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