Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Red Baron's Autobiography: The Red Battle Flyer

     I don't know that I would consider this required reading for pilots, but it certainly is in the top 20 if not top 10. In German the book is entitled: Der rote Kampfflieger  or in English: The Red Battle Flyer. The book, written during the war, was for sure a piece of propaganda to a large extent, but it is still worth reading nonetheless. The Baron's real name is Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen...which I will just shorten to Richthofen or the Red Baron if that is ok with my many (well maybe just my wife and me) readers.
   I used to wonder why the British had special squadrons whose sole purpose was to hunt down and kill the Red Baron. It seemed a great waste of resources and not fitting with a logical strategy (or tactic...there is a nuanced difference that I would like to understand better) for winning the air war in WWI. But, a few nights ago, because of a big snow storm, school was called off and I had a rare opportunity to sleep in a little. While sleeping in, I had a dream that I was a young, brand new allied pilot on the western front and getting ready to go into combat for the first time. I was so afraid of facing the Red Baron and the certain death that would likely follow,  that I was in a complete state of panic...for certain I would be preoccupied by this thought for my first several days of combat and that much less ineffectual. It was that morning, while shoveling and thinking about this, that I understood the special squadrons.It was a terrifying dream. I can't say it wasn't cool for sure to have a taste of this feeling, but it was a little too real and I was thankful to only be facing a day of snow shoveling instead of straining my eyes for the sight of an all red Fokker Tri-Plane that he painted all red just to let you know whom you were facing and that your time left on this earth could easily be counted in seconds. Richthofen did this on purpose and lets be clear here...he understood his role and didn't glorify it...aerial combat is murder and Baron was a cold blooded killer in the air.
     The Baron was actually honored and excited that he was getting this special attention. In the book, he was certainly portrayed as a cocky young man. One morning while he was still in bed his orderly rushed in and told him that the English were there. "Sleepy as I was, I looked out and, really, there were my dear friends circling over the flying ground." Of course, he hopped into his plane and soon made his 32nd kill. "This was a case of splendid daring." But, his opponent had "paid for his stupidity with his life." Baron loved nothing more than shooting "one or two Englishmen for breakfast". Of course, this probably captures some of the truth, but it was propaganda and even the Baron himself considered that he was too arrogant and was portrayed as too arrogant in the book, but was himself killed in battle before any revisions.
     I have always appreciated that Baron, like myself, is a small man in height, but extremely competitive and became the most successful fighter pilot of WWI with at least 80 kills to his name. I also appreciate that he was honest about the difficulties of flying an airplane. In fact, he actually wrecked his aircraft on his first solo!  This part of the book was especially enjoyable and the part with the least propaganda. I felt a common bond with him as he described his first solo: "There are some moments in one's life which tickle one's nerves particularly and the first solo-flight is among them." He admits in the book that he was afraid, but that this wasn't something he could admit at the time. He describes the joy of solo flight then came the hard part--landing. "I lost my balance, made some wrong movements, stood on my head and I succeeded in converting my airplane into a battered school bus. I was very sad , looked at the damage which I had done to the machine...and had to suffer from other people's jokes. Two days later I went with passion at the flying and suddenly I could handle the apparatus."
     While I now understand the special squadrons and had a very small taste of the fear he created, I know what kind of spirit the Baron had and how this all backfired and made his reputation that much greater. He considered the special squadrons a  "splendid joke" and in the end found it more convenient that his "customers" now came to him. So yeah, it didn't work...it was a nice thought I guess...kill off the Red Baron so the allied pilots weren't so hysterical and could concentrate a little better, but in the end the tragedy of war, the senseless slaughter that was WWI caught the Baron as it did his victims.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Piece of Cake

