My Life as a Pilot - Webpage 1

Flight over an Enemy Country

As I enter our parlor Niehaus calls to me from the door: "Udet, go immediately to Lieutenant Justinus. He's sent for you twice!"

I put my cap back on, straighten my ensignias and go down the long, gray barracks hallway. The flight students are returning from a practice march and they clatter by with their rifles and backpacks.

I wonder, What does Justinus want with me? Did he find out who sprayed gasoline under the tail of the Captain's dog? It would be funny if he cared about such a thing. Has he finally been order to Darmstadt to look for pilots for his division? He has nothing to do with the operations of the pilot replacement division.

A narrow door, a white paper name plate, "Lt. Justinus." I knock and enter.

Justinus lies on the bed in his shirtsleeves. The uniform jacket hangs over the back of the chair, the ribbon from the Iron Cross sparkles from between the two button holes. Outside beyond the open window it's a hot summer day.

I stand at attention.

"Have a seat, Udet!" Justinus says as he stretches out his leg and knocks a pile of newspapers off the stool onto the ground.

I sit and look at him expectantly.

"How old are you?" he immediately begins.

"Nineteen years old, Lieutenant!"

"Hm," he mumbles, "A bit young!"

"But I'll soon be twenty," I quickly add. "Next year in April."

Laugh lines surround his eyes. "Don't be in such a hurry," he says. "And how did you get into aviation?"

I begin to realize what he wants from me.

"At the end of 1914 I was released as a volunteer motorcycle driver," I quickly reported. "And I immediately enlisted in a pilot replacement division, but I wasn't accepted."

"Why not?"

"Because I was too young at the time," I hastily added. Justinus smiles again. "And then what happened?" he asked.

"I got training as a civilian pilot. At the Otto Factory in Munich."

"At your own cost?"

"My father paid two thousand Marks and built a bathroom for Mr. Otto."

I want to go on but Justinus cuts me off with a hand gesture. "That's good," he says. He straightens up, props his head on his elbow and gives me a long, examining look with his hard blue eyes. "Would you like to go with me as my pilot?" he asks. Although I expected this I couldn't help turning red with excitement. Justinus is a fine fellow. "A damned spirited hound," the flight students call him.

"Of course I do, Lieutenant!" I sputter out contrary to regulations. He nods to me amicably.

"Get your things in order!"

I stand up and stand at attention. At the door he calls back to me.

"Are you free tonight?" And as I say yes, "Then let's celebrate our new partnership, Emil."

"Very good, Lieutenant Franz." It would be risky replying to him in this manner. "Emil" is aviation talk for pilot and "Franz" refers to the observer. However I wouldn't dare to respond with just "Franz."

We came home in the morning. I stayed out way past my leave time and Justinus put his officer's cape around me so I could get past the sentry without being arrested.

The next morning with the trainer planes in Griessheimer Sand I nearly crashed. My student, a large, fat grocer always flared out too early at a decisive moment. I usually corrected him by tapping my walking stick on his cap. Only then would he catch his wind. This time I forgot because I was so distracted by the conversation I had with Justinus.


I've been at the Heiligkreuz 206 Flight Division for fourteen days. Each day Justinus and I fly a couple of times together. Mostly we adjust the artillery in our section so we always have the same terrain beneath us; the Drei Ähren [Les Trois Epis resort area in Alsace], the black and white lakes

which are shadowed by the peaks of the Vosges Mountains. The lakes seem to flash at us like molten lead. Only seldom do we strike out farther. Once so far that I could see over the hill to the round cap of the church tower of Saint Dié. We had been there as motorcycle drivers at the beginning of the war. Was that nine months or nine years ago? Five of us drove out in August. Only three came home in December. One was shot dead by the French and the other took his own life because he could not bear the war and the strains of service. How far back that seems now. I think it might have been in an earlier life.

Occasionally we meet up with an enemy but we don't do anything to observation planes. We seldom have weapons on board. Each knows that about the other so we're just ships at sea passing each other.

At the beginning of autumn the war in the air got harsher. To begin with steel arrows were thrown out of the planes into the troops below. Now we have bombs. Their workings are similar to those of grenades. In order to impress upon the enemy this latest development a bomb attack on Belfort, carried out by all the army pilots, was held on September 14th.

