Reno Air Races 2015


I live in Sacramento, California and am much blessed to be only two and half hours from Reno, Nevada.  I am blessed because it is a short (and beautiful) trip from where I live to reach the Reno Air Races.  I don’t go every year, I try to pace myself, but for me it is a day completely dedicated to enjoying all things aviation.  Part of the enjoyment is knowing that when I am there I am surrounded by people with the same interest.

The first air race in the United States was held in Dominguez Field in  Los Angeles, California in 1910.  Pilots Roy Knabenshue and Charles Willard, picked Southern California for their winter aerial demonstrations base and persuaded railroad magnate Henry Huntington to pledge $50,000 for the event.  43 planes entered , 16 showed up.  My grandfather lived in Los Angeles at that time and was 12 years old.  When I was growing up he told me that he used to sell ice cream at airshows.  I am pretty sure he was there.


In 1921 the United States instituted National Air Meets which eventually became the National Air Races.  These races lasted until 1949.  The Cleveland Air Races were considered the marquee event in the circuit.1929 Cleve

cleaveland air races

In 1964, Bill Stead, a Nevada rancher and pilot organized the first Reno Air Races at a small dirt strip called the Sky Ranch located between Sparks, Nevada and Pyramid Lake.  It eventually moved to the Reno Stead Airport and has been there ever since.

If you want to get a sense of how simple this early event was take a look at the opening few minutes of this video.

For me the Reno Air show started with a two hour drive in the dark over the top of Donner Summit in the dark.  Considering Sacramento is at 0 Elevation and Donner Summit is at 7,000 feet, it is a long drive up the hill and a hurtling coast down the hill into the town of Truckee.  In daytime the summit is majestic.


I usually get there about a half hour before the gate opens ( around 6:30 am) but I am never first in line.  There are twenty or thirty people already in line when I got there with their folding chairs, blankets and packed lunches, stomping their feet trying to stay warm. It’s about 45 degrees and I am wondering why I only brought a light jacket.  Most of them know each other and they make small talk (all aviation) while they wait for the sun to come up and the gates to open. The gentleman next to me drove in from Colorado and attends every day of the event.  He has a matching Reno Air Show hat, jacket, shirt and wristwatch.  Another women brags about being the first women in the line and greets friends and strangers alike as they arrive.  The gates open and the small talk stops, everyone walks in quickly to set up their chairs, smiling from ear to ear.

The sights and sounds are always entertaining.  Combustion engines sputter and pop in the background while vendors set up their merchandise.   There are plenty of handsome aircraft on display.  This year they had a number of restored Japanese planes because of a Pearl Harbor commemorative flight.  There was also an immaculately restored B-25 with Russian markings because in its history it was sold to Russia and eventually brought back to the states and restored.


To be honest it is the little things that catch my eye.  The stuffed bear in a planes cowling, the leather jacket and pilots goggles sitting on a planes wings, the beautiful leather interiors of some of the classic restored aircraft  (and some interesting decorations on a few of the planes).


The heart and soul of the Reno Air Races are the races themselves.  If you buy a pit pass you can wander through the pit areas.  Families and sponsors have set up large tents and shade structures anchored by large trailers.  They decorate their pit areas with t-shirts and caps with logos for their planes.  As heats come up, planes are towed out to the airfield to form up and are returned after their heat.  You can hear the CB radios broadcasting the comms between the pace planes and race controllers as the heats are launched. Mechanics make final adjustments to the engines to get them ready for their races. Sometimes the pace is frantic if they need to make last minute repairs.  Most of them are more than happy to talk about their planes and what they are doing.   When race time approaches the tents are bustling with people.  The picture below with folding chairs under the blue tarp is from the “Sawbones” website.  During races the roof of their trailer was full of people cheering their pilot on.

Pic6The races themselves are fascinating.  There are a number of classes of aircraft that race from ultralight biplanes to heavily modified classic aircraft.  After the planes have taken off, a pace plane takes the flyers outside the course and gets them lined up for the race.  Once released they come roaring in from the south over the bleachers and the race starts.  Each class runs a slightly different course ( see below) and do a series of laps around pylons depending on the size and class of plane.  My brother-in-law came along this year since he lives near Reno.  He has a reputation for being willing to ask strangers questions about what they do and today was no exception.  We had had worked our way over to the pit area and were watching the last heat of the day for the Unlimited Class in front of the “Sawbones” pit area.  He turned around in the middle of the race and asked some folks in the pit a number of questions to understand what was at stake for these racing teams.

What is your strategy?…..To survive until Sunday! Other planes are faster than ours, head to head we would get beat every time,  so you just try to hold your position in each qualifying heat.  You push hard on Saturday to try and get the best field position you can.  On Sunday you do your best and keep your fingers crossed in hopes that the bigger more customized planes have a bad day or engine problems so you can move up in the standings when they fall back.  

How many events do your race a year?….Only one, this is it.  It is the only remaining Air Race event in the country.

What are the rules in the Unlimited Class?….Simple, there are only three rules. First, the plane can weigh no more than 6,000 pounds.  Second it  must have a propeller.  Third it must have a combustion engine with pistons.  That’s it!

Is this a money making venture?….On a good year it is a break-even venture, most years it loses money.   You have to have sponsors who are passionate about aviation and a large group of volunteers who work all year ( for free) to get to this one event.


After the final heat, we went back to pick up our gear and head to the car.  The chatter among the people on the sidewalk was all about planes and engines and things they saw during the event.  I suppose what drew people to the air races in Los Angeles in 1910, Cleveland in 1929 and Reno in 2015 have not changed too much.  The fascination with flight has been with us since the Wright Brothers proved it could be done back in 1903.

I take a slightly different route home that takes me right by the North Shore of Lake Tahoe, making for some pretty stunning views.  I pull out to take a few more pictures of the scenery before I head home.

I can tell I am already looking forward to attending next time!










Pictures to go with the words….

I am not an accomplished artist, or a writer or a photographer…but my theory with Rupp’s Skizzenbuch is that neither was he… so how bad can I do?

If the exhibits in his sketchbook connect emotionally and are immersive than I think the project will be successful.   I know where I am going on the writing and sketching but have struggled a bit with the photography.  This is not the History Channel, I don’t have an extensive historical archive to pull from and I don’t want to find old images and “pretend” they are from Bruno Stachel’s archive.  This exhibits are simulations of reality and the photo’s should be simulations as well.

I am experimenting using the mission builder in Rise of Flight as a way to model scenes and create images that I can use both as a resource for sketching and possible “faux” photographs.  Made some good progress this weekend and the results look promising.

Here is the “inside the cockpit” view looking at the Beauvin Aerodrome that I started with.

1 -Orig Cockpit

I made a second screen shot from outside the aircraft.  Keep in mind that the mission builder has limitations, so some things in this image are just wrong for the storyline.  The river is too wide. Too many buildings at the Aerodrome.  No north / south road following the train track. Distracting textures on the fields southeast of the Aerodrome.

2 -Orig Field

I took this image into Photoshop Elements and modified the image to clean it up.  I made the river narrow and more natural.  I brushed out the textures at the Aerodrome field.  I added the north / south road and adjusted the direction of the fields on the horizon to align with the road.  Most of it involved using the cloning tool and “painting” out offending objects or textures.  I also spliced out the sky and added my own photograph of a cloudy morning in Sacramento.  Not perfect, but an interesting experiment.  The river was the most successful.

3 -Field View Edited

Now the fun part….I wanted to be able to compose the Aerodrome image dramatically inside the cockpit and not be limited by whatever screenshot I could get in the game environment.   I also wanted the cockpit to be more in silhouette, so I created a “green screen” background, cropping out the Aerodrome.  It makes a very crisp image to play with.

4 - Cockpit No land

Now the cockpit and the Aerodrome are on different layers and can be rotated around and tuned separately.

5- Close to final

It makes a nice image, the environment is more accurate with the story line and the view is dynamic.  But it still looks like a screenshot from a flight sim.

Researched online for techniques to make vintage photos from current era photos in Photoshop Elements.  I used multiple techniques to blurr the image, add a “glow” to the foreground objects, fade the edges and found a nice bordered vintage photo paper to place the image on top off.

6-TestVintage Pic

Now clearly I am not fooling anyone.  This does not duplicate the authenticity of a vintage photograph from the 1900’s.  In the end I think it’s better that it doesn’t.  The goal is to build up simulated “authentic” images that connect the dots in the story line.  I hope to be able to collage images from multiple resources.  In the image below, you get a sense how rich this can be when it is all pulled together.

Now all I need is a smoldering cigar and a shot of scotch…will work on that for next time!

7-Final Book


Filming “On Location” with The Blue Max Project

When a film director is researching his next big film one of the key tasks is hunting for the right location to film at.  If the movie is based on a book or a historical event, the challenge is convincing movie-goers that they “got it right”  by finding the perfect location.

On a humbler scale, I face the same challenge with Rupp’s Skizzenbuch.  Fan’s of Jack Hunter’s novel  “The Blue Max” have their own mental image of what the story looks like.   Rupp fills his skizzenbuch with sketches and photographs and I have to create images that are believable to a reader of the novel.

You use the tools you have and one tool I have is the Rise of Flight (ROF) mission builder from 777’s fine World War I flight sim.  The mission builder is based on historically accurate maps from The Great War.   You can customize the environment by choosing locations, setting the  weather and placing objects on the map.  When you’re done, you can fly the sim in the setting you helped create. I thought I would send my virtual “Production Crew” into the flight sim to see how close I could get to recreating Bruno Stachel’s first Aerodrome, Jasta 77 located at Beauvin.

We started with the game map.  At the beginning of the book Oberleutnant Kettering orients the new officer Bruno Stachel on the location of the various Jastas.  His description is detailed enough that we were able to find most of the aerodromes on the ROF map.   Bruno’s home base was located next to a small farm village called Beauvin.  This is a fictional aerodrome so we used some artistic freedom on its location and configuration.  The quotes on the map are from the novel.


The Production Crew scouted the  3D map in their virtual helicopter looking for an appropriate location to build the Aerodrome.   We were looking for an intersection of a north-south railroad with an east-west road near a river.  We found just what we were looking for and sent down the Stage Crew  to start constructing the village.  There are limitations of course.   My Creative Director was not happy with some of the compromises ( he is a kind of fussy person)…. the river was a little large, the north-south train track was there, but not the north-south road, a few too many buildings at the Aerodrome.  My Technical Director was not concerned at all.  He knew the Special Effects Team could clean that up in post-production.  Here is the map with quotes from the novel’s descriptions that it is based on.

2-Whole Base_c

One of the challenges in making films about WWI aviation is getting functional aircraft that are historically accurate.  In the Sim World my Technical Director was very happy since we have unlimited aircraft that fly well and are wonderfully rendered.  You can also design your own skins for the aircraft and I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge my squadmate WWDubya who designed the skin on the DFW in the videos below.  Jasta 77 is described as having a “paper strength” of eighteen with twelve active pilots.  We stocked the aerodrome with eighteen aircraft made up of Pfalz’s,  Albatros fighters and a few DFW two seaters for recon and bombing assignments.


The wonderful thing about a 3D model is you can zoom around to any location and take screenshots from different vantage points.  When an Architect designs a building mentally he or she tends to have an image of the design in thier head, likely from a few vantage points. When you have a 3D model you can explore to find views you never considered.  There are a number of locations at this site that are key to the story line of “The Blue Max”.  The bridge where Stachel saves a school girl, the row of poplar trees to the south of the aerodrome that Stachel crashes through, the Officers Mess in the old house on the main street… and most importantly the abandoned factory on the west end of town where Rupp witnesses Stachel’s cruel murder of Von Klugerman when he forces his plane into the side of the chimney.  I sent the Sketch Artists down to walk the streets and start story boarding for the Skizzenbuch.  They were very pleased and where careful not to fall into the river when they had too much to drink ( perhaps the Officer’s Mess was bit too accurately modelled!).


No film production is complete without some drama and we had our share.  It culminated with the Creative Director (CD) and Technical Director (TD) attempting to fly a circuit around the town we had just created to make a short video for the Studio Execs.   The CD was doing the filming and the TD was the pilot so it sounded like a perfect pairing right? It was a classic conflict of artistic vision versus practical reality.  If you notice in the video the wind sock is almost completely horizontal. The mission builder ( me ) got a little out of hand with the wind modelling and it was whipping along at 4 meter’s per second going from west to east.  This is historically accurate ( but perhaps a tad too strong)  as the Entente flyers fought the wind on the way back from their flights into Germany.

The CD insisted that they fly due south and come back over the Aerodrome heading north for landing.  He thought it would be the best view for filming.  Considering the crosswind, the TD argued against it, but the CD insisted. In the first take-off attempt  that west wind lifted one wing up, forcing the other into the grass and they crashed.  Five tries, five crashes.  Finally the TD got the knack of leaning on the right rudder and tilting down on the right aileron to counter the tipping and managed to get air born.  Unfortunately the next four planes were destroyed in the landing..  By the ninth try the TD was fuming and we were losing daylight.  Thankfully the CD was knocked unconscious in the last failed landing and his Best Boy took over.  Calmer heads prevailed and the tenth try they took off heading east and landed into the wind heading west.


The take-off went well enough, but the Technical Director came in a bit hot for the landing. Put it away nicely in the hanger though (just short a few wings).

Finally on the 11th try as the sun set we got the video we were looking for (we will edit out that last rough part of the landing before we send it on to Hollywood).

Those Studio Exec’s are an impatient bunch so it is good we finished. Hopefully they will approve so the project can go into full production.






Share the Passion


My first recollection of World War I aviation must have been Snoopy on top of his dog house, chasing the Red Baron.  I remember my brother and I covering the bulletin board with sketches of the Peanuts characters, sure that we would be first in line when Charles Shultz retired.  We always got balsa wood glider airplanes in our stockings at Christmas and I was thrilled one year when they were biplanes with German and English military symbols on the wings. My father had a leather flying cap when he was a young boy and somehow it found its way into my bottom dresser drawer.  The cap was the key part of my costume when I dressed up for Halloween as a WWI Flying Ace, complete with an itchy glued-on mustache and a vinyl faux-leather flying jacket.  These memories are a bit faded now, and somewhat second hand regarding aviation history…. but for others that connection was much more direct.

Earlier this month I made a vacation trip to Canada and visited a friend whose grandfather flew as a rear gunner in a Bristol Fighter.  His grandfather thrilled him as a young man with his stories about the dogfights and near misses he experienced during the Great War.  Those conversations sparked an interest in aviation that stayed with him for the rest of his life and impacted his whole family.

Jack Hunter describes how his interest in aviation started when his mother took him to the movie theater to see “Wings”.  He was captivated by Hollywood’s version of the aces of the Great War. Movies were the spark for Mr. Hunter that led to model making, learning the German language, service during World War II and eventually writing of the book, “The Blue Max”.

On the same trip I visited the Museum of Flight in Seattle.  Seattle is the home of Boeing Aircraft and it is clearly an aviation town.  The parking lot was already bustling when the Museum opened at 10:00 am.  I saw some guests acting as informal tour guides, unloading all their knowledge to their friends (and strangers) as they passed through the museum.

On the floor dedicated to World War I aviation they show films in a small “building inside a building” that was designed to look like an old French barn, complete with exposed rafters, floor rugs and wooden bench seats.  A documentary was running about the aces of World War I.  My wife and I went in to find a seat in the darkened theater and I noticed a young boy who had left his family to get a front row seat for the film.  His face was lit up by the light reflecting off the screen and he was completely still as he watched.  With his mother’s permission I took a few pictures.

These days we are deluged with so much information that in some ways the information itself has become devalued.  It goes by fast and is replaced quickly by the next bright shiny thing.  History starts with the first generation, the people who were actually there sharing what they experienced at the time.  After that it takes people like you and I that have become passionate about a topic or an era and use that incredible access to information we are blessed with to dive deeper into the research.   We can share that passion many different ways.  Schultz drew cartoons, Jack Hunter wrote a book, others build models or paint pictures or sing songs.

The important thing is having the passion and sharing it with others.  The young boy’s quiet moment in the theater didn’t last too long.  I saw him later running around the museum with his arms raised like wings, flying from exhibit to exhibit, while his mother struggled to catch up with him.

He was on his way…who knows where he will end up.



Of Maps, Mud and Bones

Been working on an “artifact” for Gerhardt Rupp’s Skizzenbuch.  I wanted to create a map of the region where Jasta 77 was assigned during the events of Jack Hunter’s novel  “The Blue Max”.   I wanted the map to be one that Rupp drew by hand and is found folded up inside his sketchbook.  Here is a historical example.


I also wanted the map to be more than that.  I want the sketches and artifacts to be expressive of Rupp’s attitude towards the war and the world around him.  In the novel Rupp is not a good man.  He gathers the “dirt” on his squad mates to use for his own advantage.  The Captain and others use Rupp for getting things done outside of the rules. Rupp is surrounded my men who want to use the war to make them powerful or famous. Rupp does not see war as something you use, he sees it as something you survive.  He sees no heroes or villains in the war, only death.  His sole goal is his own survival and he will do anything to save himself.   I want his sketches to reflect that.

I’m not done with the map yet, but the journey has already been interesting.


I started with a cropped image of the map from the “Rise of Flight”  World War 1 flight sim. This is a high res image with layers for cities, airfields, roads, train tracks, forests, canals and of course the front and No Man’s Land.


My plan was to delete information to simplify the map and than turn all the layers to almost completely transparent to use as a sketch guide.  I added layers to replace fonts with the handwriting font I use in the Skizzenbuch so it looks like Rupp did the writing.  I added symbols for the Jastas and then printed the original on 11 x17 paper.  From there everything would be drafted by hand in ink.  Fold it, iron it, age it with tea or coffee and be well on my way to a map artifact.  I’m not going to publish the final since it is still a work in progress, but you can get a glimpse of how my test worked out in the image of the map folded up in the brown paper pocket above.

While working on this what I was stuck on was No Man’s Land.  This map used a gray hatched area for the battlefield.


Trench warfare is what defined World War 1.  Men marching into trenches, artillery was directed from the air to target those same men and they were pounded constantly.  Men die, more men are marched in, the lines move forward, the lines move back.  Over and over again all in the same area on the map.  The ground was churned up by constant bombardment creating a surreal landscape that was both battlefield and the burial site for hundreds of thousands of men.  This was not lost on Rupp.  He was a realist about the war and what it had become.  In my mind I could see Rupp, late at night, working on the map and getting lost in the sketch. I started thinking about a graphic for the front that reflected what it really represented and I started experimenting with using skeletons as a hatching pattern….and as happens sometimes, like Rupp, I became lost in the sketch as well.

I started with a Google Images search on skeletons

479814-skeletonAfter a few sketch attempts I remembered that I had an Ipad App by Dan Vulanovic that had a poseable skeleton.  You push and pull arms and legs and create views.

image1 I made multiple poses, saved screen shots and then pasted them together on a sheet in photoshop.

Bones Combined copy

I made the image almost 80% transparent and printed a hard copy at a small scale to sketch on top of.  I was trying to convert these into hand sketches that would be very small.  It was important to have the sketches not be too detailed so they looked like something that could be done at the scale of the map.  The vignettes were fun to do, quick, intuitive.  Almost looked like they were dancing ( I could almost hear the Grateful Dead tunes in the background).


In photoshop I made all the white transparent.  I left the skulls, pelvic area and ribs as solid.  I made this many views figuring I could rotate and flip the images to fill in the hatched area and have them appear as random and different.

Methodically I began stacking bodies, rotating, flipping, fitting them in.  Copy paste, copy paste, copy paste.  Strange things started to happen.  When you place objects on top of each other they stack above or under each other depending on the layer the image is on.  Arms fit under heads, legs crossed torsos. You get a sense of depth.

The sketch began to take on a life of its own.

As I layered the images with the skeletons, I started to slow down and think about what I was drawing.   I have read descriptions of the front, with layers of mud and bones.  Men in the trenches could see the victims of previous battles when they dug in and tried to sleep at night.  Like Rupp, I become a bit lost in the moment.

There are times in creative projects where the idea in your head becomes more than you expected on paper.  For me this was one of those moments.




24 Hours…. a “Day in the Life” of a WW1 Fighter Pilot

Open Cockpit

Clearly I am way late to this dance, but finally picked up the book “Open Cockpit” written in 1969 by Arthur Gould Lee, an Air Vice-Marshall of the RAF who served in World War 1. He is known for several books from that era including “No Parachute”.

The format of the book was not what I expected.  Each chapter reads like a single topic with titles like “Scared”, “Dawn Patrol” and “Ground Strafer”.  Instead of trying to weave together a continuous story about the war, he uses these chapter topics to give vivid detailed descriptions on what he experienced as a fighter pilot during the war.  From rubbing his face with reeking whale oil, to trying to relieve himself on a long patrol at high altitude, he gives you real insight into the early era of military aviation and what the young men experienced who were there.

Chapter Three is titled “Twenty Four Hours”, and in it he  describes a day in his life of an orderly officer (O.O.) in his squadron.  He describes events in order for a twenty four hour period of time with little introduction or explanation.  It was hard to believe what these men went through on a daily basis.

I apologize in advance to Mr. Lee, but I thought I would share a “cliff notes” version of the day that chapter outlines.

4:00 am / Waiting for hard boiled eggs in the mess. On “Standby”, phone rings and alerts us that a German Arty Spotter was seen at 5,000 feet east of Neuve Chapelle.  They want us in the air immediately and send a Crossley to drive us to our planes.

I am angry because I didn’t get breakfast.

4:15 am / In the air, climbing south eastward as the sun breaks. We found the Hun but he saw us coming and retreated before we could get into range.  Outrun by the faster German plane, we circled around and headed north.  I climbed to 10,000 feet and came back around to see if the Hun had returned.  He did and we dived on him again, but this time archie opened up and exposed the sneak attack before we got even close.  The Hun gets away a second time.

5:15 am / Frustrated we fly further north, trying to find something to sneak up on.  Finally we see two L.V.G.’s 700 feet below us coming directly our way.  Two Seaters are tricky and in a pair the rear gunners can be punishing.  We swing to the east to isolate a single plane and make a side attack.  As we swing wide, archie traced our path ruining our surprise.

Suddenly the archie stops….I know what that means.

I look  up to the east and see a swarm of ten Hun scouts in the distance against the clouds.  They are already firing from far away ( must be inexperienced) and we dive towards our lines.  The fighters were Albatros DIII’s and they are gaining rapidly.  Tracer fire is starting to zip over my shoulders.  I look back a second time and balls of white archie open up right in front of them.  Our archie has come to the rescue!   They fly through the archie but the attack is disrupted.  When we reach a 1,000 ft. the enemy planes have pulled off.

We head north, and gradually get back up to 12,000 ft.,  We cloud hop to the east, getting deeper and deeper behind enemy lines.  Find another D.F.W right below us.  My wingman and I dive in on him.  He doesn’t see us so I am patient this time, waiting until I am 200 feet away.  When the plane fills my Aldis I fire in 20 shot bursts.  The startled rear gunner quickly turns and starts firing back at us fiercely.  The D.F.W starts to dive and I pursue him in an almost vertical dive.  I try to keep firing but my gun jams.  I keep one hand on the joystick controlling the dive and  grab the hammer from its leather strap with the other and start wailing on my Vickers to try and break it loose. The Albatros is faster than a Pup and even in a full dive he starts to pull away.  Gun still jammed, I finally pull out.

The standby sorties are usually limited to two hours so we head back to our side of the lines. On the way back with the sun up and massive cumulus cloud cover I get a few minutes of joyous flying. My wingman and I dive and climb, exploring the dark crevices and vertical cliffs of the cloud cover.

6:15 am / I land and pull off my flight gear and report to the office.  The orderly I am to relieve at 8:00 am got called to a go on a standby flight so I have to start my shift now.  I put on my collar and tie and strap on my Sam Brown and head to the Messing tent for the 7:00 am breakfast.

7:00 am / “Tenshun!” by the Sergeant. “Any complaints?” by me.  Dead silence by the men.  “Carry on!” by the Sergeant.  And so it goes.  I have my breakfast, wash and shave. The Sergeant reminds me that it is pay day and that I need to travel to Hinges.

8:30 am / No Crossley available and  Hinges is twenty-five miles to the southwest.  Get a diver to take me in the sidecar of a P.&M. motorcycle.  It is a wild winding ride and I have to lean way out from the sidecar on the turns to keep the wheel on the ground.  I am scared to death, but can’t complain.  Don’t want the driver to think he can scare a fighter pilot that easily.

10:00 am / I survive the double journey and while the corporal clerk went thru the payroll, do the morning inspection of the Aerodrome.  We walk the entire grounds, all the buildings, the latrines, the armory, the petrol store, etc, etc…. testing the fire appliances at every location.

11:00 am / Conduct pay parade in “A” Flight Hanger, surrounded by engines being tuned, guns being tested and planes being taxied to the field.  Just as I finish the Recording Officer comes in and asks that I cover for him while he goes into town for a haircut.  I sit in the office at the desk next to the Major for an hour in complete silence. Not a very social fellow!  I answer the phone several times and don’t have any answers to any of the questions so hand the phone to the silent Major each time.  Finally he gets fed up with me and goes for a walk.

12:00 am / Lunch at the mess, same routine all over again. “Tenshun!”… “Any complaints?”…. Dead silence…”Carry on!”.

A fast lunch of a halfhearted curry and then up in the air again for firing practice to see if the boys were able to fix my machine gun. The jam on my Vickers had been a bad one.  A tracer got stuck at the back of the barrel and than got split by the next round.  I line up on the wooden target in the adjoining field.  The farmers are used to the routine and move off as I approach the ringed target.  The jam was gone and Vickers fired smoothly.

2:00 pm / As I landed at “C” Flight Hanger the flight commander waves me over and tells me to get my guns reloaded, that they need me to fly an escort for a B.E.2e doing an emergency photo recce quite a way over the enemy lines.  They were going to leave in ten minutes.

2:30 pm / We follow the B.E. pilot to the front, flying at an uncomfortably low 5,000 ft. There was a lot of archie and am surprised that the  pilot makes no evasive maneuvers at all, just calmly flies through the explosions.  His indifference to the danger was a sign of someone who had become hardened to the risks and was just trying to complete his assignment.

3:00 pm / Almost 15 miles into German territory at low altitude, I constantly twist my head to the left and right watching for the Hun.  At this altitude we are no match for the Albatros fighters.   The B.E. pilot methodically completes his recon route taking photographs while we circle overhead.   As we head back home, I finally see what I expected all along, four Alabatros fighters to the east, catching up with us fast.  We can not maneuver away because are assignment is to escort the recon plane.  I make ready for a fight, but I know we are done for.  To my astonishment, they Albatros do not level out, but dive right past us and do not come back. No idea why.

3:30 pm / As we approach the lines the archie is punishing.  Seems like half the archie in France is pointed at us, high explosive, shrapnel, flaming onions, the whole lot!   The shells burst so close it pushes my Pup sideways and stings my eyes.  The B.E. pilot continues to fly straight and true, unconcerned about the risks.  As we cross the trenches at 4,000 feet we are clear of the archie and our escort is over.  The B.E. pilot and his gunner waive at us as they head back to their base to the north.  We make it back to our Aerodrome in fine spirits.

What we didn’t know is that the B.E. pilot had been injured by the flak.  He passed out on the way back to his aerodrome, lost control of his airplane clipping the cables on one of our balloons. The airplane dove into the  ground killing the pilot, the gunner and destroying the films.

4:00 pm / We are told that a General is arriving within the hour and to line up in front of our planes.  I don’t know who he is or why he is there.  Exhausted and distracted from the recent flight, I can  hardly put a whole sentence together to greet him.

After the General leaves I go back to the office to work on my next assignment, censoring the airman’s letters.  I hate this job, feel like a peeping tom, so I scan them quickly. Most of the men share very little information about what they are going through.  Just like the B.E. pilot, we keep our plane straight and level and hardly notice  that our lives are constantly in danger.  Hard to write that down.

I got some help from the bored standby pilots and the five us got through them in short order.

5:00 pm / Dinner time… “Tenshun!”. “Any complaints?”. Dead silence. “Carry on!”.

7:00 pm / Finally some time off until Lights Out. I go to the mess for a drink because I figured I deserve it after a hard day’s work.  Before I even got the drink I am interupted. Two new pilots have their first flight in the morning and they want me to take them up for a bit and show them the lines.

7:10 pm  / Back in the air as the sun gets low in the sky.  I take them south towards Arras, well behind our balloon line at about 2,000 ft.  As we turn to head back I notice three scouts about 500 feet above us heading west, must be one of our patrols. I freeze when I recognized the black crosses!  What were these planes doing this far on our side of the line?  As I stare I realize I forgot to tell the new pilots to load their guns before take off. I realize it is too late to sneak away and I wait for the Huns to dive and slaughter us.  To my surprise the Huns drift off to the east.  It is clear that they did not see us at all.  The new boys do not see them either.

When we make it back to the aerodrome I keep the whole incident to myself.  No use getting the new guys all excited before their first real sortie the following day.

8:30 pm / When we reached the Mess the binge is well on.  Since I am on duty as the Orderly I can’t get tipsy.  As the binge winds down I do the rounds for Lights Out.  This is a silly exercise that means the lights turn off as I entered the barracks and quickly came back on as soon as I am out of sight.  I have to walk it again at 11:00 with the sentries before I can go to bed.

12:00 pm / Finally climb into the sleeping bag in the office.  I have to stay dressed because I am on duty.  Shortly after I tuck in I hear the unmistakable deep throb of the Mercedes Engine.  This is nothing new, we have enemy bombers fly over almost every night, but this time there is a sudden roar of exploding bombs and not very far away.  I jump out of bed to make sure the aerodrome is ready for the attack.

Once outside I can see the explosions on the horizon.  One, two, three….the bombs walk there way towards the tarmac.  I can hear the plane’s engines get louder as they fly directly over my head.  With my jaw clenched, I wait for the fourth bomb to hit.  Seconds seem like minutes….but to my relief the fourth bomb never falls and the engine sounds started to fade to the east.  The major calls and I let him know that the aerodrome had not been damaged in the attack.

1:00 am / I finally climbed back into my sleeping bag and immediately fell asleep.



It will seem like seconds when they wake me up again at 4:00 am for my next day’s duties.

Map of Bruno Stachel’s Orientation Flight

One of the things I intend to do is create artifacts inside “Rupp’s Skizzenbuch” including hand drawn maps, reports etc.  To be able to create the hand built maps, I dug into the descriptions in “The Blue Max” to see where the action occurred.  The novel starts in February 1918 and in Chapter 3 Oberleutnant Kettering sits Bruno down and walks thru the maps, describing the Jastas and where they are located, including pointing out where “your friend Richthofen hangs his trousers”.

Bruno’s Jasta is described as being located in a town called Beauvin ( which may or may not be fictional), but all the other towns can be found on historical maps, so based on the description it is pretty easy to guess approximately where Beauvin is located.  Kettering than describes the likely route that Hauptmann Heidemann will take Bruno for his orientation flight scheduled for the next day.

The flight sim Rise of Flight has a downloadable hi res version of their game map that is very well labelled.  I thought I might use this as a basis for my hand drawn map.  I was pleased to find that every town listed in the description was on the map except for Beauvin. The book describes the Aerodrome as being built around a train track and two roads. Conveniently there is a spot right there on the maps as well so that’s were I placed Bruno’s home base.

The result is a treat for fans of the movie and the book who like a little context, a hi-res map with the route of Bruno’s orientation flight in yellow and the location of the different Jastas as described in the book.



Caps, Collars and Cuffs….in Search of the Uniforms of The Blue Max

I am reaching the stage in my project “Rupp’s Skizzenbuch” where I am doing portrait sketches of the key characters in Jack Hunter’s novel “The Blue Max”.  After a bit of experimentation I ended up with a style of sketch I really liked.  Here is what my sketch of Gerhardt Rupp looks like.  Keep in mind that this is his sketchbook and it  is the place he keeps all the dirt on his squadmates.  He is described in the book as “an old campaigner” and a cigar smoker with questionable morals.  The face says “I’m watching you” and “Enter at your own risk” at the same time.  I also switched to a dark walnut brown ink.  All and all very happy with how it looks.

That all being said I realized I did very little research into the uniforms and rank markings on the caps, collars, cuffs etc.  I know I would get hammered by the history buffs if I didn’t dig a little deeper to make sure I got it right.


I have always loved these historical shots of a group of partying WW1 German soldiers, but if you look closely there are many, many variations in the style of the uniforms.


Clearly there are better experts than me and online conversations can get heated on this topic but I thought I would share my research to see if I am close to right.

For the back story…. “The Blue Max” covers from February 1918 thru August 1918.  The squad is referred to as Jasta 77 ( in the sequal book called “The Blood Order”) and is located on the Western Front in a town called Beauvin not too far from Cambrai.  The primary ranks for the lead characters are as follows;

Hauptmann Heidemann…..The Captain of the Jasta and a celebrated Ace

Oberleutnant Kettering….1st Leutnant, highest ranked Lt. and the Adjutant to the Captain

Leutnant Bruno Statchel…Lowest ranked Officer, pretty much the rank of all the Pilots in the story

Unteroffizier Rupp….A Seargent, a non-commissioned officer,  a clerk for the squad ( and a major trouble maker)

I spent the weekend pulling this together, but you could spend months or years.  I relied on several excellent websites and have used some of their images on the pages below.

The Kaiser’s Bunker  ( Thankyou Tony and Kaiser too)

World War 1 – Rank Insignias of WW1  (Great Charts that compare the different ranks)

WW1 Fixed Wing   (probably the best images of the shoulder straps by rank)

Right off the bat, my first error on the sketch of Rupp jumps out.  I gave him a Krätzchen instead of a Schirmmütze.  Pretty sure as an Unteroffizier he would not be wearing the hat the common infantrymen wore.  The other thing that is interesting is the Schirmmütze with the leather strap above the visor.  That is the one Hollywood picked for the movie but it looks a little rare in the pictures I saw.


I found it easier in the end to find pictures of pilots that were identifed by rank, so I could at least check it against the basic information I had.  The number of Pips on the shoulder strap appeared to be the real identifier for most of these


I didn’t see big differences between the Oberleutnants and the Leutnants other than the shoulder straps



If you look back at the group picture a number of the officers had the flying unit patch on their arms.  Many different styles of tunics.  I could not find a lot of information on the collar patches that typically look like a double roman numeral I laying on its side.  Again many variations in color and detail.  Many of the portait shots of famous ace pilots have nothing on their collars.


Kaiser’s Bunker had a great example of an Unteroffizier’s tunic.  This is the lowest rank of the four examples I was chasing and is a non-commissioned officer. The shoulder strap is very simple, sometime with a number and sometimes without.  The collar and cuffs have a dark gray braid,  a steel button on the collar.  I was pleased to see the beard and mustache in the example portrait, he almost looks like my version of Rupp.  Also a much stiffer style of cap.  I plan on re-doing my portrait of Gerhardt Rupp with the appropriate gear on this time!


And finally, thought I might as well include the Hollywood version circa the original “The Blue Max” film.  If you look close, you will notice that Rupp actually has a notebook and pen tucked into his tunic….Wow!!  So maybe I wasn’t that far off the mark for the idea of Rupp having a sketchbook?

Please enjoy and comment.  Basically my goal is at least to make sure my sketches reasonably accurate.


Kaiser Wilhelm II Sketch…Analogue & Digital Duke it out!

I continue to flirt with different media for creating a natural looking sketch style that fits the era of WW1 and feels like something that would end up in a soldier’s sketchbook.  I like to use old photos as a resource and have been trying to use a stylus on an ipad to draw, but for me the results many times becomes a “trace job” which is very sterile looking.  I started with this photograph.


And the first attempt looked like this


It was accurate and tedious to do since the stylus has to be encouraged to follow your hand and eye to a point, but feels more like drafting than sketching.  I love using the stylus for loose sketches, and there are many options for colors and lighting effects, you can do a lot of interesting things graphically.  Great for experimentation, but clearly getting further and further away from something that looks like a sketch done late at night in the barracks by candle light.

one more

The upside of using the stylus is if your subject has complicated shapes ( like an airplane) you can rough out the shapes very quickly and accurately.  So I wanted to experiment using digital tools to find the the image, rough out the shapes but finish it with ink in a more authentic 1900’s style.  Here is how I did it.


Regarding the tools and technique, I used the Intuos Creative Stylus 2 for the digital work and two Noodler Konrad Ink Pens for the analogue (one with a flex nib, the other a fat 1.5, with Noodler’s Black Ink all purchased from the good folks at The Goulet Company). Mixing analogue and digital, a blue tooth narrow tipped sylus with pen and ink that smears on your finger tips seems to appeal to how my brain works.  The Blue Max Project at its roots is simulation based art project, so the mix of digital art and analogue sort of fits.


Using Sketchbook Pro on the Ipad, I composed the photo of the Kaiser, added a frame and than did a very loose trace to get the shapes and details in the right place.  After a few tries decided to keep the face empty and deal with that in ink.



I printed the image on card stock and than inked on top of it, using a hard copy of the photo as a reference.  For me it is key that I work from an image but not on top of it as a trace.  The results are less accurate, but the random , searching part of your brain gets put to work and creates its own result.  To get a darker look I used diluted ink and a sponge to do an ink wash.  Still learning the technique, but ended up way too dark.  I scanned the image and in Photoshop Elements lightened it up and used one filter on it that accented the edges ( yes we now have a media sandwich!!….digital, analogue, digital, the geek in me loves that.).


This was trying to be a portrait, but also a statement.  I am in the middle of reading a few histories of the early months of the war.  The loss of life was tremendous and overwhelming.  The leaders of Germany, France and England all made a series of decisions that resulted in incredible losses of life.  Decided to add a background to Kaiser Wilhelm’s portrait that reflected the results of those decisions.


When you place this in Rupp’s Skizzenbuch it looks like it belongs there.   I have ordered brown ink for my next try at this, sepia tones would be better.  It’s up to you to figure out how much below is digital and how much is analogue, but it really doesn’t matter.   The goal is a final image that is engaging and immersive to support the story telling.  This is getting real close to success!

KaiserV2 copy