It was quickly discovered by our own Intelligence Officers that the best of the German fighting squadrons were now patrolling our skies. On the aerodrome at Coincy, a large field just north of Chateau Thierry, was located the distinguished Richthofen Squadron, then commanded by Captain Reinhardt. Its machines were distinguishable by their scarlet noses, and by the extraordinary skillfulness of their pilots. It was now included in Jagdstaffel No.1, which comprised four Flights of seven machines each.*
It was time to fly with Hauptmann Helmuth. The Red Baron himself!
How do you board an ultralight? Very carefully, lest your foot punch through fabric or your butt bend an aluminum tube. When Herr Hauptmann and I strapped in, the gross weight of the entire contraption must surely have doubled.
The giggling says it all.
After thorough engine start and pre-takeoff checks, plus a quick scan for pesky Tommies in S.E. 5s or Sopwith Camels waiting to ‘bounce’ us during takeoff, we were off!
Achtung, wir fliegen!
Helmuth held us below 500 feet for a while. Ponds and trees zipped by. In my mind, I heard the music from Flyboys. Remember the scene when Rawlings (James Franco) took Lucienne (Jennifer Decker) flying?
As we climbed higher, I saw a city on the horizon. That couldn’t be Tarlac, could it?? Herr Hauptmann pointed to the GPS and confirmed that we had already exited the Clark airport traffic zone, were now abeam Tarlac City, and were well on the way to Nueva Ecija.
It was time for me to fly the airplane.
Herr Hauptmann’s brief: "Coordinate your turns. We are heavy. If you turn too steeply or cross-control, we could go into a spin. I’ve seen that before, and believe me, I don’t want to see it again!"
I glanced at the fabric wing flexing in the wind, thought about stalling and spinning at this altitude, and vowed to turn very, very gently indeed.
The aileron control forces were a bit stiff, my excuse for immediately unleashing uncoordinated turns on Herr Hauptmann’s butt, about which he loudly complained.
Pitch was responsive enough! A slight tug on the stick pointed us quickly toward the troposphere. Rudder pedals, as in every airplane I have flown and will ever fly, are pests for pilots!
The famous German Fokker held the skies in 1916 and 1917 for it combined more of these essential details than did any one fighting craft of the Allies. Then came the Spad which the French designed to out-speed and out-maneuver the Fokker, but still the Fokker had a higher ceiling and a swifter dive.
The British produced the S.E. 5 in 1918 which out-dove and out-maneuvered the Fokker, but could not overtake it on a flat race nor out-climb it. The Sopwith Camel likewise came from England and proved superior to the best German fighting machines except in the matter of diving and high-ceiling.*
My best impression was of speed. This airplane is fast! Even dawdling as we were, it took just half an hour to fly from Woodland to Nampicuan.
The Red Baron carefully kept me behind German lines. We patrolled over Nampicuan, now 30 nautical miles north of Herr Helmuth’s luftbasis. This was friendly territory for Der Fleigend Zirkus — the Red Baron’s Flying Circus.
Rolf, a German who has made this country his home, has built a grass airstrip here and introduced sailplane flying — soaring with the wind — to the Philippines! Surely I must write about that some day.
All too quickly, it was time to go home. I managed to keep the ball centered during my turn. Or so I thought. I tapped the ball, now immobile in the center of its tube, and haughtily pointed out to Herr Hauptmann that it must be broken 😛
He curtly replied to me that his butt, still sliding around as I stabbed at the rudder pedals, was telling him otherwise. If I had Photoshop I would paint a Kaiser moustache on Herr Hauptmann’s photo, above.
We flew low over the trenches under the Concepcion bridge on the Sacobia river, alert for ‘archie’. We quickly spotted Der Fliegend Zirkus luftbasis.
Achtung! Der Rote Baron!!
Flying down short final, Helmuth had that airplane right where he wanted it.
I thoroughly enjoyed flying with Helmuth. More than a true aviation enthusiast, a superb professional and a studious pilot, he has become a genuine friend.
Now I’m hooked on this, and will want to take ultralight lessons soon. Curse you, Red Baron! 🙂
Posted from Amsterdam, January 29, 2010.
*Excerpts from Fighting the Flying Circus, copyright by Edward V. Rickenbacker, 1919, and Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1919.
Photos by Flying in Crosswinds, Prince, Rolf Dunder and Tim Maceren.