“The First Fighter Pilot”

by Bruce Herzfelder

“Lieutenant Adler was the first pilot ever to hunt down an enemy plane,” Major Langer said in his eulogy. I glanced around at all the people gathered at the funeral. “With nineteen confirmed kills, he was scourge of the heavens over our German-occupied corner of France.”

It was hard to believe that the Major was referring to my son, Ernst Adler. During peacetime, Ernst had joined the Old Saxon aviation club in our small town of Stendal. At age nineteen, he simply liked flying a plane more than riding a motorcycle. “Mother,” he told me, “in the air I feel free, and there are no policemen!” Flying was a lark, until the German Air Corps drafted him when our troops invaded France in August 1914.

After the funeral, the Major visited my home. He wished me well and left behind Ernst’s travel trunk. Beneath the clothes I found a photograph of a handsome young man along with some letters in English. There was also a leather-bound notebook, “Journals of Ernst Adler, April 16, 1915 – July 29, 1915.” The opening pages had fine drawings, from studies of the trenches to panoramas of the battlefield. My son had written the journal entries in Teutonic shorthand that we used at home.


Douai, France, April 16, 1915

Captain Langer has assigned me to reconnaissance flights along the edge of German-occupied territory from here to the French city of Lille, twenty-five miles north, near Belgium. My biplane, built by Luft Verkehrs Gesellshaft, is known as an LVG. It has a rear seat for an observer, and one flew with me on my first mission. He identified enemy trenches as British or French. He also pointed out shell-holes in “no man’s land” between the enemy trenches and our own.

Douai, April 22, 1915

The past few days, on my way to Lille, I’ve flown over Arras on the other side of the front. Arras has an aerodrome, and I saw the same biplane three days in a row. The markings – blue and white rings around a red center – are British, and the pilot wore a crimson scarf.

In the cockpit all pilots look alike. A plane’s airspeed creates a 60 knot wind, so we bundle up in wool under a leather jacket and wear goggles and a leather helmet. Some pilots wear a colored scarf, not only for the warmth, but also for a personal touch.

Douai, April 23, 1915

Douai is comparable to Stendal, but dirtier as one would expect of a French town. Hotels, cafes, and stores are all still open. I bought a scarf in the same shade of yellow as the flag of Old Saxony.

Of course, Douai does not feel like home. The Catholic priest here is incensed because Captain Langer has ordered him to peal French bells after every German victory.

Douai, April 24, 1915

I passed the same British biplane today at close range. It’s a Blériot Experimental that we call a BE, used for reconnaissance. The observer’s seat was empty. The plane tipped its wings, and I waved, but I think too late for the pilot to see me.

Our single-engine planes fly unarmed. A machine-gun on a swivel would shoot wildly and tear apart the plane’s own wings and tail. Mounted ahead of the cockpit, a machine-gun would shoot off the wooden blades of the propeller as neatly as if they were sawn-off. Many pilots carry a pistol, to preserve their honor in case of a landing behind enemy lines, but in the air, we’re about as belligerent as pastry chefs!

Douai, April 27, 1915

On my way back from Béthune, a crosswind blew the plane off course. My wheels landed at an angle to the field and trundled into a pile of manure, causing the plane to flip over. Both the observer and I were left dangling in our straps over horse dung.

Rudolf Werner, another pilot, looked on with glee. His family is Prussian military, whereas mine is Saxon farmer.

Douai, April 28, 1915

Before the war, Rudolf was in the cavalry. It was the most prestigious branch he could join out of cadet school. I shared with Rudolf how tinkering with tractor engines and motorcycles led me first to engineering school, then to the flying club.

As a boy, I never played with toy soldiers. Later I ruled out cadet school. I didn’t want to be bound by the Prussian officer’s etiquette: duels over honor, saber scars on one’s cheeks.

Douai, April 29, 1915

Captain Langer gave me permission to fly on my own, which I prefer. With the armies settled into trench warfare, I simply peek between clouds to check that enemy lines are still in the same place.

After dinner, I shared a gift basket of gingerbread with nuts and fruit. Rudolf teases me, but my late father, like many veterinarians, didn’t eat meat, and my mother raised me on a simple vegetarian diet. No blood sausage in our house! My only weakness is chocolate: I eat it like a trencherman.

Of course, I avoid all alcohol. An airman should abstain.

Douai, April 30, 1915

Today the BE tipped its wings and I did the same. The plane made a long banked turn to come up beside me. The British pilot leaned over, pointed downward, and tilted the nose of his plane into a steep dive. I followed with a fluttery stomach until we both pulled out and I came up next to him. He laughed and waved, then banked away to resume his mission.

All goes well with our squadron: good food, good health, good quarters and plenty to do. We have fresh vegetables and sometimes even Freiberg pretzels.

Douai, May 6, 1915

The past few mornings I’ve stunted with the BE pilot. He started by ascending in spirals, and I followed. Our planes bank and swerve, climb and dive in tandem. Today we turned in a circle with wings perpendicular to the ground and finished with a steep corkscrew.

Airplane exhaust has a distinctive smell. To an airman, the BE leaves a scent like an expensive cologne.

Douai, May 8, 1915

The zeppelin was towed out from its shed and launched. It will join a raiding party to drop bombs on military bases in England. The French have recently adapted large biplanes to carry bombs as well.

In Stendal, I went to dancing school with Laura Brauer. She’s a pushy girl: in today’s letter, Laura ordered me to fly over her house and drop a bomb on her. I wrote to a bakery in Stendal and ordered a chocolate bombe for Mother instead.

Douai, May 10, 1915

Today my BE counterpart banked to face me then whizzed by like a motorcyclist on the opposite side of the road. I expected him to continue on his way, but instead a shadow covered my plane and the BE roared overhead on my exact course. I looked up but the shadow was gone.

The sun dazzled me, and I throttled back while the BE pilot put his plane into a vertical climb, zooming at first until gravity slowed him nearly to a halt. His rudder flicked to the side, and the nose of his plane turned like a weathervane in my direction. After a steep dive, he leveled off to face me once again. When he passed this time, he waved, grinning like a devil.

Douai, May 11, 1915

I practiced reversing course like the BE pilot, using only the rudder without the bother of making a banked turn. Afterwards, I stunted over the aerodrome and performed the rudder turn twice, just as the BE pilot had done. When I landed, my colleagues came out to congratulate me. Captain Langer dubbed my maneuver “the Adler Turn,” and the others cheered. I protested, and gave credit to the BE pilot, but I’m afraid the name will stick.

Douai, May 12, 1915

I wrote a note to the BE pilot and stitched it into a linen bag filled with sand. I also enclosed a photo of myself in flying attire: a pair of velveteen trousers and an old tunic under my leather jacket, the new scarf loose around my neck. Over Arras I buzzed the enemy aerodrome and dropped the bag.

Douai, May 13, 1915

My corporal said that a bag had dropped on our field with a letter for me. When I went into the mess hall to retrieve it, Rudolf said, “A mash note from your boyfriend, Ernst?” I replied, “He’s my B-E friend,” and the fellows had a laugh.

The pilot is Lieutenant Hartley Nichols. He’s from America! He congratulates me on learning the rudder turn and tells me not to worry about the naming of it. My surname means “Eagle” in English, and he’ll be happy if the maneuver becomes known as the Eagle Turn.

Lieutenant Nichols included a photo. He has short blond hair parted on the right, large eyes with fine eyebrows. His posing face is a confident smile. He wore checkered breeches and wrap puttees, a tweed coat and the crimson scarf.

Douai, May 18, 1915

Our squadron received a visit from Anthony Fokker, the airplane manufacturer. I’m in his good books, not only for teaching him the Adler Turn, but also for my habits, because I don’t smoke or drink and I go to church. He let me take a new monoplane for a test flight: it’s faster than any biplane and maneuvers better as well.

Douai, May 19, 1915

Director Fokker learned that I’m an engineer, not a regular soldier. He asked me to go into his factory after the war, starting as his chief pilot and taking an engineer’s job once I have the required experience.

We’re seeing fewer vegetables on our table in the mess hall. Mother sent me tins of asparagus, beans, mushrooms, and spinach to eat privately in my quarters.

Douai, May 24, 1915

Since fog has grounded our squadron, Rudolf and I arranged an entertainment in the mess hall. In cadet school, he excelled on parallel bars. At engineering school, through obstinate practice, I became an acrobat.

In the finale, I did a handstand, my fingers gripping the back of a wooden chair, its legs propped on empty wine bottles. I kicked my feet back and forth, pretending to lose balance, then flipped in a tuck position to the ground.

Captain Langer said it was no surprise that Rudolf and I could do acrobatics in the sky. He referred to our airplane stunting as “aerobatics.”

Douai, May 25, 1915

Rudolf stopped by my quarters and asked if he could share my room, which has an empty bed in it. I told him, “Fine with me!” and he laughed, raising his bristly eyebrows. They match his military crew cut: with dark hairs half an inch long, his head looks like a scrub brush. He is short in stature, with the physique of a gymnast.

Douai, May 31, 1915

Bombing by French planes behind our lines has suspended postal service, a relief in that Laura Brauer was sending me a letter every day. Now my only mail will arrive in bags dropped by Lieutenant Nichols.

Some pilots went dancing on Saturday night. Though I consider myself a graceful dancer, I turned down the invitation to join them. I’d feel disloyal if a French girl asked me to dance with her.

Douai, June 4, 1915

The French are developing a battle-plane. Their prototype made a forced landing behind German lines. The captured pilot is the famous Roland Garros, whose flight across the Mediterranean nearly two years ago inspired me to join the Old Saxon aviation club.

The plane had a machine-gun mounted in front of the cockpit. Some bullets passed through the spinning propeller, while others hit it. A steel wedge fitted to each wooden blade deflected those bullets to the side, but their vibration stressed the engine to failure.

Douai, June 7, 1915

In town I rescued a 14-year old French boy from drowning. The boy was fishing from a bridge and fell into the canal. Villagers treated me to a frothy cup of chocolate and said I deserved the Croix de Guerre, France’s highest military honor! Captain Langer will nominate me for the Saxon Lifesaving Award instead.

Douai, June 10, 1915

Our planes are being outfitted with a wireless telegraph, which signals to the ground via a copper antenna reeled out through the plane’s tail. A spotter will accompany me in my LVG. He’ll direct artillery salvoes by reference to landmarks, like hilltops and steeples, and tell battery commanders how to adjust their shots to hit the target.

One of the lambs was slaughtered today. Poor little lamb – now there are only two left.

Douai, June 12, 1915

My twenty-first birthday! Lieutenant Nichols dropped a bag with a present, a silver traveling watch wrapped in crumpled newspaper inside a carton. His letter said, in closing, “My heartiest congratulations! I shall drink your health in a cup of chocolate. Fondly, Lt. Hartley Nichols.”

Rudolf gave me a vial of cologne, a book on military history, and candied fruit. After dinner, my colleagues opened a bottle of schnapps. “Drink!” they said. “You are a man now!” Not wanting to be rude, I joined them in a round. Like the others, I thumped my empty glass on the table when I finished.

Douai, June 16, 1915

Postal service is still suspended, and I’m running out of tinned vegetables.

In the mess hall, the cooks are serving lamb stew over a base of potatoes. When ladling the stew onto my tray, I have no difficulty leaving behind the meat, especially as it is very fatty. Even so, I do have to put the broth inside of me.

Douai, June 20, 1915

At Mass the French priest spoke in Latin about the peril facing two German mechanics. They were caught in flagrante delicto, in his words. He said the church is unforgiving about the peccatum illud horribile, inter Christianos non nominandum. In my view, attraction is up to the individual and, especially in wartime, the more affection between men, the better. Besides, peccavi.

Douai, June 22, 1915

My spotter is using the wireless telegraph to target artillery fire on enemy positions, and today our German howitzers silenced three French batteries within an hour.  I saw Lieutenant Nichols flying solo but with a spotter aboard I couldn’t take time out for stunting. Lieutenant Nichols and I tipped our wings and continued on our missions.

On its way to the base, a fuel truck ran over three chickens. The cooks served them for dinner in a stew over rice. I ate the stew because I was famished and have no fruit or vegetables left to eat.

Douai, June 24, 1915

Lieutenant Nichols passed below on a heading toward Lille. The rear seat was occupied and behind the BE trailed an antenna. Half an hour later, a bombardment around Lille started up like thunder in the distance. The shells spattered like raindrops bursting into flame.

Douai, June 25, 1915

Lille is a treatment center for wounded soldiers. While waiting for my LVG to be refueled, I walked outside the aerodrome to a triage hospital, unmistakable with its big red cross.

To the left were shell shock cases. A man about my age stared with eyes bulging like yellow onions. Another gave me an antic, toothy smile. To the right were soldiers who have had their limbs blown off. They’re known as “basket cases” because the medics carry them to and fro in baskets.

From above, we airmen don’t see such things. Across enemy lines, no doubt, is a tent like this one, and I share responsibility for the carnage.

Douai, June 27, 1915

Arras was on fire when I flew over it. German artillery has destroyed the cathedral. While the façade is still standing, the roof is gone and the walls of the nave are rubble. In war, nothing is sacred.

I had started a pass over the enemy aerodrome when ribbons of smoke appeared around me. Although the “pom-poms” look charming, they consist of high explosives and shrapnel. I turned and climbed to get out of range. Our Douai base has plans to install anti-aircraft guns as well.

Douai, July 2, 1915

My spotter directed artillery fire onto a French ammunition depot. The result could be measured in columns of smoke rising to 1500 feet.

Lieutenant Nichols flew by and we both tipped our wings, now our only interaction. The pom-poms prevent us from dropping mailbags, and the spotters preclude us from stunting.

Douai, July 7, 1915

On my writing desk I had left the photo of Lieutenant Nichols along with the stack of his letters. Rudolf urged me to throw them away. He said that Captain Langer might inspect our quarters and accuse me of fraternizing with the enemy.

Once alone, I locked the photo and letters in my travel trunk, where I keep this journal. Hatred for the enemy is brewing in our mess hall. Rudolf shares it, but he’s also jealous of Lieutenant Nichols.

Douai, July 12, 1915

Director Fokker has developed a battle-plane. It’s based on the monoplane that I flew in May, but it has a machine-gun mounted ahead of the cockpit. The propeller isn’t armored like the one on the French prototype.

The Crown Prince of Bavaria came to see a demonstration. Director Fokker shot bullets into a stream, launching a series of geysers, then into an old set of wings on an outcropping. Those bullets ricocheted off the rock in all directions, sending everyone – even the Crown Prince – running for shelter in the hangers. All bullets passed through the spinning propeller, which looked as solid as a dinner plate.

Douai, July 13, 1915

Director Fokker took me aside to explain his invention, the interrupter switch. “The obvious thing was to make the propeller shoot the gun, instead of trying to shoot the bullets through the propeller,” he said. A rod attached to the propeller interrupts the machine gun every time a blade passes in front of the barrel.

To test the switch, Director Fokker attached a wooden disk to a propeller. All bullets shot through the disk within a short distance of each other, well out of line with either blade. The flying machine is now a flying machine-gun.

Douai, July 14, 1915

Captain Langer told me I am to have the honor of flying the world’s first battle- plane. Director Fokker assured me that attacking the enemy will be like “shooting a rabbit on the sit.” Since the machine-gun is in front of me, I need only aim the airplane, not the gun. To shoot, I merely press a button on a curved grip attached to the control stick.

I thanked Captain Langer but asked instead to start work right away in Director Fokker’s airplane factory. I said that I would be more useful by improving our airplanes than by flying them. Director Fokker endorsed the idea, and Captain Langer said he would look into it.

Douai, July 15, 1915

The cockpit of the battle-plane is cramped with a box of soldered brass sheet above the pilot’s knees. The box contains a hemp belt with loops that hold 600 bullets.

To start the Fokker, my corporal primes the engine with castor oil then cranks the propeller by hand. At first he over-primed the engine and on takeoff it spewed flames, smoke, and scalding drops of oil back toward the cockpit. I ducked behind the windscreen, and fortunately the fabric of the wings and fuselage did not catch fire. To an airman, the most appalling form of death is to burn up in the cockpit.

Douai, July 16, 1915

Division headquarters has turned down my request to work in the airplane factory:  “Herr Fokker is a civilian and a citizen of the Netherlands, and his employment of a German Ensign could compromise the neutrality of that nation.” It seems a poor excuse considering that the Fokker factory itself is located in Germany, in the city of Schwerin.

Douai, July 17, 1915

At dinner Captain Langer announced my promotion to Lieutenant. Fellow officers hoisted me on their shoulders and carried me around the mess hall. We also drank a bottle of schnapps, now in short supply.

My new rank is feudal. Literally, I’m a “tenant of the place,” although in practice, I’m expected to be a knight of the air.

Douai, July 18, 1915

I flew over the aerodrome to practice shooting a target on the ground. On my first pass I fired thirty rounds and only hit the target twice, but on the last pass I held my line and almost every bullet found the target.

Afterwards Captain Langer cleared me to start hunting missions. I’m still in doubt about the honor. Mother didn’t raise me to gun down someone like “shooting a rabbit on the sit.” My heart says it’s wrong, especially when I think of Lieutenant Nichols.

Douai, July 20, 1915

After stopping in Lille, I had enough fuel to cross Belgium and land in the Netherlands, which accepts refugees, including soldiers, from belligerent countries.  The thought passed quickly because I didn’t have the will to defect.

Halfway back to Douai I saw a biplane in the distance. At first glance it looked like a BE, and I slid the yellow scarf behind my back. On closer inspection the biplane had Iron Cross markings. It was only an LVG from another German squadron.

Upon my return, clouds shrouded the landing field. I found my bearings by flying around chimneys and steeples and safely returned to a gray life on the ground.

Douai, July 23, 1915

Captain Langer chided me because I haven’t yet engaged the enemy. After my friendship with Lieutenant Nichols, I don’t view “the enemy” as an impersonal force. I blamed the delay on Captain Langer’s own rules of engagement, which forbid me from crossing over enemy lines. Captain Langer wants no risk of a forced landing that would expose the secret interrupter switch.

He told me to do my duty and stop acting like a child. As a matter of fact, I’m an only child, and I’ll be happy when I can go home to live with Mother again.

Douai, July 26, 1915

Over the weekend our squadron received another battle-plane, with Rudolf assigned to fly it. After I drilled him on the controls, he made dozens of perfect landings.  The fellows were impressed. He’s also a dead shot with the machine-gun, and Captain Langer has already cleared him to start hunting missions.

Rudolf proposed that we trade assignments, giving him the sector from Douai to Lille. I turned him down, saying that, to avoid crossing the front, we should stay within familiar lines where we’ve been flying for months. I worry that Rudolf seeks to do his duty in an encounter with Lieutenant Nichols.

Douai, July 27, 1915

A biplane made a high pass over the aerodrome at lunchtime. Rudolf saw it from the porch of our quarters, but by the time we got aloft the plane was gone.

Douai, July 28, 1915

About 6 a.m. Rudolf and I woke up to explosions and rushed to the window. A dozen French biplanes, large ones with twin engines, cruised overhead dropping bombs.

Rudolf jumped on his bicycle and whirled off to his plane. I stopped by the mess hall for a bite to eat and then got the other Fokker out of its shed. A single-engine biplane circled high above, no doubt assessing the damage.

The bombers flew west toward Arras with Rudolf in pursuit. I took off and climbed in the same direction, but the bombers had crossed the front. Rudolf flew south on patrol, while I banked a semicircle to return to the aerodrome.

On the horizon was a speck that kept getting larger. It was a biplane leaving a trail of exhaust. It was a BE, with British markings. At our combined speed we closed rapidly: the pilot was flying solo. It was Lieutenant Nichols, wearing his crimson scarf.

From this position, I could turn a few degrees to aim my plane at the nose of the BE. A burst of machine-gun fire would touch off the fuel tank, setting the cockpit ablaze.

Instead, I tilted my wings as if to bank away but continued straight in a half-roll.  Lieutenant Nichols could see only the bottom of my airframe, not the top with its machine-gun. He wouldn’t recognize the Fokker as a battle-plane. In any case, he wouldn’t expect the pilot to be me.

I leveled off and looked over my shoulder. Lieutenant Nichols must have thought someone was hailing him because he tipped his wings back and forth. The morning sun lit up the BE, glinting off the wires between wings of the biplane. We were speeding apart, and I needed to turn around: otherwise Lieutenant Nichols would beat me to the front.

I had never fired a shot in anger, and in truth, I didn’t feel angry, even after the bombing of our aerodrome. Instead, I felt trapped. The Fokker was a cage, and flying a form of captivity. Sweat on my cheeks evaporated in the airstream. My goggles were tight, and moisture around my eyes steamed up the lenses. My legs started cramping: the ammunition box blocked them from stretching. I wanted to unbuckle and get out of my seat, but duty and training held me fast like chains.

I pulled back the stick to begin the Adler Turn – really, the Nichols Turn. My plane nosed up and slowed to a stall. I stamped on the rudder pedal to swing the plane around then shoved the stick to pitch back toward the front.

When I caught up, I positioned the Fokker above and behind the BE, aligned with the sun. If Lieutenant Nichols looked over his shoulder, the light would dazzle him. We were near the front, above German trenches in my sector. I swerved and aimed my plane down at the BE cockpit.

As the Fokker gained speed, I took off my right glove and clutched the control grip. My knuckles turned white in the freezing wind, but I settled my thumb on the trigger button, and pressed it. The black barrel in front of me hammered out a burst – ten bullets per second, each bullet passing between propeller blades and reaching the target in a fraction of a second. I pulled out of my dive, while the BE fell into a tailspin and augered into the ground.

Douai, July 29, 1915

Overnight, scouts in no man’s land came upon the wreck of the BE. Lieutenant Nichols was found dead with four bullets through the back of the head. His brain oozed out of his helmet.

I sat down to write a note saying that Lieutenant Nichols had been buried with honors next to the remains of his plane. His portrait was back on my desk, and my eyes clouded. When the church bells of Douai began tolling my German victory, the tears ran.

My corporal gathered wild asters and wooly thistles. He stitched the flowers and note into a sand-filled bag. To drop it off, I borrowed an LVG and flew to St. Pol, far behind enemy lines, where the aerodrome is still unguarded.

When I got back, Captain Langer invited me to his office to read telegrams of congratulations. From Director Fokker: “BE first machine ever shot down by battle-plane!” From Laura Brauer: “Banner headlines in Stendal!” Mother didn’t send a message, but the Crown Prince of Bavaria invited me to a party at the castle, while a printer offered 200 marks for my photo to put on a postcard.

After dinner the mess hall celebrated with a dessert of chocolate cake. Since the schnapps ran out, we only have local apple brandy, but my corporal kept our glasses full. The brandy picked up my spirits. It was past evening taps when Rudolf toasted me as a hero: “First blood!” Captain Langer announced that I had won Germany’s highest military honor – the Iron Cross, First Class – and everybody cheered.