Manny wanted nothing more than to be a pilot, but it just didn’t seem to be in the cards. How he managed to get his wings and become one of the most famous pilots in history is a story that deserves to be remembered.
Manny was 22 years old when World War I began. Eager to be assigned to the fledgling air service, he was bitterly disappointed when he found himself in support services. There, he worked to deliver messages, handle the telephone, or keep track of inventory. He wanted something more exciting — particularly something with wings. He filed for a transfer and wrote on the application, “I have not gone to war in order to collect cheese and eggs, but for another purpose.”
Finally, in May 1915, Manny got his chance. He was transferred to the air service as an on-flight observer while he worked on training to be a pilot. After five months of hard work, he got his first opportunity for a solo flight on October 10, 1915. The experience did not exactly go without a hitch. In Manny’s words,
One fine evening my teacher, Zeumer, told me: “Now go and fly by yourself.” I must say I felt like replying, “I am afraid” But this is a word which should never be used by a man who defends his country. Therefore, whether I liked it or not, I had to make the best of it and get into my machine.
Zeumer explained to me once more every movement in theory. I scarcely listened to his explanations for I was firmly convinced that I should forget half of what he was telling me.
I started the machine. The aeroplane went at the prescribed speed, and I could not help noticing that I was actually flying. After all, I did not feel timorous but rather elated. I did not care for anything. I should not have been frightened no matter what happened. With contempt of death I made a large curve to the left, stopped the machine near a tree, exactly where I had been ordered to, and looked forward to see what would happen.
Now came the most difficult thing, the landing. I remembered exactly what movements I had to make. I acted mechanically and the machine moved quite differently from what I had expected. I lost my balance, made some wrong movements, stood on my head and I succeeded in converting my aeroplane into a battered schoolbus. I was very sad, looked at the damage which I had done to the machine, which after all was not very great, and had to suffer from other people’s jokes.
He refused to be defeated, however. Despite a disastrous first solo flight, he got back in the air and worked hard to refine his flying skills. On Christmas Day, 1915, he received the long-awaited gift of being officially designated as a pilot in the air service.
After three months of wartime flying, he logged his first kill in March 1916 in a battle over Verdun, France. That was only the beginning. Over the next two years, he was credited with 80 air combat victories and was awarded the highest military honor at that time, the Pour le Merite, also known as the “Blue Max.”
Curiously, despite being awarded the “Blue Max,” it was another color with which he would forever be associated. While other pilots wanted their planes to be nondescript and difficult for enemy gunners to target, Manny took the opposite approach. He painted his Albatros D.III the most audacious color of red that he could find, letting everyone know that the man who crashed his first solo was not afraid to fly. In fact, he was the one who should be feared.
It was because of that color that the world remembers Manny, not as a failed, would-be flyer, but as one of the greatest pilots the world has ever known: Manfred von Richthofen — the Red Baron.
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