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Playing the Red Baron

Last week, I realised my child’s dream : I enjoyed an amazing jet fighter ride ! This experience was quite expensive, and it’s definitely the best experience ever. Why a jet fighter ride ? Well, this dream goes back to my childhood, when I discovered the story of Manfred von Richthofen, best known as the Red Baron. Richthofen is the iconic fighter pilot. Credited with eighty kills, he was the leading ace on any side during the First World War. And it’s been his enduring reputation that has fuelled a sense that rival fighter pilote were engaging in something more noble than the brutality of war. It’s astonishing to think that he was a pilot for only two years and that, during his uncertain first flight at the controls, he crashed his aircraft. The machine was left looking, he thought, like a battered old school bus, and he was upset at being the butt of jokes from the other students. He got the hang of flying two days later. Any doubt about his skill in the cockpit had evaporated long before he scored his first official kill in October 1916, six months after he joined his first squadron. Born in 1892 into an aristocratie family in what is now Poland, Richthofen leamed to ride and hunt at a young age before beginning military training aged 11. In 1911 he joined a cavalry regiment, but with the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, it was clear that his unit was of no use whatsoever in a modern war. He was bored rigid, his main excitement coming from shooting wild pigs. When he was transferred to the supply branch, he requested a transfer ho the Imperial German Army Flying Corps, complaining that he hadn‘t gone to war ‘in order to collect cheese and eggs‘. Soon after he qualified as a pilot, Richthofen’s squadron was sent to the Eastern Front to drop bombs on the Russians. Still dissatisfied, he hankered to fly on the Western Front. A meeting with Germany’s leading ace, Oawald Boelke, who was looking for recruits to form a new fighter unit, provided the chance he was looking for. Although Boelke died in a mid-air collision, he continued to act as an inspiration to Richthofen. Following his late CO’s rules for combat, Richthofen began to rack up some impressive numbers. By January 1917, his sixteen kills had earned him the Pour le Mérite medal, known as the ‘Blue Max’, and command of his own squadron. In fostering his unit‘s esprit de corps, he encouraged pilots to paint their aircraft in bright colours. After forcing down a British Vickers two-man reconnaissance plane, he was thrilled to learn from the crew that his red-painted Albatros DIII was well known to them: they called it Le Petit Rouge (The Little Red). They had also treated him like the sportsman he knew himself to be. It was exactly the way he wanted to be perceived. Despite his success, Richthofen didn’t feel he’d found the ideal aircraft. He wanted manoeuvrability even at the expense of speed. It wasn’t until he recovered from a bullet which grazed his skull that he settled on the Fokker Dr.1 triplane, which instantly comes to mind at any mention of the Red Baron. In this iconic fighter he scored nineteen of his eighty victories, but it was also the machine in which he died, aged just 25. Richthofen returned to the cockpit just three weeks after having bone splinters removed from his skull following the injury that nearly killed him. Afterwards he was to suffer debilitating headaches, but the leader of the multicoloured squadron known as the ‘Flying Circus’ had become a talismanic figure in Germany. Accepting that, even embracing it, he believed he had no choice but to fight on. Initially, he struggled to find form, and while he never fully recovered from the head wound, through Match and April the following year he added a further seventeen victims. To one of the men who survived being shot down, as he was recovering in hospital, Richthofen sent a box of cigars. The Red Baron was shot through the chest on 21 April 1918 while trying to claim his eighty-first victim. At the time, his death was credited to a young Canadian Sopwith Camel pilot, Captain Arthur Brown, but it now seems more likely that the bullet that killed him was fired from the ground. I prefer it this way. It seems fitting somehow that Manfred von Richthofen, the most famous fighter pilot who’s ever lived, was not defeated in the air. If you’re a hothead like me, here is the link to fly a jet fighter.