Fighting the Flying Circus/Chapter 9

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Fighting the Flying Circus by Eddie Rickenbacker
Chapter 9
Chapter 9 - Down in Flames

THE 84th Squadron had been at the front about one month when there arrived Lieut. Kurtz, one of my companions of the training school days. On completion of his course at the flying school Kurtz had been selected to make a special study of aerial gunnery, in order to become an instructor to the thousands of young men who were now being drafted into Uncle Sam's aerial fleet. For this purpose he had been sent to England, and on returning to France from that country Kurtz had received orders to report to the 84th Squadron at the front in order to secure actual war experience and to make trips over the enemy's lines.

After the newcomer had asked thousands of questions and received answers to them to the best of our ability, he suggested that he should proceed to the more advanced stage of an actual combat with the enemy. As I was second in command of the Squadron, being Flight Commander of the 1st Flight at that time, it was my duty to arrange for him to accompany a patrol into enemy territory. No matter how much natural ability a man may possess, or how carefully he has been trained, his first experiences over the enemy lines, his first contact with enemy machines are rather trying to him. A moment's forgetfulness, a trifling foolhardiness, a slight miscalculation, and even a man who has been carefully and expensively trained and who possesses all the characteristics of a successful pilot, may fall before the skill of a more experienced enemy flyer.

For this reason I always made it a practice to accompany new pilots on their first trip over the enemy's lines, and by my advice and by actual protection when aloft, assist them over that delicate period between the theory of the school and the hard practice of battle.

We were still flying the well-known Baby Nieuport single-seater "chasse" or fighting machine, equipped with a Gnome Monosoupape motor. It was then the best machine of its kind in service, although it had some faults undeniably. Having just arrived from the rear, Kurtz was not acquainted with the peculiarities of this machine. I therefore arranged for him to make a few short flights from our field and to practice frequent landings, so that if he ever should have sudden motor trouble he would be able to come down on any ground he found available. After a few days of this practice, he expressed himself as being capable of handling the machine under all circumstances and ready for that greatest adventure of the young pilot: that first trip over enemy's lines.

We agreed that Lieut. Kurtz should accompany Lieut. Chambers and myself on what is familiarly known as a voluntary patrol. Chambers and I were in the habit of undertaking these extra patrols when the regular day's work was over, provided we were still, to use an aviator's slang expression, "Mad at the Boche." It was a beautiful summer morning, bright, clear and still—just such a morning as the Hun observation pilots would select to come over our lines and take photographs.

Our plan of action was carefully explained to our new comrade. We were to fly in V formation; I was to lead, Chambers on my left, and Kurtz 100 meters behind and above us. He was not to engage in a combat, should we meet with any Boche airmen, unless the advantage was with us. I have always made it a point to avoid a fight unless I can maneuver to get the best advantage. He was at all times to maintain his position behind and above us, playing the rôle of a spectator. He was instructed to try out his machine-gun occasionally with a few short bursts if he had his plane pointing towards Germany. Finally, if we became scattered and he was unable to find us, he was to remember that the sun rose in the east, and, keeping it on his left was to fly south until he felt certain that he was over French territory before making a landing.

It was decided that we should start after breakfast, promptly at 8 o'clock, meet over the field at 1500 feet, get our full altitude between Nancy and Toul, and cross over the lines at 15,000 feet. Before starting I noticed that Lieut. Kurtz appeared rather nervous, but this was not a matter for surprise under the circumstances. Little did I understand the reason for this nervousness then, or suspect in what a tragic manner it would later be revealed to me.

Lieut. Kurtz's machine was climbing badly, so we got up to an altitude of 14,500 feet rather slowly; at that height I decided to pass from the comparative safety of our own side of the line to the hazard and adventure of the German positions. Mr. Hun was abroad, for I caught sight of the shimmer of what I believed to be a photo plane six miles inside our lines and very high up—probably 19,000 feet. As this enemy was certainly beyond our reach, I decided to keep the nose of my machine headed towards Germany and to continue to gain altitude as steadily as possible, at the same time keeping an eye on this nearby enemy, for there was just a chance that we might be able to reach his altitude and head him off before his work was done.

Suddenly, little fleecy white puffs appeared in the clear atmosphere ahead and above us. This anti-aircraft activity of ours meant that more Huns were abroad in our vicinity. A few minutes more and we had spotted them; three powerful single-seaters of the Albatros type, 1500 feet above us, and about half a mile ahead. As a signal to the others I wig-wagged my wings, which is the aviator's way of saying "Look out, and keep your eye on the leader." I had time to look back and see that Lieut. Kurtz was well in the rear, and a little higher than the enemy then appeared to be. There was then no reason to fear for him. It was not necessary to give any thought to an experienced fighter like Lieut. Chambers. I had been out enough with Reed to know that he was the equal to any two Huns. Doubtless Reed had seen the Boches before I had, for he was keeping close by me, probably wondering what my plan was going to be.

Keeping a close watch on our opponents, I rapidly analyzed the situation. The enemy had the advantage in height; they were three, probably all experienced men, while we were two fighters and one novice, who was catching sight of a German plane for the first time in his life. But the enemy pilots were inside our lines. Down below, several hundreds of men in the trenches were watching what to them was to be an equal fight—three Americans against three Germans. With their field glasses the French officers had picked out the black German crosses, and noted the red, blue and white rings of the U.S. machines. Doubtless at that very moment they were discussing the outcome of the impending fight. They had the right to expect a fight, since we were 3 to 3. So a fight it should be.

In the minds of the Germans there appeared to be no element of doubt or hesitation. Having the advantage of height, they suddenly, all three, swooped down on us; first one, then the second and third dived down and sprayed us with bullets from their machine-guns. I had time to notice that Lieut. Chambers banked up on a wing tip and dived down; I did a half vrille, and in less time than it takes to tell, we were both out of range. The Germans in their diving attack had not only failed to get any of us, but had also lost their advantage of height. The tables were turned, or at any rate the conditions were equal, and retreat was evidently the uppermost thought in the minds of the Huns.

We gave chase and in a few minutes I had succeeded in separating one of the planes from the formation. It was then either his life or mine! Perhaps I should get in the fatal shot; or maybe luck would be on his side; in either case, I was determined that it should be a fight to the death. Occupied as I was with my own enemy, I yet had time to notice that Lieut. Kurtz was doing well. He and Lieut. Chambers were in full cry after the two remaining Albatros planes; the whole show was proceeding in the direction of St. Mihiel.

Mine was a running fight until we arrived over Thiaucourt, the little city about six miles inside the German lines. Here my enemy decided that conditions were in his favor, for he swung around and headed straight for me. But I was satisfied to accept the challenge, for I was 100 yards behind and about 200 yards above my opponent, and this gave me a not to be despised advantage. Nearer and nearer he came, heading towards me in a climbing virage, and working both his machine-guns furiously. It is a sensation which almost defies description: there we were, only a few yards apart, sparring around one another like two prize-fighters in a celestial ring. His incendiary explosive bullets were cracking all around me, and any one of them, if it touched a vital spot, was capable of putting an end to the fight. But my feelings were not personal; indeed, in those few critical moments which constitute the turning point of a fight the aviator usually has all thoughts of self driven away. With a quick half-turn of a vrille I secured a position on the tail of my enemy. I was then in such a position that he was unable to turn his gun on me. It was my chance, a chance which probably would be lost in the next fraction of a second. But I had no intention of losing it. With a pull on both triggers, a hail of bullets swept towards the German plane.

Down he swooped. Apparently he was out of control. Would he crash, or would he be able after that giddy dive to pull out and make a safe landing? That I could not tell, for while the spinning nose-dive of an enemy always looks like certain destruction, it is often, in the hands of an artful pilot the only highway to safety. Had I been over our own lines, I might have followed him down, and made certain of his crash. If I saw that he had regained control I could then immediately renew the fight at a lower altitude.

But I was well inside enemy territory and only 10,000 feet above ground. It was quite possible that while I had been occupied in this fight other enemy planes had gathered overhead and were preparing to wreak vengeance. Personal safety and the elementary rules of aerial fighting require the pilot in such circumstances to "regain altitude, or get back to the lines as soon as possible."

Thus I had to leave the issue of my fight in doubt. I had a faint hope that some other observer might be able to confirm the enemy's crash, and so allow me to place one more Hun to my credit. A few minutes later and I realized that my recent instinctive fears were only too true. High above, but fortunately a considerable distance away from me, approached two German planes, which I rapidly concluded were the two machines which had succeeded in escaping from Kurtz and Chambers and were now determined to punish me when they discovered me so remotely isolated from my formation.

