees, were reported in local papers: readers were transported to another age when aviation was in its infancy and flying machines were constructed of wood, fabric and wire; where men in small open-cockpit biplanes attacked menacing Zeppelins, bombed and strafed the "Hun" and tangled with the Red Baron's Flying Circus.

As the years advanced, ill health and the passing of its members thinned out the Association.

Caldwell was there to the end.

Over his flying career he had been the recipient of numerous accolades and awards - Military Cross, Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar, Belgian Croix de Guerre, CBE - and had miraculously cheated death on more than one occasion, but at 85 years of age on November 28, 1980 he passed away.

When friend and English ace William Fry was asked his opinion of Grid, he uttered one word: "Fearless."

Fearless, by Dr Adam Claasen, is published by Massey University Press. RRP $59.99.