Justinus and I flew along with them. It was a gray day. We finally cleared the clouds at three thousand five hundred meters. Up here it is wonderfully quiet with almost no wind. Our white Aviatik B model with the 120 horsepower Mercedes engine stroked through it like a swan.

Justinus peers overboard to the ground. You can see the earth from a hole in the cloud cover.

Suddenly there's a metallic cling as if a piano string has snapped. In the next moment the plane lurches to the left, spins and dives through the clouds. Above the backrest of the forward seat Justinus' face appears pale and puzzled.

I shrug my shoulders. I don't know myself what happened. I only know that I had to push the side-steering cable with all my might and turn the steering wheel all the way over until my hands hurt.

We dive a thousand meters then the engine starts. It's still descending but it stops spinning and we hope to glide back to the ground. Back to the ground — that means imprisonment. We're at least fifteen kilometers from the German front.

Justinus points to the right upper wing. I see it: the armature to which the tension cable is attached has torn off. The cable is blowing in the wind with the force of the air brushing it against the upper wing.

We glide eastward towards the Swiss border. Now and again I give it a little gas to stave off the altitude loss. The plane leans more and more to the side and I fear it will go into a tailspin again. I let off on the gas.

We come out of the clouds at Montbéliard. The altimeter indicates eighteen hundred meters and the Swiss border

is still twelve kilometers away. It appears we're not going to reach it.

Justinus stands up, slowly unbuckles himself from the observer's seat — my heart's in my throat just watching this — gets out on the right wing and gropes his way to the middle strut. There he lowers himself, his legs jostling in the breeze. We're at an altitude of sixteen hundred meters.

I give it more gas and the machine leans to the side. Justinus is trying to balance the load but it's not enough. I can't hold the steering wheel any longer. I feel a quaking running through my arm. I gesture to Justinus. My arm shakes like a loosened piston spasming. Come on! I cry. Come on! I forget the Lieutenant and everything else.

And Justinus comes back. He creeps back over the slanted wing. His face, pale beneath the suntanned skin, covered with small pearls of perspiration, appears in the opening a moment later. "We must hold on, young man!" he hollers...."Over there to Switzerland!" We're at one thousand meters and still eight kilometers from the border.

The earth beneath us is untouched by war. Villages with red

tile roofs bedded in the soft green of fruit trees, the living chess board of the fields.

There — I flinch — barbed wire runs down the center of the meadow. The barrier the Swiss built again encroachers. At an altitude of six hundred meters we pass over the border at Saint Dizier.

"Switzerland!" I shout to him. Justinus' face appears again over the split back wall of the observer's seat. "Back to Germany!" he yells back.

Gas, glide; gas, glide! We soar quite low over the terrain. In the villages people stand in the street, with open mouths pointing up. That must be Courtemaiche! There Bendlincourt! And then — more barbed wire. The border, the border to Germany!

We land in a freshly plowed field. We jump out of the plane, take a look at ourselves, and suddenly grasp each other like drunkards. No more Lieutenant Justinus and minor pilot Udet. Now it's Franz and Emil, two young men who jump around like Sioux Indians around someone at the stake. Kids grabbing dirt and flinging clumps of mud as if they were snowballs.

People noticed our landing. They come running over the field. We strike a pose. Justinus gived a bicyclist the assignment of going to the nearest village and telephoning Heiligkreuz.

The circle of curious people grows ever larger. We go back and forth towards the plane. Justinus pats me on the shoulder.

"You know what? Let's make a new armature here and fly back on our own power." A magnificent thought!

The village blacksmith at the corner looks at the thing with a wrinkled forhead. "You can have a new one in three hours," he says. We go back to the plane. The villagers run after us as though we're tightrope walkers.

A gray auto speeds up the county road then stops. An officer gets out. The crowd, which surrounds us, makes a path for him. The pilots' staff officer comes up to us.

Justinus reports. The staff officer shakes both our hands. "It's great that you made it, gentlemen." He walks over to the plane. "Where did it break?"

Justinus beams. "It's already repaired, Captain!"

The staff officer turns around. "Whaaaaat?"

He's beside himself. Such a mechanical failure must be submitted for examination at the testing office. You must have known that!

We get into his car and drive to the blacksmith. We're quiet and upset. The smithy meets us at the threshold. He has the pride of a craftman all over his face. "Here!" He hands us the newly finished armature.