My only hope of safety lay in speed. Often and often on the race track, with wide open throttle, every nerve taut, every pent-up ounce of energy concentrated in my arms, have I wished that I could infuse just a little more power into my engine, could give just a little more speed to my car, in order to draw away from the man whose car was creeping up to and overhauling mine inch by inch.

But this case was even more crucial. Speed now meant safety, speed here meant life. My motor was flung wide open, the nose of my machine was turned down, and I raced as I had never raced before, for the prize was life itself. But do what I could, it was impossible to shake off one of my opponents. Now I was directly over the lines; a few minutes more and I should be in our own territory and in a position either to land or get away from my persistent rival. However, the advantage the other fellow had in height was too much for me, and I realized that it was best for me to turn round and fight. In a flash I had kicked my tail around and was heading towards my opponent. He swooped down, reserving his fire, while I kept my fingers on the triggers of my guns. I had him in range, but I hesitated; the thought had flashed through my brain that perhaps in three seconds more I should be able to shoot with more deadly effect.

Now I had my sights on him; now was the time to release both guns. At that very moment his machine banked up on one wing tip, and there under the lower wing I saw the concentric red, blue and white wings of the United States Air Service. The supposed Hun was friend Chambers, who was returning from chasing the enemy, and the second plane was that of Lieut. Kurtz back from his first aerial scrap. God only knows why I held my fire for that brief fraction of a second. In talking it over later, Chambers said, "When I saw Rick swing round in that wild fashion I realized that he was still 'mad at the Boche,' and thought the time had come to let him see my colors."

It is not often that a man rises to the degree of joy I felt as we headed for home, the fight over, and all three safe. I had every reason to believe my German was down, possibly Chambers had got another, and Kurtz for his first time over had deported himself wonderfully.

I searched around for the pilot Kurtz, whom I regarded as being in my care, but to my surprise was unable to find him. I cruised around for a few minutes, searching in every direction, but not one plane could I see in the sky. I argued to myself that he must have gone home, and in consequence I turned my machine towards our aerodrome, hoping to pick him up at any moment. Just as I got sight of our landing ground my anxiety was relieved, for there, ahead of and below us was Lieut. Kurtz making rings above our field, exactly as I had advised him to do.

Lieut. Kurtz was evidently on his last turn over an adjoining field prior to landing when to my unspeakable horror I saw his Nieuport drop into a vrille and crash-straight to earth, after which bursts of-angry flame shot up all around him. What could possibly have happened ?

If help could be got to him without a moment's delay he might be pulled out of that wreckage before the flames consumed him. But I could not get to him, for the place where his machine had crashed was among barbed wire entanglements and trench works so thick that a safe landing was impossible. Below was a road, only 50 yards from the burning machine, and on the road was a French "camion." I speeded down, shut off my motor, and by signs and voice urged the driver to go to the rescue. The man stood still and watched. I realized later that he understood it was a hopeless task, for all the ammunition in the wrecked plane was exploding, and for any man to approach meant almost certain death.

Unable to land close by, I sped on to our own field, jumped out of my plane almost before it had stopped rolling; vaulted into the saddle of a motorcycle and raced towards the scene of the disaster with a vague wild hope that I might yet be able to do some good. Could I live for a million years I should not forget that awful sight of the charred remains of the man who had been my companion in the schools, and who only one brief hour before had set out with me full of life and hope.

A few hours later the mystery of that crash was revealed. As has already been mentioned, I had noticed before starting that Lieut. Kurtz appeared nervous, but had not given the matter any great consideration. The explanation was given by a brother officer who had come with Lieut Kurtz to the squadron. Before starting on his last flight, Lieut. Kurtz had confided to him that he was subject to fainting spells when exposed to high altitudes, and the only thing he was afraid of was that he might be seized with such a fit while in the air. Alas, his fear had been only too well founded. But what a pity it was he had not confided this fear to me, his Flight Commander!

The next morning a simple funeral procession wound its way down the leafy lanes, the while shells passed overhead with an incongruous whine. Awaiting me at the camp on my return from this sad ceremony was an official notice from the French commander. It stated, briefly, that an infantry officer, on outpost duty in No Man's Land, had observed that the German I had fought with had crashed to the ground a total wreck. I had got my Boche; but I had lost a friend, and he had perished in the manner most dreaded of all aviators, for he had gone down in flames.