The man stares fixedly at me. He's wearing a gray-green soldier's coat, military cap without insignia and a broad red band on his right arm. Soldier's council. Protruding from his plump cheeks right up to his eyes are the points of his red mustache flickering like little flames.
It is November 1918, a dreary and rainy day. We stand on the rear platform of an overfilled Munich tram.
The man stares and stares. Finally he sticks out his hand and points to the Pour le mérite around my neck:
"That's tin," he says aloud.
The bystanders look about curiously, wondering what's happening.
I look out the window at the asphalt where the raindrops bounce around and consider what I'll do if he grabs it.
He already has his hairy paw on my neck flicking the medal. "Don't you want to get rid of that big strange shaped thing?" he growls.
He's much bigger than I am but I've calculated the distance. In the next second I have his squirrelly beard between my fingers and I yank it and shout, "Don't you want to get rid of that beard?"
The crowd bellows. In rage he throws some punches, hits the conductor, hits a few passengers but misses me. The platform becomes a battlefield. The conductor swings his fists like coal shovels which connect with his opponents head.
The tram stops. The man in the soldier's coat rolls off, scrambles to his feet and raises his fist in a threateneing gesture. Curses pummel us from behind as the tram bell rings and carries us forward.
A couple big guys laugh. But in all honesty I don't find anything funny.
Often in the evening we pilots meet at a small brew pub. The mood is somber. They've pushed us aside and we haven't yet regained our footing in the life of the ordinary citizen.
"Do you know," Greim says to me, "that at least if we could fly again we'd be able to see this whole mess from above." We drink and stare out ahead of us.
It's cold in the wooden tabled pub. Coal must be used sparingly. The lamps merely give off muted light. There are posters on the walls for elections to the national assembly and an appeal to care for war prisoners.
I clench Greim's arm. "We'll fly again," I say and formulate a plan.
The next morning I go to the offices of the war prisoner welfare center. We want to put on air battles for the war prisoners, aerobatics and stunt shows.
They're skeptical. If we can procure airplanes, yes. But that will be difficult. There are few left in Bamberg which are completely new, having not been delivered.
So we drive to Bamberg. A cold, joyless morning. The planes sit in an emply manufacturing facility,
one next to the other like horses in a glue factory. They're waiting to be delivered to the enemy. An unconsolable ending. The heart bleeds just looking at it.
We barter with the inventory manager for a long time. Finally we get away with two planes. A Fokker D7 for Greim and a Fokker Parasol for me.
Fourteen days later on all the advertising posts of Munich this notice:
Thousands come, tens of thousands. It's a great success raising funds for the war prisoners.
"Actually," Greim say, "its truly terrible. What we did in earnest in the outside world is now just a performance..."
"Yes, but we're flying again," I say.
And we fly every Sunday in a different region, all around Munich, throughout Bavaria. The people come and they pay. The war prisoners welfare center is pleased with us. When we land we're surrounded by the curious people who want to know how things were up there.
But when we're in the air, we forget everything. Greim is a worthy opponent. He gets into the battle as though it were real rather than for show. Once in Tegernsee he pursued me so intensely that he overlooked some high tension wires. His plane got caught in them, bounced off into the lake and sank. He was uninjured but that was the end of the airshow. Replacement planes are nowhere to be found.
Caption under photograph reads: Model U4 by the Udet Airplane Manufacturing company in south America, 1923.
Caption under photograph reads: The First Model created by Udet Airplane Manufacturing.
Caption under photograph reads: The Work from Behind Darkened Windows.
Caption under photograph reads: Stunt Flying in Elbsee.
I had to turn in my Fokker immediately and remain on the ground once more.
I heard from Angermund that Rumpler Works wanted to start a flight service from Munich to Vienna. I apply as a pilot.
It's a big deal. For a start they settle their board of directors in Oberwiesenfeld. Reflective top hats, shiny bald heads — and speeches rolling sonorously over the fields.
