“The Englishman came at me out of the sun, firing a long burst from his machine gun. My Albatross shuddered as slugs tore into it.”
Using his hands to mimic aircraft, Uncle Ernst continued, “I kicked my plane into a spin, making it look as though I’d been fatally hit. The enemy pilot must have been fooled, because he followed me down to a low level. Just when it seemed I would smash into the ground, I pulled the Albatross out of the spin and lined his plane up in my sights. Opening up with my Spandau, I stitched the Sopwith from engine cowling to rudderpost.” He paused dramatically, a tiny smile flickering across his face.
“What happened to him?” I breathed, caught up in the suspenseful tale.
His right hand slapped the kitchen table hard, simulating a crash and making me jump in my seat. “He burst into flames and smashed into the trees! That was my tenth official victory -- I was now a Kanone.” A Kanone. The outdated German term meaning “ace.”
Repeating facts I had long ago committed to memory, Father said, “Your uncle is one of the best pilots Germany ever produced, Hans. He shot down sixty-two aircraft. Only Richthofen beat his score, but he’s not around to make the claim.”
While Uncle Ernst tried to look modest, I studied these veterans of the Great War. My uncle had been a pursuit pilot under the command of von Richthofen. Father had been an aircraft mechanic for another front line squadron. I felt more honor in being told their war stories than I'd experienced in the previous fifteen years of my life.
“Things were simpler in the old days, before the Nazis came on the scene,” Uncle Ernst said.
At mention of Nazis, Father’s expression grew serious. “I don’t trust those thugs. The best one can say is that Hitler talks of reviving the military.”
Uncle Ernst toyed with his watch. “It’s more than just talk, Klaus. You know I attended the Cleveland Air Races. It was Goering’s idea -- I was to learn something about the state of American aviation.” Uncle Ernst looked to me. “Hermann Goering took over command of my squadron after von Richthofen was killed, Hans. Goering may have shot down twenty-two aircraft then, but now he’s nothing more than a bloated politician.” He turned back to Father. “Goering has finally talked me into joining the new Air Service, which is to be called the Luftwaffe.”
“That’s a violation of the Versailles Treaty.”
“I don’t think Hitler is going to concern himself with legalities when he comes to power. And mark my words, Hitler will come to power.” Uncle Ernst scratched his chin thoughtfully. “Unfortunately, it seems as though that’s the only way I will fly again in Germany.”
“Why can’t you fly here?” I asked.
“The treaty that ended the war restricted us from flying anything other than gliders. I need more stimulation than a glider provides,” Uncle Ernst smiled. “That’s why I barnstorm around Europe in the Flamingo.” Straightening in his chair, he unconsciously smoothed his coat. “According to Goering, Germany will soon possess the mightiest air force in the world. As an Old Eagle, I am to become one of the first generals.”
Father sprang to attention beside the oven, shouting, “Herr General!”
“At ease, Sergeant,” Uncle Ernst laughed, then continued in a more serious vein. “I have reservations about serving the Nazis, though. You’re right about Hitler.”
“What else could you expect of a former Army corporal?” my father joshed.
“Nothing more. But I would hope for better from the German people. My old squadron mate, Isaac Weiss, used to shrug and say, ‘Buy a goose.’ It’s an old Jewish saying, something like, ‘What can you do?’ I’m afraid Germany is buying a flock of Nazi geese.”
“Tell me about the air races, Uncle!” I interrupted, impatient to hear more about flying.
“Like I said, Hans, I was sent to America to observe their latest aircraft. I found Americans to be a friendly, outgoing people.” He winked at me. “They make some good liquor, too.
“They had a mixed bag of airplanes. Oddly enough, their civil aircraft were faster than the military planes. But the ships that really caught my eye were the dive-bombers. Mein Gott, dive bombing looked like fun!”
“I know you, Ernst. You just like to fly low and fast,” my father said.
“I do love a good buzz job.” My uncle laughed. “I fast-talked the Curtiss people into letting me try out the F11 Goshawk. They forgot to remove the practice bomb from it, though, and figuring that it shouldn’t go to waste I did what comes naturally.
“I took off and climbed to three thousand feet. Rolling over, I pointed the nose almost straight down -- I watched the target grow large very quickly in my bombsight. At the last second, I hit the bomb release and jerked the stick back into my stomach. I bellied out of the dive less than ten feet over the ground. I swear I could hear the crowd gasp, even with the engine and slipstream noise loud in my ear. I banked vertically around, cut the throttle, side-slipped the excess speed away and hit a three-point landing.” Uncle Ernst chuckled. “Those Curtiss people looked mighty worried at the way I treated their baby.”
“Did you hit the target?” I asked.
“Funny thing, in the excitement of flying that new plane I almost forgot about having dropped the dummy bomb. I strolled over to the target, with the Curtiss representatives close on my heels. They nearly fell over when they saw a hit clean through the center. For that matter, so did I.”
“What did they say?”
“Before or after I told them that their plane flew well and I’d take two?”
We all laughed.
“Actually, I wasn’t joking. I brought two export versions back with me in crates.” He prophesized, “The dive-bomber will become the most potent weapon in our arsenal.”
Thus did my irreverent uncle nurture my love of aviation and my political views, in 1932.