Willy Copens was a Belgian soldier fighting in WWI. On Thursday, April 15, 1915, watched a German Zeppelin pass overhead on its return from a bombing mission in England and he was flooded with memories. On the same beach, when he was five years old, running among the dunes on the shore he saw a kite hovering on the breeze. That simple encounter had ignited his passion for flight. That evening he wrote in his journal, “The Zeppelin took me back to my childhood. I remembered that bright blue paper kite that seemed possessed of some kind of occult power which in an irresistible and inexplicable way drew me up towards the infinity of the heavens. As the thin line tautened in the wind it emitted a singing sound that made me tremble with excitement.”

That recurrent memory changed everything. Copens was evacuated to England where, at his expense, he completed two months of flying lessons in an aircraft that he said was as flimsy as a kite. It was so small, frail and low powered that wind of five knots required grounding. After thirty lessons, a mere three hours and fifty six minutes of flight time, he took his first official flying test. After being issued Royal Aero Pilot Certificate Number 2140, he was given leave to begin military training in Etampes, France under the tutelage of Maurice Chevillard, a French pilot of great renown.

Training accidents were a sobering and common occurrence. According to procedure when a fatal accident occurs “the flying machines are rolled into their hangers and all the trainees gather round to hold a wake over the mangled body – a depressing business.” On Sunday’s, the only day when training is suspended, he flies kites with a childhood friend that has also entered the pilots program. He finds it “a moment to escape the fears and worries, and return to the carefree moments of my youth.”

The average life expectancy of pilot in these years was a mere seventeen hours. Miraculously Coppens survives numerous harrowing missions and soon his plane is a patchwork of patches. On Sunday, May 19, 1918, he reaches a milestone and in a ceremony presided over by the commander of the Belgian Air Force, he is awarded the Air Ace recognition. On October 14, his luck runs out. After bringing down an enemy aircraft his plane is struck by ground fire as he is flying at a height of less than 200 feet. A single bullet passes through the cockpit floor and into his right leg which involuntarily presses the right rudder sending his plane into a dive. Incredibly he manages to crash land his plane after crossing from enemy territory, and is rushed to a field hospital.

Coppens survived the war but walked with a pronounced limp for the remainder of his days. He was presented with numerous awards and accolades, and stories of his exploits were published internationally. He was one of the most decorated Belgian pilots during the war. And it all started with a passion ignited by a kite on the beach.

Written by Jim Hinckley of Jim Hinckley’s America