Piece of Cake by Derek Robinson is the first aviation based novel that I have read in some time. In recent years I have been reading a lot of non-fiction, but sometimes I really believe that "fiction" will get closer to the truth about an historical event and the people involved than non-fiction. Suzanne first introduced me to the mini-series based on this book that was made by the BBC and aired on PBS here in America back in the 80's. It was a good mini-series and I loaned it to my father-in-law who really enjoyed watching it during his last days of battling cancer. While the mini-series was good, this book is great. I will never think of the Battle of Britain the same way again. I feel like I know the pilots of "Hornet Squadron" and I feel like I have logged hours in a Hurricane. The book does a great job of showing the pilots as completely human with all that comes with it; Sometimes brave, sometimes cowardly, sometimes chivalrous and sometimes murderous. Of course the book is full of tragedy, but also full of dark humor and some of the best one liners I have ever read. The book has many memorable characters, most of whom realistically don't survive to the end of September 1940. I feel like I know some of these guys and I believe they will be with me into the future as much as any characters in novels I read in the early 90's such as War and Peace or Catch 22. I recommend this book completely to everyone who is interested in flying, history or just good literature. I have read novels that are as good as Piece of Cake, but none better.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Jonathan Livingston Seagull

First, I must say I was shocked to read that the author of this book, Richard Bach who is 76, actually crashed his small plane right after I finished reading this book. His condition has been upgraded to serious, but that is about all I can find out at the moment online.
I remember as a kid in the 70's seeing this book on our own bookshelf and in almost every home I ever visited. It was an extremely popular book to be sure. It was originally published in 1970. I knew it had something to do with flying and that it was ubiquitous, but I never gave it another thought until I earned my pilot's license and began my quest to read as many good books on flying as I possibly can...perhaps to make up for my ability to pay for more real flying time. I figure I might as well learn as much as I can from the experts that have written about flying and Bach certainly has the expert credentials: He has pursued flying as a hobby since he was 17, was trained as a fighter pilot and served in the USAF and Air National Guard in various capacities according to Wikepedia and other sources.
This book is very short and is about a Seagull named Jonathan who wants to perfect his flying, but in the process of improving himself he earns the scorn of his fellow birds, but in the end he earns the respect of many gulls and well a bunch of stuff happens...The book is almost a cliche of the 70's and at the time I am sure it was groundbreaking and that my parent's generation really soaked it in, but I must say, the book didn't really speak to me...but I am glad that I now know about it and I certainly know that it does speak to many readers and pilots...many of whom have this book on their top 10 flying books. For me it was just too philosophical, but book review aside as it really isn't important...for right now my thoughts are with Bach and his family and I wish him a speedy recovery.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Fate is the Hunter

Fate is the Hunter by Ernest K. Gann. (published in 1961) Not sure what to make of this book exactly. On one hand I was mesmerized by Gann's story telling skills, but on the other I was annoyed by a few things...such as not sharing with us who he really was as a person. I had no idea whether he was married or had kids (I read on Wikepedia that he did)...but this is a flying story right, not a personal memoir? But, in his dozens of self declared close calls with fate, you would think that he would have once mention this motivation for wanting to survive the on board fires, sabatoged engines, aileron "unportings", near misses and once almost crashing into the Taj Mahal. However, surviving for his family was never mentioned or even hinted at. The somewhat sloppy "thesis" of this book is that fate is the ultimate hunter and that we exercise little control over whether or not we live or die and that we only have a certain amount of luck. Gann assumed he had spent all of his quotient of luck and quit his career (for the final time) while working for his 3rd or 4th airline. Another thing that annoyed me was his repeated contempt for the "numbers" or the seniority system for airline pilots. He was totally offended that he became merely a co-pilot after he was hired at his final airline and he clearly felt disrepected by this "demotion".  Ironically, if he had stuck with American Airlines he would have controlled his own fate and his "high" number (267) of which he constantly complained would have relatively low later in his career and he would have had all of the choice picks of routes and schedules as a full captain. But, I guess his fate was to become an author and that is what he did and I guess he actually wrote several successful books, not just "Fate is the Hunter."  My final complaint is that he threads the book with the names of pilots and co-pilots that lost their lives flying for their respective airlines...so every few pages you get a quick report of fresh death...quite gloomy. I thought this was a bit overly dramatic, maybe because I specialize bombers in Europe during WWII. There were single days in Europe during the war where we probably lost as many airplanes in one day as the airlines did over the course of several years.
OK, now that I have totally aired my grievances with the book, I feel free to say that overall it was an enjoyable and at times a really exciting read. I think the biggest contribution of this book is in its influence in "hangar flying". I am not sure if pilots talk the way they do because of this book, which is widely read in aviation circles, or that maybe Gann captured the way pilots talked in the old days and the popularity of his book keeps all of us pilots talking a certain way, using certain words and telling certain stories as if they were our own (although we may vary them a bit).
My favorite parts of the book are when he was first hired by the airlines as a young man. At the beginning of the book he was much more modest and openly spoke of some of his terrible landings, especially in the DC-2. After his first landing, which was especially smooth, his instructor was not at all impressed and merely stated that "a whore is easy to meet". His descriptions of the next two "landings" are really vivid and hilarious. I also especially enjoyed his hard-ass captain that mentored him, Captain Ross. Ross would light matches under his nose while Gann was attempting landings to teach him to concentrate while other things were going on. He demanded precision flying from Gann and reminded him often that in this game "we play for keeps". Ross's training surely probably saved Gann's life in later years and the lives of his passengers. He said he even thought of Ross years later in a particularly dramatic flight when he had to land a smoke filled airplane full of GI's during WWII. In a tough business like flying or when we face many of the hardships or crises in life, I think we all need a "Captain Ross" we can lean on.
During part of WWII Gann flew the C-87 which is the cargo version of the B-24 Liberator bomber. He didn't care for it much: "They were an evil bastard contraption...they betrayed each of us in various ways and there was a tendency to approach one as if it were an angry bull elephant--to which they somehow bore a startling resemblance...It was a ground-loving bitch and with heavy loads rolled, snorted and porpoised interminably before asserting it questionable right to fly." He also wasn't impressed with its ability to carry ice: "the C-87's could not carry enough ice to chill a highball."
One thing I found particularly true for me was his statement that as pilots we are "incapable of ignoring any take-off, we turn (no matter what we are doing) to watch the plane leave the ground." I have seen pilots ignore landings and take-offs and it has always made me suspicious of them.
Overall, despite my complaints, of which I unfairly may have to many, I do highly recommend this book to all pilots, students pilots, would be pilots, aviation enthusiasts and any who likes an exciting read. In fact, I am making a top ten list of books all pilots/student pilots should read and Fate is the Hunter will no doubt be on the list.
Sadly, while Gann decided to cheat his own fate by quitting his career, a worse fate awaited him. In 1973, his eldest son George, was killed on an oil tanker, when a wave swept him overboard (from wikepedia). So, Gann was right in the end, fate really is the hunter and what a bastard it can be. I think we all want to think, especially those of us that fly, that we can control what happens to us and the fact that we can't control everything makes us hostile and angry and thus my mixed emotions about this book.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Robert S Lambert update!!

In the last few days we have accomplished one of our major goals in our research on the Harold Hetzler Crew. Since the beginning, we learned that the only married crew member was Flight Officer Robert S Lambert. Even more intriguing was the fact that he had a son that was born 3 months after the entire crew was shot down over Alverskirchen, Germany on March 23, 1944. For several years I had tried to make contact with this son....the only "survivor" of the crew so to speak. Then like a strike of lightening out of the blue sky,  3 days ago I received an email from Wayne Lambert, who now lives in Oregon!! We had quite a conversation. We both filled in some of the gaps in each other's knowledge. There is almost too much to put in words here, but one amazing memory that Wayne had, or thought he had, was coming to St. Louis with his family for some type of funeral here in St. Louis. I was happy to inform him that this was not imagined. That the remains of the 6 unidentified crew members that went down with the plane were all moved from Germany to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in May of 1950. I was also happy to be able to let him know that actual remains are buried at the cemetery, otherwise they would be in the memorial section. I was also totally blown away that Wayne has letters and photos. Getting to see new letters and photos (such as the one above) from the crew is like winning the lottery in this game and it really helps me bring the crew member and the story of the whole crew to life. I also have so much information and documentation that I will also send to Wayne. I feel very honored and humbled to be able to share with Wayne as much as I possibly can about his Dad's crew and what he experienced during the war.  I made a pledge years ago to do everything I could to learn as much about this crew as I possibly could and then to honor their memory as best as I can. This is truly a labor of love. My wife and I are seriously starting to work on our book about the crew and we are grateful that the Lambert story will go from sketchy and mysterious to well known!
Ever since I was 14 and learned about the Civil War from my history teacher Ken Elkins, I have had the fantasy of going back in time and seeing historical events first hand for myself. After I pass on (a long time from now I hope) and if such a thing is somehow possible, one of my fondest desires is that I might really be able to do this. Now when I think about this  fantasy (which is everyday actually), I am very specific...I want to ride in Jayhawker during their transit of their new B-24 over the Atlantic to their new base in England...I will go from crew member to crew member and really talk them and get to know each one of them and just soak it all in. Now, the dream has changed a bit for the better....now when I talk to Robert Lambert we can have a nice talk about how I found his son.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Spirit of St. Louis

I have read a lot of books on aviation, but by far this is the absolute best and the most essential for anyone that flies, wants to fly or is just interested in aviation or adventure. In fact, I think everyone that is thinking about becoming a pilot should read this book first and then re-read it after they have their license. That is what I did, in a way. I first read this book when I was 19, in August of 1988. At the time I was a student pilot (my 2nd of 5 attempts to get my license!) I rarely read books more than once, but 24 years later I read this one again. This time I read it, I am no longer a student pilot, but a "real pilot" having finished my license last October.
For pilots, it is important to note, that before Lindbergh was famous, he was a flight instructor here in St. Louis. Reading the book, is like having Lindbergh as your flight instructor and in that regard, there is no finer instructor or anyone better than him. Lindbergh's greatness lies in his modesty, honesty and total lack of ego as far as flying goes. He fully admits and explains the many mistakes he made as an inexperienced pilot and even as seasoned pilot. Even as a very experienced pilot, with thousands of hours of experience and army training, he admits that he was worried about his landing in Paris in the Spirit because he hadn't landed it at night before and was afraid he would stall it, but of course he didn't, but so many pilots are only into boasting and busting the chops of anyone that dares ask a "stupid question" or makes a mistake. Of course, the boasting and attacking come from insecurity, which I honestly think all pilots have their whole careers to a certain extent. Admitting our weaknesses and mistakes and working to improve will actually keep us alive and safe...I think ego kills pilots and their passengers in some instances, so in my opinion it is not only annoying, but actually dangerous.
I made 140 entries on my notes while reading this book of things I want to remember, found interesting or thought would help write this review. But, this is one of those times when the book was so great, the knowledge so much and the interesting tidbits so many, that I will have to make a more general than specific review of this book.
It is a beautifully written book. My particular copy is the first printing of the paperback from 1953. The book was written, in part, to help Lindbergh restore some of his reputation after his involvement in the anti-war movement of the late 30's and early 40's as well as some of this not so politically correct statements about race. The book did win the Pulitzer Prize and later his reputation was further helped by having Jimmy Stewart play him the movie adaptation of the book.
Lindbergh was not a perfect person and definitely had a darker side, such as his other families with children in Germany that weren't well known until recently. But, we are dealing with a pilot and a flawed human being like we all are and suddenly becoming the most famous man in the world in 1927 after completing the first flight non-stop from New York to Paris would be a lot to take on for anyone. Also, I always suspect that the loss of his first child in the kidnapping case, changed who he was and not for the better and that is understandable.
In my opinion, you can certainly make the argument that Lindbergh was the greatest pilot of all time. In any case, I am confident that he is at least the equal of my other two candidates: Erich Hartmann and Neil Armstrong. These three share humility as well as greatness.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Fort Gaines, Dauphin Island

Another stop on our vacation to Alabama was Dauphin Island. While on the Island we toured Fort Gaines. This is one of the many forts that are located on the barrier islands along the gulf of mexico. This one was built in 1821 and is most well known for the battle of Mobile Bay and the famous order of Union Admiral David Farragut : Damn the torpedoes-full speed ahead!
As you can see from my photo, the views from the fort alone are worth the price of admission.