Richthofen flies his first solo

I am working on an article about von Richthofen for a children’s magazine, which reminded me that the Red Baron didn’t claim to be a great pilot.  Actually in the aces’ writings I’ve read, I think they’ve all said something to the effect that aerobatics are for the people back home; fancy flying is an often fatal distraction from combat.

Here’s what von Richthofen said about his first solo flight, on 10 October 1915:

There are few moments in life that produce as nervous a sensation as the first solo flight.

Zeumer, my teacher, announced to me one afternoon: “You are ready to fly alone.”  I must say that I would rather have answered: “I am too afraid.”  But this could never come from a defender of the fatherland.  Therefore, good or bad, I had to swallow my cowardice and sit in the machine.

Once again he explained every theory of movement to me.  I barely heard what he said, for I was of the firm conviction I would forget half of what he told me.

The engine started with a roar.  I gave it the gas and the machine began to pick up speed, and suddenly I could not help but notice that I was really flying.  Suddenly it was no longer an anxious feeling, but, rather, one of daring.  Now it was all up to me.  No matter what happened, I was no longer frightened.  With contempt for death I made a wide curve to the left, shut off the engine precisely over the designated tree, and waited to see what would happen now.  Then came the most difficult part, the landing.  I remembered the essential manipulations; I performed them mechanically.  However, the machine reacted differently than when Zeumer sat in it.  I lost my balance, made some wrong movements, and landed nose-first with what was once the instruction machine.  Sadly I looked at the slight damage, amid laughter from all sides.

Two days later I went to my airplane with mad passion, and suddenly all went wonderfully well.

Two weeks later I was ready to take my first examination.  I flew the prescribed figure eight and the ordered number of landings, whereupon I proudly got out of the machine and heard, to my great surprise, that I had failed.  There was nothing else to do but try once more to pass the first examination.

–Manfred von Richthofen, The Red Baron: The Fabled Ace’s Story in His Own Words, ed. Stanley M. Ulanoff, trans. Peter Kilduff (New York: Ace Books, 1969), 42-43

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