My Life as a Pilot - Webpage 2 - page 20 - 31

No comrades from the division come to visit me. It's as if I've been lost to the others.

I wait it out another four days, then I tell the doctor that I must get back to my troops. He raises his eyebrows in astonishment but in the end I'm not an infantryman and it's not his leg. He gives me release papers for the next day.

The first person I meet at the airfield is a comrade with whom I had often accompanied to Colmar on leave. He is a pilot in our division. I call to him, he greets me awkwardly and quickly goes his way. It may be a coincidence but the three men standing in front of a large tent quite obviously turn away from me.

Finally I meet Behrend. He scratches his head and leads me to a corner between the tents. Yes, it's a damnable story! Just as we went down the division leader picked up the telephone and called the pilot flight officer. He was terribly upset. Airman Udet crashed as the result of crazy turns just now. He asked for immediate resolution and penalties. "The most stringent penalties!" he had screamed. Everyone in the office heard it. My replacement is already there. I can pick up my papers. I've been sent back to Neubreisach Air Park.

Behrend shakes his head in regret. I thank him, pick up my orders at the office and hobble back to my quarters. In the afternoon I sit on the sofa with my injured leg stretched out. My landlady kneels before me on the ground and packs my suitcase according to my instructions. Her face is swollen from crying and she signs deeply from time to time.

I've always been a good tenant and I didn't even deduct the price of insect powder from the rent.

There's a knock at the door. Justinus stands at the threshold. He comes towards me, pushes me back into the green plush sofa as I attempt to stand.

"Let it go. It's nothing," he says amicably. "It's not that bad. Things go up and then go down. That's why we're pilots."

He pats me on the shoulder and presses a carton of cigarettes into my hand. Then he leaves. He has to take off on an observation flight with my replacement.

I never saw Justinus again. He died as a fighter pilot on the western front in 1917.


It's dark when I reach the air park at Neubreisach. "Aha, here we have the gentleman who made the sharp turn," the field sergeant says to me. The record keeper grins. It's already late and I just want to be sent to my room and pull up the bed covers. I can't sleep a wink this night.

Next morning the flight students go out into the yard and I must remain in the barracks. Then someone comes and gets me. The Captain stands up front. He gives me a dark and threatening look. I walk as though my legs are made of rubber.

"Turn around!" he commands when I'm six paces from him. A hundred pairs of eyes stare at me in cold curiosity.

"Look at him!" his voice thunders behind me. "This is the guy who destroyed a new and expensive plane belonging to the fatherland through his careless flying

"and he recklessly endangered the life of his observer."

The flight students look at me as though I have just committed patricide.

A piece of paper rustles, the captain reads in a cool and businesslike manner:
"Airman Udet will be punished with seven days arrest because he endangered the life of his observer and destroyed a valuable machine by performing reckless turns. Only in consideration of his until now good conduct in the field will he not receive a harsher punishment."

"May this serve as a warning to you all!" he added thunderously then to me he said, "Dismissed!"

In my room I pull off the bed cover and take my loaf of army bread. It has to last for the entire seven days. A noncommissioned officer with a rifle on his shoulder comes and takes me away.

The way to the military prison goes through the town. We walk up the main street. I'm in front and the officer is behind me. I can tell by the lack of footfalls on the pavement that many are standing and staring at us.

The military prison is an old fortress, dismal and sullen. The prison officer, a full-bearded old coot, does his work amid pleasant conversation.

"So you can't hang yourself!" he says as he takes away my suspenders. "So you can't stab yourself!" as I must surrender the table knife.

"And now the teeth!"

"How come the teeth?" I ask.

"So you don't bite your gullet in your sleep!" he says. Everyone laughs but I find nothing to laugh about.

Then I'm placed in my cell. It's a small, bleak room with a cot, a stool and a wash jug and basin. Nothing else. In front of the window is a steel porthole like one on a ship. It opens from above so one can see a tiny bit of the sky like being far down a well shaft.

The key turns and I am alone. Alone with my thoughts. How long, I don't know. The sound of footfall thuds over the flagstone floor. The door opens: The rounds officers.

I jump up and stand at attention.

The leader, an older warrant officer, says: "Repeat after me: Airman Udet"...his voice echoes powerfully in the barren room...

"Airman Udet..." I say. And word for word he takes me through it: "...serves seven days...arrest...because he...endangered...the life of his observer...and a destroyed valuable performing reckless turns."

The rounds officers march off. They return in the evening. The leader begins again: "Airman Udet...serves..."

The next day I know the words by heart and beg him not to lead. During my arrest I had to repeat the words fourteen times since the rounds occurred twice a day.