It was photographed, filmed and many hands shake. Then we fly off. There are three pilots, Doldi, Basser and me. The planes are old, converted military aircraft, not very comfortable and quite inadequate.
Along the way there's a head wind. One seven meters per second but our birds have difficulty just staying up in the air. Finally we run out of gas and have to land. No one reaches Vienna this day.
However outside at the airport in Aspern the representatives of the city and the highest state officials await us. They wait in frock coats and top hats. Speeches stick in their throats. They wait until evening but we don't arrive. Much aggrieved, they return home.
However the next morning we're over the city. We circle the tower at St. Stephan's. Doldi drops flyers: "The First International Air Transport between Germany and Austria Commences with the Landing of Three Double-Decker Transports in Aspern."
But nobody comes out. We land alone and unnoticed.
The return trip is supposed to happen a day later, this time without ceremony.
Before the airplane hangar there's a number of foreign officials. The Entente Commission. One of them comes up to us and declares, "Your planes are confiscated. Airplane travel in and out of Austria is forbidden according to the Treaty of Saint Germain."
We protest, we speak excitedly to him. He turns his back on us.
I want to get my goggles from the plane. A small, jaundice faced man moves in front of the plane. I may not peer inside it even once.
The participants of the first international flight from Munich to Vienna return home by train.
The gentlemen of the Entente Commission laugh, but as best as I can determine, there's nothing funny about it.
An American calls me at my house. Mister William Pohl of Milwaukee. He's staying at the "Four Seasons." I'm to visit him tonight at his hotel in order to discuss an important business proposal.
He's a typical American. He comes right to the point.
He wants to build an airplane factory in Germany. It will manufacture aircraft for civilian transport. He believes it holds great promise for sales. The name is already established: "Everybody" it shall be called. Do I want to take part in this venture?
"Yes, but I don't have any venture capital," I interject.
Mister Pohl winks. "None necessary. I have the money. I need your knowledge, your contacts and your name. The enterprise will be called 'Udet Airplane Manufacturing.'"
As we leave each other at midnight the plans are set down to the individual details. A shed will be leased in Milberthofen, 2 workers and an engineer will be hired. The construction of the first model begins.
On July 15, 1921 there's news that hits like a lightning bolt. The Entente Commission prohibits the further building of airplane factories in Germany.
Pohl comes again to Munich and I meet him at the hotel. He shrugs his shoulders. "If you're willing to take the risk, good."
Prohibited building is stringently punished with fines and imprisonment. I consider it for a moment. "Okay!" I say.
Mister Pohl is happy. "That's what I expected from you!" he says.
I return to the shed, call our three-man team together, and explain the situation. "It could all go wrong, young men," I conclude.
"Where's the carpenter's plane, Hiasl [Shortened form of Matthias]?" one man asks the other. They don't talk. They don't make a big deal over this sacrifice. They get back to work. They're comrades...
But we have to be careful, very careful indeed. I have the window painted blue. One light dominates in the room like being in a crypt.
Caltrops are placed before the window. A secret bell system alerts us to anyone passing through the garden gate.
One morning a worker comes to me. Yesterday on the way home he spoke with a man. They went to get some beer. The stranger paid for everything. During all this the man asked what we were making here. "Locks," my man says.
"Locks, what kind of locks?"
"Locks for the mouth!" The worker stood up and left.
In the evening we see a man strolling around the shed. "Is that him?" I ask. The worker nods.
Around midnight I summon the men again. They need no explanation.
Over in Ramersdorf Scheuermann operates a factory for bee hives and chicken coops. I call him up and ask him if he's interested in bird breeding. Even on the telephone one must be careful. Scheuermann is a war comrade, a fighter pilot like me. "Come over with your birds," he says.
At three in the morning a one-horse carriage rolls through the streets of Munich. Our model, a seaplane is on it. I sit up front near the coach driver. The workers hold down the machine so it won't fall off. In our haste we didn't have time to strap it down.
Our bird will hatch in Scheuermann's chicken coop. A few days before it's finished the Entente Commission's building ban is lifted. We can work again in the open.
May 12, 1922 is the big day. Pohl is outside with a couple pilots.The workmen have put on their Sunday best. The airplane stands festively decorated before the shed. Once again the assembly is inspected. Our engineer stands close to me. Suddenly he hits his forehead with the palm of his hand and runs to the construction office. He comes back out with the rolled up specifications under his arm. Flustered and deathly pale, he grabs my arm:
"A mistake...I don't understand how this could have happened to me..the engine sits forty-seven centimeters too far behind in the fuselage...during the calculation I overlooked a decimal point..."
Very quietly we return our bird to its nest. Four days later he comes back out in the open. They added the needed forty-seven centimeters onto the fuselage. And thus a new being came into existence with an overly long body which had a fateful resemblance to a flying goose.
I climb in. The tachometer is so far from the pilot's seat that you can't read it anymore. The propeller is pitched, the bird turns in epiletic spasms, however eventually it rises. The thirty horsepower Haake engine shakes the cockpit so much that the stabilizers have no effect. Everything vibrated as if the path through the air was paved with cobblestones.
And yet I fly. I fly for the first time in two years.
The Aero Club Aleman in Buenos Aires has invited me to a flight meet. It's about the Wilbur Cup.
We talked about it a long time. Pohl is against it. Scheuermann, now our technology head, is for it. The Udet Airplane Factory has grown significantly since its origins a year ago. The childhood illness of the first enterprise has been overcome. We have produced model types U2 and U4 and they've sold well. But a trip over to South America is costly, especially in German money, and we're in the middle of an inflationary period.
I finally decide to go. The possibility of conducting business internationally is too appealing to ignore.
In Buenos Aires Mr. Friedrich Blixstein comes on board. The ship has anchored at the pier. It's evening and the bay is filled with blue shadows. The first lights are igniting in the city.
On deck Blixstein runs with open arms towards me and grasps both my hands:
"My dear Mr. Udet, you're here; you're really here!" Tiny beads of sweat glisten on his brow.
"Well you invited me..." My reserve in no way dampens his enthusiasm.
"Would you like to see how I have prepared for your arrival?"
He takes a bundle of newspapers out of his coat pocket and unfolds them with nervous fingers.
"The Ace of Aces" is there with my photograph. I csn't read the rest of the Spanish.
We stroll back and forth on the promenade deck. Blixstein has grabbed me and linked our arms. I don't like such familiarity,
especially among men. But he introduced himself as the business manager of the Aero Club Aleman, and the Aero Club Aleman did invite me.
While going up and down the deck he formulates his planes. I'll travel around the county with the two planes with the Aero Club naturally picking up the freight costs. They put me up inthe Plaza Hotel, "the premier house in the city," Mr. Blixstein explains. In horror I think of my German currency.
Them we drive to the hotel. A showcase cross between Romance pomp and American objectivity.
Blixstein keeps me company during dinnter. He talks a lot. As soon as the meal is over I excuse myself. "I'm tired from the sea journey."
In my room I stand a while before the open window. The streets below are steeped in heat, noise, and lights. It's a strange feeling observing the mass of humanity in a foreign city. "Will you be trodden underfoot or will you be a victor?" you ask yourself.
The next morning I drive to the office of the Aero Club Aleman. Blixstein left the the card with the address. The car leaves the elegrant streets, the houses get smaller and more humble. A gray office barracks: Headquarters for the Aero Club Aleman.
There's only one secretary in the office. Blixstein goes about in shirtsleeves giving her dictation. He seems quite businessman.
He had prospectuses printed up. He shows me one of them. German on the right hand side, Spanish on the left. In astonishment I read:
Mr. Friedrich Blixstein, chief representative for the Udet airplane Factory in Munich, has the honor...
"Hm," I say with wrinkled brow, nothing else. But Blixstein understood.
"I just dictated our contract," he clarifies, "the usual business stipulations. If you wish, you can wait for it."
I don't wait. Alone I go back through the hot, dusty streets to the hotel. On foot. I must save money.
My hope lies in the day of the Wilbur Cup. There I can demonstrate what our little planes can do. Until then it's best to stay put.
Eating is an artform when one has little money to spare. The eyes stay for a long time on the price column of the menus. One meal price converted into German Marks, costs the weekly wage of a laborer. I decide on ravioli, an Italian noodle dish. It's the cheapest thing on the menu. The waiter leaves without changing his expression—a good hotel.
When I order ravioli agin the next day he only slightly raises his eyebrow. "Stomach disorder," I grumble. He bows slightly. Aristocrats have stomach disorders; commoners have empty wallets.
It's the end of July. Heat bakes the streets but it's quiet and cool in the hotel bar. I often sit there sipping a cocktail and spooning the customary soft cheese into myself. I stays at the table like a giant wagon wheel. It's complementary, placed there for the guests. It makes you thirsty. However I have it instead of dinner bread.
Caption under photograph reads: In a sea plane in the Alps.
Caption under photograph reads: An aerial film shoot at Mont Blanc
Caption under photograph reads: Landing at Mönchjoch in Switzerland
Caption under photograph reads: Upside down over Berlin
When the bartender looks at me I dreamily play with the cheese spoon.
August 9th is the day of the Wilbur Cup. It is a handicap race, more for the initiated than for the public at large.
The airport lies outside the city in a pasture bordered by a wooden fence. Blixstein has come out there. He drives me everywhere and introduces me to sports journalists and representatives of American and English manufacturers. They are courteous but very reserved. Blixstein treats me like the father of a son with a promising future.
Then the races begin. My little U4 with the fifty-five horse power Siemens engine is severely handicapped. Spad, Curtiss and Nieuport are represented with strong-motored birds.
But the U4 valiently holds its own. As it lands I have the feeling: The Udet Airplane Factory has produced good work.
Blixstein reckons, "Wait until the news reports tomorrow, then we'll see. Our entire Argentinian enterprise depends upon the critics."
The next morning I have the hotel page bring me the newspapers in bed. Reports about the Wilbur Cup in all of them. The U4 is barely mentioned.
I call Blixstein at his office. He's very abrupt. "I'll come this afternoon to your hotel."
I wait the entire day in my room. Blixstein takes his time and doesn't arrive until the evening.
"What a mess," he says as he enters. "The Americans have the best press relationships."
He throws himself into a chair with his legs splayed over the armrest.
"Naturally we'll have to change tactics. You'll have to fly advertisements for cigarette companies."
"I'm not flying advertisements!" I state emphatically.
His face changes and naked anger comes to the surface.
"And how do you think we should continue?"
"I will fly," I say..."I'll sign up for the air race at Rosario...and perhaps sell one plane or the other."
He laughs. "May I remind you that the freight bills for your aircraft are paid by the Aero Club Aleman?"
"What are you trying to say?"
"The Aero Club Aleman has paid out twelve hundred gold pesos for you," he coolly states. To clear up this debt you can pay the freight bills—or else you'll have to fly for the cigarette companies."
Blixstein leaves. He set me on the tips of my boots. I've seldom seen someone so angry.
For dinner I wander down to the bar. There's more cheese. I'm very depressed. If I wire Munich for money, they'd send it to me. But twelve hundred gold pesos is a huge sum in German money. Perhaps they'd have to downsize the factory; perhaps lay off some workers. I'll have to take care of myself.
A young man pushes himself into the barstool next to me.
He's blond, rosy cheeked, and slightly drunk. A Yankee. He probably arrived this afternoon on the large ocean liner.
We start talking. He's a student from Boston and this is his first long journey. He insists on buying me a drink.
We speak English and French throughout. "And what is your nationality?" he asks.
"Oh..." his face drops in astonishment. "A Hun? Who lops off little children's hands?"
He stands up and slowly takes off his jacket. "I demand satisfaction," he slurs. He doesn't say what for.
I've just jumped down off the barstool. He's a head taller than me and in good shape. You can see muscle movement under his shirtsleeve. My only chance is a quick attack. I jump on him and pound his chin with my fist. It's such a heavy blow that I crack my knuckles. He remains standing but looks around perplexed.
"Oh..." he says, puts his jacket back on, sits down and drinks some more. I wrap a handkerchief around my bloody hand and look at him from the corner of my eye. No further assault ensues. Happy as a baby he swills down his twelfth cocktail.
A gentleman with stiffly brushed-up hair taps me on the shoulder. "We'd be very happy if you'd join us at our table." He's German, a countryman.
"Blixstein?" says the man with the bushy hair. "You are not quite pleased with your choice in partners, Mr. Udet."
"I didn't go out looking for him!"
I relate the incident from this afternoon. The party consults how they might be able to help me.
"Tornquist," one of them mentions. "You must go to Tornquist. He's an Argentinian of Swedish heritage, head of the Argentinian railroad. A sportsman through and through. Certainly he will help you."
Next morning I go to Tornquist's office. He's already been informed.
"So you want to put too much salt on Blixstein's ham?" he says. He hands over a shipping receipt for my two planes. "Your birds have become guests of the Argentinian Railroad, Mr. Udet."
I visit the Aero Club Aleman for the last time. As I go down the steps my knuckles break open again, but this time they've landed on their opponent more advantageously.
Blixstein is history and everything moves forward. I receive lots of invitations from the German colony. At the Rosario-Buenos Aires Air Race the pilot Oliviero flies the best time of the day in our model U4.
That evening we German and Argentinian sportsmen celebrate the victory at the bar of the Plaza Hotel. I meet Jorge Luro, the great racecar driver.
"If you don't have anyone better in mind," he says, "I'd like to be the representative for your factory in Argentina."
I nod. I can barely speak due to my joyous astonishment.
He brings out his wallet. I'll pay for one and one half planes immediately and the rest upon delivery." He places the money on the table. Casually I extend my hand towards it.
A hotel employee places cheese before me. I push it back. "I don't understand how anyone can shovel in so much cheese," I state grandly.
I've retired from the Udet Airplane Facotory even though the operation is going well. The "Kolobri" has won the 1924 Rhone Flight Competition. The "Flamingo" has been instituted as a flight instruction plane.
Since then they've started building large airplanes. The Udet "Kondor" has four engines. I gave them warning but they didn't listen. I left.
Angermund comes up to me. "You know, maybe you could put on another airshow like the one you did with Greim."
I contempate this for a while. It's the only way to continue flying, to stay in the air. "Okay," I say. "If you take care of the details."
And Angermund begins to work. He sets his broad shoulders to the task of clearing the way. He rents an office and puts together a program. He travels around the country and negotiates with the municipalities.
When I arrive everything is already organized. The barriers are set up and the cashiers hired. Angermund watches to make sure onlookers don't get past the box office. There's no other way in.
I come and perform my stunts. At first it's
great fun; hunting down balloons, rolling turns and looping. The crowd claps but then it gets bored.
In the evening, when everything is over, I call to Angermund. He stands there like a field sergeant before the company. The cashiers enter and deposit their bundles of paper money and coins. He counts up the bounty and shoves it into a laundy basket he keeps behind himself.
"Come," I say. And we go and sit somewhere with a pint or two.
Sometimes Angermund relates what the people had to say. That can be quite amusing. When I performed a dive with stalled propeller one bright woman from Berlin declared, "Look, he can't do anything else but come down." And when I did my loop-the-loops close to the ground in Leipzig a flight enthusiast from Saxony said, "He gets so low, he's gonna kill himself!"
But most of the time we talk about the war. "Do you still remember," Angermund says, "how that crazy Frenchman shot you down? He sat there like a statue. And when he saw you he completely hacked all over your crate. I saw him a while back. He's a lawyer now."
And so we live on. We stand in the present and fight for our daily bread. It's not always easy. A failed day of flying can upset a month's work.
But the mind keeps going back to the days in which you had to fight just to stay alive.
Go to pages 135 - 153
Return to Index
Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks