My Life as a Pilot - Webpage 10 - page 154 - 163

Flying in America

The air quivers with the drone of the motors. At least fifteen planes are over the airfield in Cleveland. Rolling, spinning, looping, practicing for the meet which will begin in three days.

I land. The taxi staff comes out. Right behind them is a man in horn rim glasses and a participant list.

"Colonel Udet from Germany?" he asks.

"Yes, First Lieutenant Udet."

"Among us you'll be called Colonel." He looks at me sternly.

"I'm sorry but I'm only a First Lieutenant."

"Well, let's agree upon Major," he indicates, tipping his pencil on the edge of his cap.

A pair of gentlemen in large checked suits, reporters from the Cleveland local press. They want to see the "Flamingo," the famous stunt plane.

I show them the plane. "Here it is." They look at the machine; they look at me. The "Flamingo" is now eight years old and it was the first bird of its type. In its youth it was impressive.

"Oh, how interesting," the men of the press say. They are courteous people who do not wish to offend a foreign guest of the National Air Race.

I stay for a while at the airport and observe the training of the others. Dashing fellows! With their heavy, high horsepower machines they soar about through the air like grenades.

It will be difficult to keep up with these competitors, I think. My little hundred horsepower sparrow must fly like a falcon.

Above me the zipping of a racing machine. It rounds the pylon. At the same moment a white trail of fuel then a darker one of smoke erupt. The plane's on fire.

The pilot reacts with lightning quickness, turns the plane upside down, crawls out and drops. At the height of a church steeple he opens his parachute. He reaches the ground scarcely fifty meters from where I'm standing.

I run over. He stands there and brushes off his brown Manchester trousers. Mechanics come onto the field.

"Did something go wrong?" he asks.

A man in a mechanic's uniform responds, "Thank God for an open field."

"Okay," the pilot says as he takes out a Camel and lights it.

I watch him for a while. The hand which holds the match doesn't shake a bit. An incredibly spirited fellow, this American.

At the hotel I see the roster. The Englishman Atcherley is there, the Pole Orlinsky, the Italian de Bernhardi. The best men, the best machines. And I shall represent Germany with a hundred horsepower Flamingo? The peace treaty will not permit us to produce engines with more horsepower.

I don't sleep well the next night. It's easy to lose as an individual. One fights; one does one's best. Victory or defeat doesn't lie in one's own hands. However it's bitter to lose as a representative of the fatherland.

My "Flamingo" will achieve it's own kind of fame in Cleveland, just like a man who goes to a banquet in shorts and yellow shoes.

And then the National Air Races are here. It's a radiant day. We pilots from foreign teams are picked up by car, each by himself, and transported via police motorcade with blaring sirens.

Sky and people coming from all over. From Cleveland, from Chicago, from New York; by train, by car, by plane. A national celebration in the air, those are the Air Races.

Things begin early, around nine o'clock. They go on until dusk. Then fireworks. It happens again the next day, all week long, all day long.

"A hundred thousand visitors," one of the committee members says as he pulls his vest down over his stomach.

The battles begin, one program after another in endless series. Revved engines howl as heavy machines dive down from the sky. Looping over the heads of the crowd, perpendicular to the horizon going back up into the sky.

The army pilots. They buzz around like swarms of hornets. The crowd shuffles about. Thirty bodies climb out of thirty machines. Thirty parachutes open up and swing to earth like big, white clouds.

"Major Udet, Germany!" the loudspeaker drones across the field as I climb into the cockpit.

Then I begin to work. I've laid out my program well in advance.

It's apparent that I can't compete with the more powerful machines. They climb faster, roll more agilely, loop and turn at a pace that would make my "Flamingo" lose its breath.

So I've concentrated on slow flight, slow rolling close to the ground—the low altitude acrobatics of sports aviation.

I fly upside down close to the earth. I bank the left wing close to the runway so that it creates a dust cloud. I perform loops and dive with stopped propeller, ascending just a few meters from the grandstands. I end with a flat landing right in the place from which I started. Perhaps the others might have done as well if they had my lighter weight "Flamingo." But they had heavier planes and I had success.

As I land the people jump up from their seats screaming and waving hats, arms, and blankets.

A radio reporter grabs me and shoves me in front of a microphone. There stands Colonel Rickenbacker, with twenty-four downed planes he's America's must successful fighter pilot. A big man with a thin, chiseled face. Like a white Indian. We stand on a platform, high over the heads of the crowd.

"The first time we met was near Soissons," Rickenbacker says. His voice resonates over the stage. "When we went out there were sixty of us. In the evening when we returned only twenty-five made it back to camp. We fought in many battles and many men died, but the two of us lived and that's the heart of the matter.

"Now we can shake hands and show the youth of America that honorable enemies can become honorable friends when the battle is over."

Rickenbacker extends his hand to me. The crowd breaks out in noisy applause. We stand like we're a monument on a platform, hand in hand with bronze faces.

Suddenly tall Rickenbacher crouches down to me with a grin on his thin face and taps meaningfully at his back pocket. "Have a drink with me," he murmurs. Over here there's still prohibition. I nod back at him. And then the two of us stand like statues again and meet the crowd's applause with stone faces.

Every nation has a day in its honor at the Air Races. There's a particular surprise for "German Day." After my flight show I'm supposed to meet up with Lieutenant Wanamaker. I shot him down in July 1918.

Wanamaker comes to me accompanied by his wife. He was apprised beforehand.

"Hello Ernest!" he says into the microphone. "You've gotten fat!" It sounds girlish and flippant as there's a flick of the wrist.

I bring out a piece of canvas that I've had behind my back. It's the number off his airplane that I shot down.

Suddenly this unleashes his well-prepared humorous comment.

"Oh, that's so nice," he stammers—"really nice that you thought to bring it."

He completely forgot that we're standing in front of a microphone. "You know what," he says. "When all this brouhaha is over you could visit us in Akron. It would make my wife happy, wouldn't it, Mildred?"

Mrs. Wanamaker nods, a bit embarassed. "Yes," she rasps. However the people below us break out in cries of jubilation. The Wanamakers are a hit, perhaps even more so than if he had actually finished his Wild West speech.

At the close of the Air Races I drive over to Akron. The Wanamakers live in a pastoral area outside the city. A warm nest full of suburban comfort.

In the evening we sit at a round table. In my honor Wanamaker bought me some German wine. Rhine wine. He gives me one glass after another. We talk about his job. He's a district attorney. We talk about the war but the images of those days don't want to resurface. Only once I'm in my room do they reawaken.

It was the second of July 1918 early in the morning. The sound of flack being fired awoke me. It was quite near.

I ran to the window. "Behrend," I scream. "Get the plane ready!" He's already galopping over the airfield to the hangar. I ran down the stairs in my sleeping clothes. I dressed in the fur overall as I ran. I climbed to three thousand meters. It was ice cold. The flack clouds showed the way. Two squadrons were already engaged. Eight Nieuports against seven German planes.

I recognized Löwenhardt's yellow Fokker which is pursuing an enemy.

Another plane sits on his tail. I must force him off and free up Löwenhardt. In pursuing his quarry he hasn't noticed the approaching danger.

But the American didn't seem to know I'm there. Slowly I tookaim. A moment layer the Nieuport in front of me was trailing smoke from its engine. A gas fire. He dove, recovered, dove again, and hit the ground hard, I landed nearby.

The pilot climbed out of the heap. I went over and offered him a cigarette. He tanked me and introduced himself as Lieutenant Wanamaker. With teeth clenched together he indicates his thigh. "Broken."

The medics came and put him on a stretcher. A private ran past. "Three American just came down," he screamed. Wanamaker asks me to translate. "O, a very good day for us!" That was the last time I heard from him.

Family photographs hang on the walls of the room. Group snapshots and individual portraits. Some are quite old fashioned Daguerrotypes.

If he had died I never would have come to this warm little nest. His wife with the blond hair would have hated me for killing her husband.

It's good that somewhere beyond the warm lamplight there's a world of men. A world of battle in which the hatred of the weak cannot thrive. "A very good morning for us, Lieutenant Wanamaker," I think as I turn out the light and fall asleep.


Caption under photograph reads: Knud Rasmussen, Greenland's Uncrowned King

Caption under photograph reads: Over Greenland's Snowfields

Caption under photograph reads: "Klemm" seems tiny like a gnat next to the shimmering wall of the mighty iceberg

Caption under photograph reads: With Leni Riefenstahl

When I arrive in Hollywood I'm an unknown man, at least in terms of measuring the fame of film stars.

Three days later I know everyone in the place. I'm invited, passed around and interviewed.

A big man in film commented about my first day in aviation, "Soon I'll have something to say about this Major Udet." In Hollywood that suffices to create fame.

Since then I too have mingled in the villas of the film stars. They are mostly nice, simple, hard-working people. They only perform their star personas for the sake of advertising. There's only one quirk I've recognized in them all: the love of "swimming pools."

Here they compete in dogged one-upmanship over who has the largest, most beautiful and comfortable structure. As far as I can determine, Harold Lloyd wins the prize because one can walk on the bottom of his pool floor with a diver's helmet on.

Mary Pickford is interested in flying stunts. We bet, I win. I lift her handkerchief off the ground with the wing of my "Flamingo."

The next morning a crowd comes to my hotel.

Do I already have a car?


Would I like one?

Perhaps, if it isn't too expensive.

It costs nothing. A car stands in front of the hotel. A four-seater limousine. If I can lift a handkerchief from its hood with the wing like I did yesterday at Mary Pickford's the car will be mine.

The manufacturer's head of advertising brought along a photographer. Five minutes later I become a car owner.

I stay in Hollywood for three weeks then I finally get the word from the man of films. The general manager requests an interview. He jumps into the project with both feet. "We want to direct a film about Richthofen and we need an aviation adviser."

He names a sum, which is fantastic. I consider it for a moment. Richthofen? No! Too great for Hollywood.

"It's out of the question!", I say.

The agent shrugs. "Too bad!" he says. But he doesn't pursue it or ask for a reason. Objective, unsentimental, American.

"Have a drink!"

And we have a drink together.


The chairman raises his voice. He has a dignified, parted white beard.

"...and now we have a grand treat for our flying hero. Among us there's a man, a simple man, who in 1918 saved Lieutenant Udet from a rain of enemy bullets. Mr. Mueller, please!"

Thunderous applause from the audience.

A man climbs up the podium. A little hesitantly and embarassed. He's barely of medium size, pale and thin with sparse blond hair. I could swear I had never seen him in my life.

Now, Mr. Mueller," encourages the chairman, "say hello to Mr. Udet."

Mueller begins to speak in a dull, throaty tone. His voice quivers. "I'm pleased," he says, "to once more see you, Major."

I look him up and down. His cuffs are frays and his shoes are patched. However in his bulging blue eyes there's fear. The fear of the downtrodden, beaten by life. Someone fighting for his last chance. "Give him a chance!" I think and go over to Mueller.

"I thank you, Mr. Mueller," I say loudly and give him my hand. Thunderous applause in the room. Mueller blushes. Suddenly he begins to relate in a full-toned voice. How he found me half unconscious in barbed wire. How he lifted me up and carried me through the storm of bullets. Like a mother with her child. When he finished a fanfare had to be sounded to restore quiet. The jubilation and shouting had been that loud. Below on the floor Mueller was surrounded by reporters. Meanwhile he cast a glance at me, smiling ashamedly. Then be answered more questions.

A couple days later I heard from acquaintances Mueller had gotten a job. In a large German slaughterhouse. Previously he was jobless for a long time.

"Give him a chance!" I thought. America's motto. A good motto.

Go to pages 164- 175

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Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks