Friday, September 22, 2006


At left is Eddie Rickenbacker, America's "Ace of Aces" in The Great War. Eddie knocked down 26 enemy aircraft in combat over France. He wasn't quite as prolific a warrior as Manfred Von Richthofen who had 80 confirmed kills, notching 20 of them in April 1917 alone. But unlike the Red Baron, Eddie never became a number himself, which given the risks involved was quite an achievement.

I got to thinking about "aces" the other day as I watched the trailer for the new WWI flying epic "Flyboys." I certainly want to go see it, but I am not sure whether mrs. rdr will let me take the youngest rdr to a PG-13 movie. Which would really be too bad, since, like their father and his father before him, both of my boys have a passion for combat aircraft. I have Microsoft's Combat Flight Simulator versions 2 & 3 on the computer, and my son and I fight over the joystick. I don't know of too many other nine year-olds that can explain why the Folke-Wulf FW-190 was a far superior fighter to the Messerschmitt Bf-109 or the difficulty involved with landing a Vought F4U Corsair on a carrier deck. We trek down to NAS Oceana every year for the air show (the Blue Angels are only part of an all-day speed fest) where he reels off the names of the various aircraft that whizz by as if he'd been flying them his whole life. I have to pull him away from the History Channel when "Wings" is on. He's got the bug.

But he doesn't quite grasp World War I aircraft. The idea that a man would climb into a cloth-covered kite on bicycle wheels and engage in close combat at top speeds of 60 miles an hour, without a parachute, is beyond his reach. It's often beyond mine.

My father instilled in me his own appreciation of WWI aircraft. His earliest drawings (he was an artist) were of biplanes locked in mortal combat, soaring and diving for advantage - or escape. He would tell me stories of the great aces and their planes, and of the chivalry that shone in these "Knights of the Air." By the time I was 10 my notebooks were covered with drawings of Spads and Fokker Dr-1's spiraling in the air. I had the bug.

In 1966, the movie "The Blue Max" appeared and my father immediately set out for the theater with me and my brother in tow. Movies weren't rated in those days, so my mother never knew that Ursula Andress was going to get all cozy with George Peppard (my brother and I called her "Ursula UNdress" for years afterwards), and we were too young to follow the plot much. But the planes. Oh the planes! To see them fly at last!

It wouldn't be until the advent of the VCR that I would be able to watch Howard Hughes magnificently filmed "Hell's Angels" or the Oscar-winning silent film "Wings" and to finally understand how my father came to so adore those early heroes. Even the campy "Dawn Patrol"found a willing audience in me. Anything to watch those planes fly.

There aren't any "aces" anymore, it seems. The "dogfight" has given way to stand-off weapons that will destroy your enemy far over the horizon. And this is a good thing. But I cherish that magnificent spirit and courage that was glimpsed, ever so briefly, above the wreck and barbarism of trench warfare.

So now, 40 years after my first glimpse of a Fokker Tri-plane in full float, "Flyboys" is calling me.
And I will go. And I will take my boy. And he will understand.

UPDATE: mrs. rdr was aghast that I even thought that she would disapprove of me taking Danny to see"Flyboys." How dumb am I?


Anonymous said...

Ursula Undress?!

We usta call her that in my college days! Wasn't she in "Thunderball", too?

If you ever make it out to the unwashed hinterlands of Ohio and happen to find your way into my home town of Dayton, make your way out to the Air Force Museum. They have a tremendous collection of restored fighters from WWI and WWII,and onwards. Really a great way to pass a day. I've only been there about 30 times. You go from the Wright "B" Flyer to an SR-71, and F-22, and everything in between. Restored Spad VII's, Sopwith Camel, Sopwith Pups, De Haviland DH4's (the "Jenny"), FW-190's, Mitsubishi A-6M (the Zero,one of only a few still in existence), a Mk VIII Supermarine Spitfire (same). In my humble opinion, it far surpasses the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum (which has some really unique exhibits, too.

-Don Brouhaha

camojack said...

If I'm not mistaken, Eddie Rickenbacker was the guy who took out the "Red Baron".

My brother just bought a biplane; he offered to take me up in it a few weekends ago, but then the wind conditions weren't to his liking.

Actually, I just had my first flying lesson this past Wednesday...

Cassandra said...

I just had my first flying lesson this past Wednesday.


That's the only reason I had any money saved up when we got married (I was only nineteen). I was saving up for flying lessons. I had about $1200 saved up - I was almost there... :)

Enjoy, camo. The Unit says it's a lot of fun.

spd rdr said...

Don: The Dayton museum sounds like a winner. But don't dis the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum until you've visited its Udvar-Hazy facility out by Dulles Airport. It's unbelievable. Check out what's on display. Another one of my favorites is the National Museum of Naval Aviation at NAS Pensacola. It's smaller, but very well done (it too has a A6M-2B Zero). At the Virginia Aviation Museum here in Richmond, we just added one of the last F-14 Tomcats to our burgeoning collection. God help me, I do love to see these things.

What, riding two wheelers not dangerous enough for you? Now I have to worry about you falling out of the sky? I'm jealous.

Anonymous said...

You can start a cyber vist to the USAF Museum (the largest aircraft museum in the world, according to one blurb) at:

"The early years, 1903 - 1920"

Camo, the Red Baron was apparently killed by groundfire. Eddie Ricketybacker was nowhere near around when he went down. A reproduction of Eddie's plane, in the "Hat in the Ring" squadron is at the Air Force Museum.

-Don Brouhaha

spd rdr said...

Yeah, the controversy over whether Capt. Brown, RAF, or some Aussie ground gunners knocked the Baron out of the sky has never been resolved. Eddie would have appreciated the shot at him, but he settled for racing at Indy and starting Eastern Airlines. Tough.

camojack said...

The best part of my flying lesson deal is, since it's my brother Bill's plane, and my other brother (Darryl?) Rich is a flight instructor...I only have to buy the gas.

spd rdr:
We have a saying, my brothers and I:
"If it isn't dangerous, it's no good."

Don Brouhaha:
Ground fire, eh? Thanks for enlightening me on that...

benning said...

I've always thought that "The Blue Max" had the most beautiful aerial photography ever. The flying was wonderful, and the cameras seemed to always capture everything perfectly. I wonder how the Computer Graphics will look in the new film. Will it look as good as the "Blue Max" did? Or will it have that slightly unreal quality?

My school books tended to be filled with Fokker D-7s and Sopwith Camels. A daydream I often had in school was to fly a Fokker Triplane along I-95, strafing the traffic with ping-pong balls. I had too much daydreaming time, I think!

Let us know how you like the film.

benning said...

Camo: PBS showed a look at the whole "Who Dunnit". Roy Brown eventually claimed the kill, but the wounds to Von Richtofen came from below and in front, and Brown was above and behind him. The Aussies had some powerful rifles for just such an occasion.

Anonymous said...

Ooh! Ooh! Spd look! A new reader, Benning! Your insect status is rising!

-Don Brouhaha

camojack said...

After Don told me der Red Baron was kilt by ground fire, I went und read up on it further...

Cassandra said...

Well that is a good deal, camo. I wish you many hours of happy flying.

Anonymous said...

...And Camo, one more thing; don't fly over trigger happy Aussies! :)

-Don Brouhaha

camojack said...

Cassandra :
Thanks! Yeah, I can't think of a much better deal; just had my second lesson yesterday, and there wasn't as much of a crosswind, so Bubba Rich let me land...hard.

As a matter of fact, my brother used to have a plane painted like a Fokker Triplane, but without so many wings...

Cassandra said...

I'll never forget when my husband was learning to land jets. We all got dressed up (I had this killer sundress I'd made that was... ummm... well, low-cut is probably the best way to describe it, and 1940s-style, and bright jade green - besides red, my best color).

We drove out to the landing strip and his instructor put me right next to the landing ball and handed me the mike, and as he was coming in for a landing, had me lean into the ball so as to highlight my err... assets... and breathe into the mike "Roger ball, baby..." in my best Marilyn Monroe voice.

My husband is a pretty calm and collected guy but it was pretty funny to watch the wings rock. Let's just say it wasn't one of his smoother landings. I paid - big time - later on. I'm surprised we don't have THREE children :D

Good times. Almost as good as the party where I got to ride a motorcycle *inside* a house... but that's another story. Pilots. Sheesh.

camojack said...

I love it!!!

As for riding a motorcycle inside, every time I arrive on my Harley at the Military-Industrial Complex and one of the big doors is open to the aircraft factory...I am oh, so tempted. Being on 3rd shift, I could prob'ly get away with it, too...