"And where is the old one?" The staff officer's question sounds unusually harsh. The smithy's broad thumb points backwards over his should towards the yard. The gate is open. We see a tall pile of manure where chickens are clucking as the sun shines.

"Go look for it!" the staff officer says as he looks to me. I go to the yard. Justinus goes with me. He remains at my side.

The "1909 Aero Club" as onlookers at the Otto Factory

Sign on the side of the building reads Gustav Otto Airplane Factory

The first glider is built.

Unintended landing during a test flight of the glider in Lower Aschau.

As a high school student near Verdun, 1913.

The armature is easy to find. It's laying at the top of the manure heap. We rinse it off at the water well and take it to the Captain. He inspects it then puts it in his jacket pocket. We pay the blacksmith. Then we get back in the car. We're supposed to go with the Captain to Mülhausen. The smithy shakes his head after we leave.

The staff officer never calmed down. "Blockheads!" he mumbles to himself. Then he looks back, turns towards us and suddenly says in a friendly tone:

"You must excuse my agitation, gentlemen, but just today two comrades from your division weren't so lucky. Lieutenant Winter and Vice Staff Sergeant Preiss. They went down over Hartmansweiler Head. Perhaps because of the same mechanical failure. Both are dead!"

A shadow fell over our joy.

A week later it was made known in the daily report: Lieutenant Justinus has been awarded the Iron Cross, First Class. Airman Udet the Iron Cross, Second Class. Because they saved the fatherland an aircraft.


Another bomb drop is scheduled. This time it's supposed to be against a row of fortified outposts in the Vosge Mountains. This flight can take longer since the tanks will be filled to the top. We also have two machine guns on board. French air flighters make the region uncertain. They talk about Pégoud.

Already at takeoff I notice the machine labors hard to get off the ground like a swan so overfed that it's stomach is too distended for its wingspan to support. The machine guns,

the full tanks, the new radio apparatus, the bombs — it all drags the plane down. Spiralling in wide curves I gain altitude. Below us is the airfield, the dull green of the grass, the flat gray of the tents. We climb more slowly than usual — one hundred meters — two hundred ...

Still above the tents I bank the plane to turn. The plane doesn't straighten out. The left wing hangs down. I steer to the right but nothing happens, The rudder won't obey. Loss of steering control. In the next moment the plane flips over and starts spiralling to the ground.

"Justinus," I think. "Oh dear God, Justinus is done for. When we hit the engine will push back and take off his legs." I pull the elevator control up to my chest. Turn to the right, turn, turn... In front of me an arm reaches out from the observer's seat and grabs the rigging tower. With a jerk Justinus pulls his body out of the seat, and flips over the backrest. "Udet," he shouts, "Udet — Uuuuu..." A gurgeling, a crack, everything goes dark...a loud gong goes off in my skull...And then after a long, long time a voice: "Can you move, Mr. Udet?" Above me is the broad face of my mechanic, Behrend, full of fatherly concern. Four powerful arms lift me up and extract me from the mangled heap of wood and steel. My knee hangs stiff. It hurts dreadfully. First they have to bend back the steel rail.

"Where is Justinus?"

Behrend points to the grass. He's lying there on his back, his head raised and his eyes shut.

"Dead?" I cry.

Behrend assures me. "No, no. He's tough. He's already been asking for you."

They grab me, two by two, carry me and carefully lay me down on the grass next to Justinus.

For a long time I lay motionless. Above me is the pale blue sky; below me the damp, cool grass and the firm, living earth. Slowly I turn my head towards Justinus. Hie eyes are still closed. A thin thread of blood flows from his mouth and down his chin. Maybe...?

Then he raises his hand off the grass towards me, like the hand of a sick person touching his blanket. Carefully I stretch my hand towards his and make contact. It's the feel of a firm, healthy handshake of a good friend. We don't speak.

"Lieutenant Justinus...Justinus, my comrade!"

Behind us the mechanics work on the plane. I hear Behrend's voice. "They're lucky the bombs didn't get loose."

Then the medics come, put us on stretchers and shove us into the vehicle like loaves of bread. We're taken to the hospital in Colmar.

Justinus, who was tossed from the plane on impact, has bruises and contusions. My leg is in traction, suspended by a fat sack. I'm supposed to stay immobilized and in bed.

I can get up for the first time after ten days and hobble around the hallways. In the interim I didn't get a single letter from home.

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Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks