My Life as a Pilot - Webpage 11 - page 164 - 178

At the Edge of the World

David shot a seal. He dragged it onto the sand and gutted it. It's a thin creature. It's early summer and during mating season the seal loses its fat.

We sit on a bench before a small hut put together with pieces of sod and look at David. The sea flows behind him, gray-green with gentle waves. Mighty icebergs float on the waves, gliding by like huge, silent swans. Once in a while one suddenly splits in two, the boom sounding like artillery fire throughout the fjord and echoing off the vertical basalt rocks of the mainland. The stray tones vibrate for a long time in the air.

The berg "calves," and floats around in the water. Five meter high gushes of flood water rise from it and whoosh to the edge.

David has finished his work. He wipes his knife on his bearskin pants. He goes ahead. His wife follows him. She carries the kayak. Then the children follow. Each carries a packet of meat on his or her back and as much as his or her thin little arms can hold. As David goes past us he give us a serious and ceremonial greeting. He is a great hunter. But his wife just smiles at us, her teeth glistening in a reddish-brown face.

Only the carcass and the entrails of the seal remain on the sand. Soon after the dogs are over there, a twitching

mass of hairy bodies whereby one can't tell one from the other.

Suddenly they jump aside and howl. A passageway opens. Nanunsiarssuit steps through. He is the "bear hunter," the largest and strongest dog in the entire village, the dog king of Igdlorsuit.

The others have abandonned the booty and pant as they sit in a circle. And as if he were a human presenting a lesson in the middle, he yanks at long strip of seal flesh and separates the fat from the hair and skin. However the "bear hunter" doesn't pay attention to the others. He sniffs at the ribs and a bit of the intestines that are left, raises his hind leg and sprays a thick stream on the remainder of the seal. Then he strolls slowly and seriously between the rows of the other dogs. A pathway again opens for him.

Schneeberger jumps up: "I must have that dog!" he says. Schriek and I look at each other over his head and smile. We've been in Igdlorsuit for six weeks. Long enough to know that hunter David would rather hack off his right hand than sell his Nanunsiarssuit.

In the north a red ball of light rises over the water, then two green balls. Like fiery larks the flare shimmer for a moment at their zenith then plunge into the sea. Fanck's signal: the photo session begins, Schriek and Schneeberger are supposed to come along. The two eskimos stomp about heavily in their rubber pants and rush from the village to the strand below in order to put Schreik's machine in the water. Schneeberger and Schreik have gone into the hut and put on their furs for the flight.

They come out and say goodbye to me. I see them disappear to the north in their tiny "Klemm." Like sea swallows they dive down into the walls of basalt rock.

It's sixty kilometers over the water of the fjord to Nugaitsiak. Over there is the expeditionary campsite with Fanck and other participants in the expedition. They're directing the film "S.O.S. Iceberg."

They need hard pack ice to land on the moving iceberg.

Only Schriek, the mechanic and I remained in Igdlorsuit because it's the only strip of flat surface on the entire fjord and we need a sand beach on which to land.

Sometimes Schneeberger comes down to visit. Together we have directed high mountain films, "Piz Palü" and "Storm over Mount Blanc." We've been together in Africa. Such work comradery binds in the same way as the trenches.

In the first days working together was difficult, but eventually we created a collaboration between aircraft and ground. Flares call us from a distance. Colorful rods of light on Doctor Fanck's white canvas give us signals during filming.

Then we developed a letter exchange. Letter sacks were hung between two high poles in Nugaitsiak. We grabbed them in mid flight and dropped our letters into their camp. We already have the posters. The American Rockwell Kent designed and hand-printed them. For three-quarters of the year he resides up here in Igdlorsiut Greenland. The eskimos love him like an older brother,

because he possesses the wisdom of the disillusioned: the love of nature and the heart of a true human being.

Even flying wasn't easy for us in the beginning. Dense blue ice floats below the surface of the sea. As bright and clear as glass and invisible from above. Even if one tries to touch down on the water surface there's solid surface underneath. Baier and Buchholz have already had to repair over forty holes in the first few weeks.

One time I had to cut my engine and go down into the water between two icebergs. The bergs were rapidly drawing together and I could easily have been smashed to bits. I climbed out of the plane and onto a floater, then spun the propeller, got back in, grabbed the stick and flew out between the seventy-meter high shimmering blue walls into the sky.

Even Schriek had an incident just yesterday. It was a fuel line break. He had to go down into the open water. It took four hours for me to drag him back to Igdlorsuit with a steel cable. There was a cross wind and it was a difficult task.

In the evening we sit on the bench in front of a small wooden church. We live in the church's upper floor. Sometimes we play accordions. The girls stand around us in their colorful fur-trimmed party clothes. However most of the time we remain quite and smoke. Old Daniel, father of David, comes by. In his day he was the great hunter.

He sits next to us, stretches his wrinkled hands towards the pale sun and chews Matak.

It's the belly meat of a whale cut into small chunks It tastes like walnuts.

Daniel peers over at our tobacco but he would never beg. He's too proud.

Sometimes we give in a shot of corn liquor. Then he smiles and starts to chatter. Rockwell Kent, who sits with us on the bench, translates. The old man tells stories of the great hunt.

He stands up and stretches himself out. That's how the bear approached him.

They were alone up there well beyond the border of the inland ice. The dogs sat in a half circle around the bear and barking at it. One of the dogs sprang up just as the white foe jumped. He fell back into the snow with a broken back. A second fell to the ground after being hit by the bear's paw. Then a third.

Daniel himself went up to the bear with a harpoon. There were no firearms at the time.

With his old, shakey hand he picks up a paddle we had leaning against the wall and waves it around in the air. It was a poignant moment and nothing to laugh about because here was a man describing a deed from his past.

The bear grabbed the harpoon with its teeth and paws. It snapped like an icicle being pulled off by a child.

Then Daniel pulled a long knife out of his boot and stabbed at the bear. He fell out of its deadly grasp and rammed the knife into the bear's heart from below. Blood spritzed out in a high arc, flowed over him...the blood of his deadly foe. And the bear sank down...and the dogs were upon it...

Caption under photograph reads: In a Kayak

Caption under top photograph reads: Prize Shooting in Igdlorsiut

Caption next to bottom photograph reads: Old Daniel

Caption under top photograph reads: Nikinak hears my Argus Engine

Caption next to bottom photograph reads: Eskimo Girl

Caption under photograph reads: The Arctic Night

Old Daniel has to cough. He coughs so hard he has to lean on the wooden planks of the church. Then he spits in the sand. He spits out blood.

He shakes his head, grins a bit then skulks back to his hut without saying goodbye. He's consumptive and won't be here much longer.

Many up here are consumptive. In the northland summer in which we stay in Igdlorsuit, seven people from the village die. Seven out of seventy.


Three flares rise from the camp at Nugautsiak. That means I should land. It's not easy on the high stone ledge. Two men help me along and then I run to the tents.

Everything there is in an uproar. Doctor Sorge has disappeared. He is the scientific advisor for the expedition. He went off eight days ago in a faltboat going north to Rink Glacier.

"You can be without Sorge for seven days," he laughingly said to his wife as he left. "But if I don't come back on the eighth day, report it to Fanck and the others."

Then off he went in his tiny nag of an old boat into the small rivulets between the pack ice. He went all alone. He refused the eskimos who wanted to accompany him.

Today is the eighth day, and this morning a hunter came to the camp,

who was in Kangerluk Fjord on a seal hunt. He found the wreckage of a faltboat in the pack ice beneath a giant water fall. He brought the wreckage with him. No doubt, it's a piece of Sorge's boat.

We immediately take off, Schneeberger and I. We fly over the Kangerdlut pack ice between the dark, almost thousand meter high cliffs which border the inland ice basin.

At the waterfall which stands like a white marble column in the dark basalt, we circle up and down.

From a rift in the ice the cold sea foams up to us. Sometimes we see dark shadows in the shimmering blue surface. But when we descend there's only a furrow darkened by dirt from the mainland.

We're running out of fuel. We need to turn back. As we land the entire camp runs out to us.

I go into Sorge's tent. His wife waits there. She sits on the tiny camp bed. Leni Riefenstahl is with her and has placed her arm on her shoulder in sisterly fashion.

Gerda Sorge does not cry. She sits silently there with a stoney face, ringing her hands with prominent white knuckles.

A woman's hands ringing in dispair are worse than tears.

I get refueled for another takeoff, this time alone. But Schneeberger climbs into the crate. "Four eyes see more than two!" he declares.

We fly.

This time I'll go farther north. It occurs to me:

Perhaps Sorge blundered farther to the north and the pack ice carried the boat wreckage south.

We fly at half the altitude over the mountains. Several times we have to bow outwards before the jagged edges of the iceberg as the fjord closes ever tighter and dimmer.

The Rink Glacier—Sorge's goal. A cathedral of shimmering ice. One hundred, twenty meters high and fifteen hundred meters wide, the green glass wall protrudes from the sea. The inland ice pushes the waves in its grand magnitude.

We search along the glacier sign of Sorge.

We look above. There—a thin plume of smoke soaring into the sky from the rocks on the south rim of the glacier.

We bank and fly towards it. Schneeberger points below with his outstretched hand. A pair of larger-than-life men stand like watchmen on the rocks. I stay above them. They're made of rocks wearing Sorge's clothing. His colorful sweater, his cap. They're supposed to point the way to him.

Then we see him. The thin, fully-bearded man hops around the fire like a priest of Baal, waving his arms up to heaven.

We circle him and nod. Holding the flight stick between my knees I scribble down a couple of lines: "A boat will get you in two hours." I shove the paper into an empty cartridge casing and throw it. We watch as he picks it up. Then we fly away.

Along the way we encounter our motorboat. It slowly makes its way north through the pack ice. Again we toss a note with Sorge's position. We nod..wave handkerchiefs.

Rejoicing in the camp. The last of the fuel from all available sources is used for the third flight. We're not certain that the motorboat will reach Sorge today.

This time Schneeberger doesn't come along. In the observer's seat there's a large package tied together with cord containing food, fuel for cooking and shelter.

Sorge hears from me again. He stands on a peak and gestures to me. I reach for the sack and lift it out of the observer's seat. Then I feel a sharp jerk to my neck. My head yanks back onto the seat. The cord from the provisions sack has gone around my neck and is choking me.

The plane flares out over the rocks. My pocket knife—a quick cut—I am free!

I grab the flight stick and look below.

The sack dropped right down at Sorge's feet. He doesn't say anything about what just happened. He nods and waves his wrinkled hands to me.

Six days later Sorge is back in Nugaitsiak. He has survived a powerful drama few have ever witnessed, the calving of the Rink Glacier. Masses of ice larger than all the houses in Berlin put together crashed down into the sea

and sent up water fountains three hundred meters into the air. A tidal wave destroyed his boat, which stood four meters from the beach on the rocks and then carried off the debris to the south.


We have a shooting match in the afternoon. I have donated the grand prize. The best marksman shall win my Winchester rifle. All the men of Igdlorsuit are invited.

And all have come, bringing their rifles with them. They're all old flintlocks. There's even one muzzle loader among them.

I'm not a bad marksman. At the competition in Richthofen's squadron I stood my ground, but against the Greenlanders I can't keep up.

They load clumsily and aim slowly but they stand like basalt blocks and their hands are still as though chiseled out of stone. Just about every shot lands in the third ring and each second shot lands a bullseye.

Imerarsuk, the "little water sack," wins the victory and the the rifle. He presses it to himself, strokes it, and runs back to his hut smiling.

In the evening David comes to me. His father, old Daniel, lies on his deathbed. He still has one wish. He wants to fly with the human bird over the fjord and Igdlorsuit.

"That's fine," I say. "Call the rubber pants squad so they can get the plane ready and bring your father to the beach."

Two men carry the old man and lift him into the plane.

I strap a pilot's cap and goggles onto him. He laughs like a child.

We take off. Clumsily the bird lifts into the air, banking and climbing higher and higher.

The sea is beneath us. It has a yellow cast from the sunshine. White icebergs float on the surface.

Most of the year has already passed. Old man winter looms to the north on his dark horse.

Then night will come, the long night.

Higher, ever higher. The earthen huts of Igdlorsuit are small like mole mounds. The church bashfully extends its wooden fingers into the air.

The mountains lie beneath us and the vista to the north opened before us where like a steel shield the broad expanse of inland ices shimmers in the sun endlessly to the horizon.

It's wonderful how the old man before me moves with the airplane. His body steers into every turn. The hunter who traces the path of the waves in a kayak knows the elemental laws.

The motor drones. Silently the land and the sea sink beneath us.

Then a human voice sounds, rising from the greatest depth of his chest; long, drawn out, powerfully resonant tones.

Old Daniel is singing.

He's still singing as we land, as they lift him out of the boat and carry him back to his hut. He sings until he disappears into the dark passage.

The next morning David stands at my door. "My father died this night."

I give him my hand.

"You are my friend," he says. "You can stay with me forever."

But I must depart. Soon the great night begins and all life hibernates.


The generation to which I belong was forged by the war. It struck us during the formative years. The weak were broken by it. For them nothing is left but crippling horror. But for others of us—and here I speak for almost all the soldiers at the front—it made our will to live harder and stronger. A new will to live, which knows that the existence of the individual is nothing, that the life and the future of the society means everything.

For fourteen years we have carried this acknowledgement through the entire world. It understands nothing of the greatness of our new belief. It doesn't want to know anything about the steadfast virtues of our soldiers, the comradery, the observance of duty and the spirit of the final sacrifice. We were strangers within the world and we worked for our daily bread. I flew in order to live. Yet at the same time I maintained the hope that the idea of German aviation would remain alive through my efforts. I have been to foreigns parts of the world. Everywhere I have searched for comradery. I searched and I found it in Germany, in America, in the African bush and on the ice of Greenland:

The comradeship of aviation!...

However, hidden in us all is the yearning to identify the spirit which formed us as a vital force working within the race of people to which we are deeply bound.

That has happened and for that reason I now close this book.

My own life is insignficant. It is mingled in the stream of our common German destiny.

We have been soldiers without a flag. We are again unfurling our flag. The Führer has given it back to us.

It is worthwhile to let it live again for the sake of the old soldiers.

The photos used in illustration are taken from Udet's collection.
The Greenland photos originate in part for the Fanck film "S.O.S. Iceberg!"
Studio Vogel-Sandau.

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Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks