OUR activity before Verdun was disturbed in the summer of 1916 by frequent thunderstorms. Nothing is more disagreeable for flying men than to have to go through a thunderstorm. In the Battle of the Somme a whole English flying squadron came down behind our lines and became prisoners of war because they had been surprised by a thunderstorm.
I had never yet made an attempt to get through thunder clouds but I could not suppress my desire to make the experiment. During the whole day thunder was in the air. From my base at Mont I had flown over to the fortress of Metz, nearby, in order to look after various things. During my return journey I had an adventure.
I was at the aerodrome of Metz and intended to return to my own quarters. When I pulled my machine out of the hangar the first signs of an approaching thunderstorm became noticeable. Clouds which looked like a gigantic pitch-black wall approached from the north. Old experienced pilots urged me not to fly. However, I had promised to return and I should have considered myself a coward if I had failed to come back because of a silly thunderstorm. Therefore I meant to try.
When I started the rain began falling. I had to throw away my goggles, otherwise I should not have seen anything. The trouble was that I had to travel over the mountains of the Moselle where the thunderstorm was just raging. I said to myself that probably I should be lucky and get through and rapidly approached the black cloud which reached down to the earth. I flew at the lowest possible altitude. I was compelled absolutely to leap over houses and trees with my machine. Very soon I knew no longer where I was. The gale seized my machine as if it were a piece of paper and drove it along. My heart sank within me. I could not land among the hills. I was compelled to go on.
I was surrounded by an inky blackness. Beneath me the trees bent down in the gale. Suddenly I saw right in front of me a wooded height. I could not avoid it. My Albatros managed to take it. I was able to fly only in a straight line. Therefore I had to take every obstacle that I encountered. My flight became a jumping competition purely and simply. I had to jump over trees, villages, spires and steeples, for I had to keep within a few yards of the ground, otherwise I should have seen nothing at all. The lightning was playing around me. At that time I did not yet know that lightning cannot touch flying machines. I felt certain of my death for it seemed to me inevitable that the gale would throw me at any moment into a village or a forest. Had the motor stopped working I should have been done for.
Suddenly I saw that on the horizon the darkness had become less thick. Over there the thunderstorm had passed. I would be saved if I were able to get so far. Concentrating all my energy I steered towards the light. Suddenly I got out of the thunder-cloud. The rain was still falling in torrents. Still, I felt saved. In pouring rain I landed at my aerodrome. Everyone was waiting for me, for Metz had reported my start and had told them that I had been swallowed up by a thunder cloud. I shall never again fly through a thunderstorm unless the Fatherland should demand this.
Now, when I look back, I realize that it was all very beautiful. Nothwithstanding the danger during my flight, I experienced glorious moments which I would not care to have missed.
My First Time In a Fokker
FROM the beginning of my career as a pilot I had only a single ambition, the ambition to fly in a single-seater battle-plane. After worrying my commander for a long time I at last obtained permission to mount a Fokker. The revolving motor was a novelty to me. Besides, it was a strange feeling to be quite alone during the flight.
The Fokker belonged jointly to a friend of mine who has died long ago and to myself. I flew in the morning and he in the afternoon. Both he and I were afraid that the other fellow would smash the box. On the second day we flew towards the enemy. When I flew in the morning no Frenchman was to be seen. In the afternoon it was his turn. He started but did not return. There was no news from him.
Late in the evening the infantry reported an aerial battle between a Nieuport and a German Fokker, in the course of which the German machine had apparently landed at the Mort Homme. Evidently the occupant was friend Reimann for all the other flying men had returned. We regretted the fate of our brave comrade. Suddenly, in the middle of the night, we heard over the telephone that a German flying officer had made an unexpected appearance in the front trenches at the Mort Homme. It appeared that this was Reimann. His motor had been smashed by a shot. He had been forced to land. As he was not able to reach our own lines he had come to the ground in No Man's Land. He had rapidly set fire to the machine and had then quickly hidden himself in a mine crater. During the night he had slunk into our trenches. Thus ended our joint enterprise with a Fokker.
A few days later I was given another Fokker. This time I felt under a moral obligation to attend to its destruction myself. I was flying for the third time. When starting, the motor suddenly stopped working. I had to land right away in a field and in a moment the beautiful machine was converted into a mass of scrap metal. It was a miracle that I was not hurt.