I left my first lunch standing. It was nothing but barley,

called "Blue Heinrich in the prison vernacular. Unmoved, the red bearded guard took the tin bowl away.

"The appetite develops while you sit," he said dryly as he went off. In the evening he threw a matress into my cell. It was filled with heather. The light at the corner of the window went out and I laid down. Then a stabbing pain in my thigh and in my left shoulder at the same time...bedbugs!

It was a long night. I slept badly on the bare plank bed, slept for a while on the floor on the matress, and finally on the bare stone floor.

Bedbugs are bad but the thought of them is worse. The iron window hatches stood like big, pointed ears on the gray wall of the prison, sound catchers which intensified every noise in the cell. The airfield is nearby and from early on I hear the rattling noise when the motors engage and the deep buzz as the propellers whip the air. However never again will I have the steering stick between my fists and never again will I see the world beneath me in the blue predawn sky.

What did I do? I banked into a turn. Certainly a banked turn is forbidden. A month ago they hauled Rieger before a military court and sentenced him to a year in prison. Because he banked into the turn over the airport. "Disobedience in front of the assembled troops," the court decided. I got off easy. However isn't the entire interdiction just documented nonsense penned at a desk by people who have never sat in a cockpit?

Caption at the bottom of p.24 for this photograph reads: Pipe fitter apprentice in my father's factory.

Caption under photograph reads: The first machine, a present for passing my first year exams.

Caption under photograph reads: Wartime volunteer pilot with Lieutenant Justinus.

Caption under photograph reads: After an unsuccessful battle with the bedbugs in Neubreisacher Military Prison.

I felt I was unjustly punished. But, can I complain about it? Hadn't my own crash given them the right to enact the ban? Questions, questions — and no answers.

I think of my parents. My father never showed it but I know how proud he was that I was a pilot. And now people will cast me aside as unfit for service. But still the bitterest part is that I shall no longer fly.

The seven days passed by like seven years.

On the last morning the red bearded officer came and brought me coffee,

I shook my head; I won't drink it.

"It's included in the package", he noted.

However I must go back to the troops and find out what else will happen to me. Certainly I will have to take a desk job. "Airman Udet has been punished with seven days arrest because he..." From now on this will be like a chain rattling behind me.

But something else happens.

On the airfield everyone is rushing around and nobody notices me. A bomb attack on Belfort with all available aircraft has been ordered for the morning. The last of them has already taken off. Everyone is excited and impressed with the greatness of the undertaking.

Hey, you — Airman!" some shouts behind me. I turn around. It's a lieutenant I don't know. He must have just arrived at the airfield in the past few days.

"Are you a pilot?" he asks breathlessly.

Hope swells up in me. "I am, Lieutenant."

"Now, man." — with a reproachfully astonished shake of the head — and then:

"Go, go, run so we won't miss the rear guard!"

We ran side by side to the hangar. The old L.V.G. stood there fully fueled. The Lieutenant gleamed with enthusiasm and rushed the mechanics about. The bird was moved out of its cage and made ready for flight. Small bombs were stowed in the observer's seat. We took off.




A couple of hops over the grass then the plane released itself from the earth. We began to fly.

The plane they dumped on us was an ancient, linty old crow. Perhaps it was a flight school plane that had been scrapped. However I had never experienced the wonder of flight as intensely and deeply as at this moment. Beneath us the mountains, intersected by deep ravines and edged with meager groups of dark needle trees or covered in the colorful cascade of fall leaves.

It was a warm, late autumn day. The wind sang gently in the tension wires. Before us still, white clouds multiplied in the blue sky.

The enemy was already alerted when the others attacked. Two Farmans and one Morane single winger approach us from Belfort. A battle would be a lost cause. We have no weaponry on board and our old bird barely crawls at eighteen hundred meters.

The observer turns around and points to the south. We turn. It is midday and we fly directly into the sun.

Over Montreux my "Franz" is anxious. Beneath us are depots and barracks and the opportunity to successfully drop our bombs. Like a bird of prey I circle the city. My observer seems to have a unique technique for dropping bombs. He doesn't throw them overboard. He opens a tiny hatch on the floor near his seat and lets them fall out from there. His success justifies his actions. I bend over the plane and look at how the chimney on a roof explodes into pieces. A cloud of smoke rises.

Suddenly he turns around and points with dismay below. Slowly I understand: a bomb escaped him and and slid into the undercarriage. A gentle shudder is enough to explode it. The blast would get us both and the plane.

Carefully I bank the plane to the left. "Banked turns are forbidden!" keeps going through my head. I wish the commandant of our airfield were sitting here right now!

The bomb follows the movement of the plane, rushing to the left then remaining stationary. I bank to the right. Like a curtain rod the bomb rolls to the right.

The observer disappears from his seat. He knelt on the floor so that one leg has gone through the hatch at a difficult angle. But his leg is too short and he can't reach the bomb.

A last resort: I bank into a steep turn, the first one in my lifetime.

The old crate obeys clumsily. We're practically perpendicular to the horizon.

A soft clatter and the bomb dislodges and rolls. I level the plane back out and watch. The bomb falls into the middle of a field. Clods of earth spring up like fountains.

We turn and fly directly back to the airfield. My "Franz" continues to twist around in the air with his foot. He makes a disparaging gesture. His foot is stuck in the tight hatch opening and we have to land before we can free him. Before the blue mountain ridge we descend towards the marker for the airfield at Neubreisach.

The mechanics come out. A couple flight students are there too. We are the last to return from the flight to Belfort. We climb out and my observer shakes my hand. "I'm happy to make your acquaintance," he says.

An orderly runs clear across the field towards us. I must go immediately to the office.

At the office sits the captain, the same one who dressed me down before the assembled squad. I click my heals together and announce, "Airman Udet returned from arrest."

He looks at me for a long time then says, "You are assigned to single seater fight command in Habsheim. Your plane arrives in two days then you can fly off!"

He grabs the documents and pages through them as if I'm not there. I stand there motionless for a while.

I'm completely surprised by this command. The captain looks up from his papers. "Dismissed." I go out.

The afternoon sun shines over the airfield. It's time for bed rest. Everything is as quiet and peaceful as a Sunday. I stand there and take a couple deep breaths.

Single seater? Fighter pilot? What every one of us dreams about? It's incomprehensible. It's simply incomprehensible.

An office orderly comes by with two cans of coffee. "Hey, Mister Fighter Pilot." he grins and sets down the cans.

Office orderlies know everything, and when they smoke they become talkative. I hand him the open cigarette pack. He immediately understood. With a slightly sly sideways look he takes three, immediately lights one and relates that this morning the staff officer of the pilots in Mülhausen called to ask if Airman Udet was back from arrest. They were looking for me everywhere and the mechanics reported that because of the bombing raid at Belfort I was promoted with Lieutenant Hartmann. That was announced according to Mülhausen. "Directly after the arrest?" the staff officer asked. "Directly after the arrest," the captain answered. Then Mülhausen hung up. Two hours later the order came which reassigned Airman Udet to single seater fight command in Habsheim. "More luck than reason!" the captain muttered as he hung up the receiver.

The orderly retrieves the cans. "Good luck, Mister Fighter Pilot!" he says and trots off.

When the sun rises it becomes warm in the valleys.

The flight students, who originally considered me a leper, come up to me. "One seater pilot in Habsheim? We're all ears." They want to know where I got my Iron Cross. I give a bit of the above mentioned information.

Two days later my plane arrives, a brand new Fokker. It looks wonderously elegant, as streamlined as a falcon. The old Aviatic Model B I flew with the 206th looks plump as a goose next to it.

As I'm about the fly off half the flight students see me off. "Practice diligently, young men!" I shout to them and wink.

The chocks are pulled away. Brrr, brrr, sniffs the gnome. I escape. The plane banks right. I'm scarcely a meter off the ground. I pull the stick to the left. Course correction impossible. I exert full force on the stick. Nothing happens. Not a thing. The hangar gets closer with amazing speed. A crack...Splinters shower me...I crashed into the hangar.

I sit there motionless for a while as if paralysed in terror. Then I stand up on shaky legs and climb out of the plane. Nothing happened to me but the plane is destroyed.

The flight students and the mechanics run across the field. They all saw my accident. People come running from the barracks and the office. They form a half circle around me, go over to the plane and inspect it curiously. A couple people ask questions I can't answer. I stand there silently as I shiver all over.

The Captain comes and looks at me. "Of course," he says blandly as

if he expected nothing different. I stammer, "Stick blocked. Correction impossible!"

"We'll have it inspected," he says while giving a wink to the foreman.

I go to my sitting room and sit at the window. I look out but I don't see anything going on outside. I want to be alone. The others sense this and leave me in peace.

In the evening the results of the investigation are made known. The Bowden cable to the machine gun on the mounting panel slid onto the fuel feed and blocked the steering mechanism. The foreman photographed the cockpit. I am vindicated. I did not cause the accident. The airfield gave me another plane, but this time an older Fokker.

The next morning I flew to Habheim. Only the mechanics are on the field, no one else. It is a gray and foggy morning.

Go to pages 32 - 42

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Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks