Research? Research? Let me show you kids what research really looks like.
July 1944 Brandis Germany
Movie magazine pages lifted and fell in the breeze, spread out on the young man's belly as he dozed in a beach chair. His hand dangled down almost brushing the tarcmac of the airstrip with his nails. Next to his hand was a thick china mug of real coffee, with the butt of a cigarette, one of the rare ones still made with actual tobacco floating there like an insect. These special gifts were available only to the most elite pilots, an unspoken consideration to the doomed.
The air raid siren always began as a low growl, an animal coming awake, and by seconds rose into a devil howl of hysteria. The man's eyes popped open with a start, heart racing, waking from dream into nightmare. He was out of the chair in an instant, sweating in his green khaki flight suit in the summer shade. Like a fireman he jammed his feet into the thick flying boots next to the beach chair and buckled them as the radio man kicked open the door of the radio shack with a walking cane.
"Alaarmstart!" He ran out onto the tarmac waving a tear sheet, hobbling gamely like a three legged dog. The radio man had been a flyer on the eastern front. His wings had been broken during a scrap with with a flight of Soviet Ilyushin Stormoviks, when he'd had his right knee shot off for him by a couple of point fives.
Boot buckles latched. Flight suit buttoned. The radio man shoved the tear sheet into his hand. He glanced over his shoulder, and already Feldwebel Zeigler had the ladder up against the cockpit and was slamming the latch shut at the wing root after checking the ammunition belt. The young man glanced over the tear sheet. Four engined bombers. Dick Autos. Sheisse! The Ammies and a shit load of them. Maybe two hundred. Fighter escort. Probably those damnned little Mustangs that carry enough fuel and bullets to fly to the fucking moon and back. 28,000 feet. North by northeast, 45 degrees as the crow flies. Got it.
The little plane was small enough to fit into his mother's dining room, with space left over for guests. But the wings were enormous. It was all wing, with a fat squat body, as though a big penguin had gotten the notion to try to flap its flippers and fly instead of swim. On the nose of the plane was a tiny ridiculous propellar, like a cartoon airplane. Important visitors and new pilots looked at the propellar with amazement and it was big joke to try to convince them that its little six inch blades powered this, the fastest air craft ever made. A plane so fast, it killed more of its pilots than the enemy, mostly by explosion and fire.
The young man grabbed his parachute pack from Zeigler and slipped his arms through the straps, adjusting the length so that the pack reached exactly to his knees. He clambered up the ladder and over the side, stood in the cockpit and adjusted the pack so that he could sit down on it like a soft seat cushion.
"She's a good kite, Herr Leutnant," said Zeigler, "it's just the damn wing cannons. The belt motor jams if you hold the tit down too long. Short bursts, that's the way."
The young man threw the safety harness straps over his shoulders and buckled them into a saucer sized disc. The harness lock is unlatched with one hand, by pressing this disc hard with the heel of the palm and twisting down, counterclockwise. He's practiced this with both hands obsessively for hours. He knows someday he'll have to do this motion perfectly on the first attempt, probably at a moment when he will be bleeding from gunshot wounds that will have broken his bones, while the cockpit will be filling up with flames and poisonous chemical smoke. Even if he sees the war through alive, for all his life he'll be escaping that burning cockpit in his dreams, punching at his chest, waking his family in the night with his screams.
He grabbed his chemical proof gloves off the dash and pulled them on. Zeigler's head popped up over the edge of the cockpit with his helmet. While Zeigler jammed the fabric helmet down over the young man's head and adjusted it to get the earphones centered over his ears, the man did his instrument check. He twisted a small black knob under the Revi 16B gunsight clockwise, and a bright yellow dot of light appeared on the thick wall of armoured glass ahead of him. The gunsight is connected to a gyroscope that compensates for target lead. It was hard to see through the glass directly, which made enemy planes look like fish in a fishbowl. Usually he has to peer over the top of it. The gunsight was working. When the time came it'd be useless anyway. You knew what you're doing or you didn't.
A glance at the fuel gauges showed both fuel tanks had been filled. The tanks were situated on each side of the cockpit by his ankles. The right tank had methyl alchohol which burned so bright and clean the flame was invisible. The left tank was ninety percent pure hydrogen peroxide. If you got it on your bare skin it would turn your flesh into jelly.
Zeigler grabbed the radio jack dangling on a cable from the helmet, and plugged it into a port on the lower right portion of the dash next the fuel guage. The young man stuffed his feet under the straps of the rudder pedals and shuffled his boots up and down. "Rudder!" he yelled. Zeigler looked up and saw the tail rudder wave left and right. "Check." Because of the thick armour plate behind the seat, the man couldn't see his own rudder or anything behind him, including anyone coming up to kill him. He waved the control stick forward and back. Elevons waved up and down together near the wing roots. He moved the stick left and right, The long ailerons see-sawed up and down in tandem.
Zeigler handed him his oxygen mask and he fastened it over his face and plugged the pipe into a nozzle a few inches to the right of the radio jack and gave the gas knob a twist. The cool ozone scented air began to flow, a winter smell like fresh fallen snow. He turned up the volume on the Fug 25A radio set and his ears filled with static. "Systems check." he said into the mask.
"Squirrel one cleared." shouted the voice in his ears. The earphones were made loud, because in less than a minute it would be impossible to hear anything.
"Jahvohl!" yelled Zeigler and slapped his face. "Du Scheißkerl - Gute Jagen!" Good hunting you poor bastard.
There was this man he'd seen. A half blinded burn victim being lead by a nurse. It was at the railroad station when he went that time to visit Gretta's parents. The man was dressed in the blue gray wool of the Luftwaffe. His face was wrapped in bandages and peering out were red eyes like bomb craters. A flyer. Only a pilot or a tank man would be burned that particular way. Since then he'd been thinking of carrying a pistol in his flight jacket. If things came to it, it was better than ending up like that.
Zeigler slammed down the canopy, and the young man knocked the latches shut with his fists. Zeigler took the ladder away and ran towards the radio shack, as the young man reached down to his lower left and took a black knob on a quadrant, lifted it and placed it in the first stop. There was a gurgle on both sides of the cockpit, like toilets flushing. Reaching over his left knee he pushed a small black button on the dash and held it until it stayed. He pressed himself back in the seat, his heart racing.
There was a hellish bang! The seat back jolted into him as though he'd been kicked from behind. The fat bird hopped over the wooden blocks that had held the wheels and toddled forward like an infant. The tarmac moved slowly as though he were riding a bicycle, Suddenly it began to speed up. In seconds it was racing by in a blur, bouncing him in his seat like a galloping horse. He reached over with his left hand, holding the control stick for dear life with his right, lifted and dropped the quandrant into second stop. The braying racketing hiss of the rocket rose like a banshee wail as the fat bird hopped and jolted over the air strip. The bomb craters had been filled in by the women's corp (our latest wonder weapon? he thought) but last nights rain had settled some of the dirt fill so the craters had sunken slightly and become dangerous. If the trolly snagged the edge of one of those holes, he'd be gone in a flash like a magician's trick.
Until now he didn't notice it but he was shaking all over. Had to stop that. The nerves this little beast can get going in you. Air Marshall Goering, that fat bastard. Calling the fighters cowards, so that General Galland tore off his knight's cross and threw it at him. Sonovabitch! They didn't have viermots like these Americans have back in Fattie's day on the western front. Touch as shit. You shoot them to pieces and they keep chugging along like its nothing. The old fat man with his soft hands and high scolding voice has no idea of the kind of terror a man has to fight down to fling himself at one of those big whores when there's nine machine guns on each one, all pointing back at you.
The airspeed needle showed 60 kilometers per hour. Then ninety. Almost there. He reached left again, lifted the throttle quandrant and dropped in the last stop. Here we go boys - balls to the wall and eyes bugging out of your head. He could feel it through the rudder pedals and the stick, straining against the earth, like a great lead footed goose skipping across the water, trying to become a thing of the air again . One hundred and twenty kilometers. Right elbow braced across the knee to keep the grip on the stick steady. He pulled back gently with the control stick. It was a fine plane, it didn't take much. It practically read his mind once it got going. The bucking stopped and calmed as the trolley wheels left the ground. The altitude needle quivered and lifted but just barely. Fifteen feet, twenty feet. Thirty feet off the ground now. He reached down with the left hand, and yanked the lever next to the quandrant by his left knee all the way up and gently, and just a touch forward on the stick to prevent a sudden stall. A weight dropped and the bird gave a excited jump as it began to rise. The trolley had cleared and was dancing gaily across the field. He leveled off the stick and watched the airspeed. One hundred ninety kilometers.
He pulled the stick all the way back, almost pressing it into his balls. The plane tipped onto its back, and the green summer fields turned into blue sky as he rose on a screaming tower of fire.
He flipped the safety switch at the top of the control stick over with his thumbnail. A pair of green lights lit up the dashboard next to the gunsight. The wing cannons were armed. Hope Zeigler got the ammunition belt tight this time. Jesus Christ. Over there near the horizon were vapor trails in the high atmosphere, stretching across the sky like ghostly fingers, 45 degrees eastward on the dash compass. Now two other columns of fire were rising behind him, those would be Kelbe and Vollman. "Squirrel one, this is squirrel one, squirrel one to ground. Commencing first attack run." In two minutes, no more, he'd flash through the viermots like a shark at over six hundred miles an hour, cannons blazing.
In 1994 I was living in New York and working as a photographer. There was a computer in the office and a lot of down time. Like most people, my early entrance into computers was through games, and there was a game in particular I dearly loved. Published by Lucasfilms, this was a WWII combat flight simulation game called "Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe" or SWOTL to it's fans. It's pretty primitive by today's standards, but at the time it was state of the art. The fighter planes were based on historically accurate but obscure planes developed by the Germans during the last years of WWII which most people even today have never heard of. There was the Dornier Arrow, a fast fighter with engines on both the nose and the tail. There was the Horten Flying Wing, a huge jet powered boomerang shaped craft that could have become become the Nazi's intercontinental bomber dropping bombs on New York city. Most important of the wonder weapons was the Messerschmitt 262, the first operational jet engined fighter fielded in combat. But of SWOTL's planes, the one which most caught my heart was the squat, elegant Messerschmitt 163 "Komet".
The Komet was the first - and only - rocket powered plane fielded in combat. It went from standing still to the height of Mount Everest is less than five minutes. Fighter pilots flew in unpreassurized cabins at speeds of close to seven hundred miles an hour. It killed more of its own pilots than it did of the enemy.
In 1994 I had a notion I would try to write a book for young readers to bring to life the history of this Indiana Jone's wonder weapon and the men who flew it. So far at least, I've never finished this book, but I found out something about doing research - it gives you an excuse to talk to really interesting people who'd otherwise have nothing to do with you.
I studied all the books I could on the Komet. There weren't many. There were two men in particular I wanted to meet. One was Rudi Opitz, the test pilot who flew the Komet on the island of Peenemunde in its early development. The other was Wolfgang Spate, the commander of the Komet squadrons, and a renowned Jagdwaffe ace. I won't go into a lot of details, but over time I tracked Rudi Opitz to a small town in Connecticut.
Wolfgang Spate had written a book called "Top Secret Bird". Through the publisher I received his mailing address. The old pilots from the war were dying out fast, but he was still around. I couldn't be sure if he spoke English and I didn't speak German. In 1994 the Internet was barely out of the academic world and still very primitive to work with. I learned from my brother about IRC chat groups and found one that specialized in German language. I sent out a message asking for bilingual German and English speakers and got an answer from a kid in Switzerland. I sent him my letter to Spate and he sent it back translated into German. I typed it up and I was off.
What about the old legends of the knights of the air? About chivalry in combat? "No!" he wrote, with great feeling. "Tell your readers war is the worst thing that can ever happen. In the beginning of the air war over Britain, when we were young warriors, Air Marshall Goering came to review a squadron I was in. 'What do you think men', he said 'they are saying we should not let an enemy survive when he has jumped from his plane. Should we shoot him as he comes down by parachute?' To a man we shouted 'No! That is not combat but murder to kill an already defeated foe.' It went against our warrior honor. He seemed pleased with that. But as the war collapsed around us things changed. I was leading a group on the eastern front. In the village two girls were machine gun strafed by an American in a mustang fighter while they were only gathering potatoes in a field. The whole town was in grief for them. The next week we were in a dogfight with a fighter escort and one of my men had to abandon his plane. As he came down by parachute a British fighter killed him. We gathered around the dead body, still in his parachute shrouds. Every man in my group was outraged at the deed. The very next day we were in a dogfight with a group of British spitfires. I shot one to pieces and the pilot jumped. I wheeled my Focke-wulfe around and put a cannon shell through him as he came down by parachute and felt nothing. That is war. You must understand this. Make your young readers understand this. The purpose of war is not chivalry or mercy. The object of combat is to kill, to murder the enemy any way you can. If you fail to kill him out of mercy, he will come back and kill you. He will come back and kill your friend. Never forget that. It is a cruel and monstrous business. You must lose some of your humanity to survive in combat. Never forget that."
There was a point, he said, when they knew they were going to lose the war. The war ended differently for Opitz and Spate, the way they described it to me.
In 1945, when it was clear the Komet would be a failure, Spate was transferred to a new group that was forming. It was stationed in Brandenburg and it had a wonder weapon also. The group was lead by the General of the Jagdwaffe, regarded by air historians as the greatest of all fighter pilots - Adolf Galland. The group was composed almost entirely of Germany's surviving elite aces, almost all of them to a man decorated with the Knights Cross. Between them all, they had accounted for more than a thousand allied planes. They flew the Messerschmitt 262, the world's first operational jet fighter. This was Jagdverband 44, the infamous "Mutineer" squadron. Galland and the cream of the Luftwaffe had been caught in a conspiracy to take over the Luftwaffe and change its direction by any means neccessary - including the death of Goering. Expert pilots were too rare to simply have shot anymore, so they had been assigned to JV44, the pilot's equivelent of a death camp.
Over time, Galland was shot down. Fuel and bullets dried up. The Americans were coming. Spate said he ended the war by simply packing a backpack, pulling up his lederhosen, pointing himself in the direction of home and walking. He walked off the airfield with a song and a whistle, and simply kept walking until days later he reached his family home.
For Rudi Opitz the war ended more dramatically. He had been leading Komet Geschwader 7 on the eastern front against the advancing Russians. One afternoon one of his pilots had cut his flight short and returned to the field complaining his rocket had cut out halfway to position. Opitz had the Me163 refueled and took it up. Sure enough, halfway to operational height the warning alarms came on. He cut the engine and began his glide down with half full tanks.
He realised he would never make the air field. He had to make a dead stick landing where ever he could find one. A farmer's field loomed up as he came down fast. He steered towards the barest patch and hit hard. The rocket plane skidded through the bean vines, smashing through a rail fence that sheared off the wings and came up hard against a stone wall. Opitz threw open the cockpit and jumped. A bewildered farmer was running up to see what the hell was going on, as Opitz ran for his life, waving him away. The plane exploded in a fireball. The blast threw him against the stone wall, breaking most of his bones.
A week later as he was laying in a body cast in a military hospital, an American army Colonel came to his hospital bed with a clipboard and some forms. "I require the formal surrender of your operations group, sir." Opitz, shrugged, or tried to. Why not. He signed the surrender and the man w ent away. The officer returned later with an offer Opitz couldn't refuse. The American Army Air Corps had an interest in his rocket planes. He could come to Ameria and teach them all about them, or he could go to a prison camp while his back ground was investigated for any possibility of war crimes. This was an offer being made to airmen and scientists all over Germany.
Opitz married the pretty nurse who took care of him in the hospital and together they went to America, where he taught the Americans everything he knew about about rocket planes. Elements of the Me163 later became fundamental to the United States X Planes program, which pioneered the way for the space shuttle. Later in life, he became a test pilot for Sikorsky helicopters and started a reknowned national gliding club for young people. He taught gliding to young Americans for decades until the end of his days.
that's what research looks like, baby.