The Thirteenth Plane of The Blue Max

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Chilling image.  Where does evil come from?  How did that innocent young man become Hermann Göring the notorious nazi war criminal, the founder of the Gestapo, second in command to Adolf Hitler and the leader of the Luftwaffe in World War II?

Many feel answering that question  is what drove Jack Hunter to write The Blue Max.  He had seen evil first hand during World War II as an American intelligence officer attempting to capture Nazis fleeing Germany at the end of the war. Some feel this novel was his attempt to reconcile what he saw.

Writing a novel in the 1960’s set during World War 1  from the perspective of a flawed and obsessive German fighter pilot was a unique choice to say the least.   The very factual description of the planes and sorties described in the novel still resonate with aviation enthusiasts today.  Fact and fiction intertwine in the novel and never so strongly as in the final chapters of the book where the Thirteenth Plane is introduced.

It is August of 1918 and Hauptmann Heidemann  has invited Bruno Stachel to the air trails in Johannisthal outside Berlin.

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They are slated to fly the Adler D-11 designed by Heinrich Stolz.  Bruno was not too impressed with this prototype fighter.

The Adler offering was a biplane, conventional in appearance except for it cabane and interplane struts, which were of the single “I” configuration that Tony Fokker had used in the outer bay of his 1917 triplane.  Stachel did not like those struts; they seemed flimsy and inadequate for the stress he knew combat flying would generate.  Nor did he approve of the smallish, spade-shaped vertical fin and rudder; he was no engineer, but it was apparent even to him that this component’s area was insufficient to guarantee lateral stability.  As he and Heidemann stood beside the idling machine and listened to the Aircraft Production Directorate’s technical representative explain various features, he became intuitively convinced that the Adler D-11 would prove to be a waste of time for everyone, from its designer to those who would fly it today.

Bruno’s intuition was on the money, in his test flight when the plane went into a spin, the flying wires sagged and the interplane strut moved in its socket.

The Adler, he knew, would kill at any moment.

This discovery lead to one the most dramatic moments in the novel, where Bruno struggles with the good and evil inside himself and initially decides not to tell Heidemann that the plane is flawed.  At the last minute he changes his mind and blocks Heidemann’s route before he takes off to warn him.  This act by Bruno is seen as his salvation, but his past sins and Heidemann’s own weaknesses affect the outcome.  A drunk major at the demonstration spilled a brandy on Bruno’s uniform so he smells of alcohol.  Heidemann is sure Bruno is drunk ( and surely he has been through most of the novel)  and just trying to embarrass him.   Blinded by his own confidence, he waves Bruno away.  Barely 50 meters off the ground disaster strikes.

There was a thundering, and the sun was blotted out by the upper wing, which inexplicably hung above and to one side, billowing and snapping like a wind-torn sheet.  A vicious twanging sounded as the flying wires tore loose, and there was a horrid shrieking.  The horizon began an eccentric whirling, and his head slammed forward against the machine-gun butts.

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Hauptmann Heidemenn was killed as the plane crashed to the ground.  Bruno was selected by the Kogenluft to take his place as the new Hauptmann for his squad.

You won’t find anything about the Adler D-11 in the history of World War I aviation.  It is completely fictional.  The event however is not.  It is commonly believed that the disaster described in these final chapters where based on an actual historical event that intertwines the story of Bruno Stachel with Herman Göring

Wilhelm Reinhard was a 20 victory German ace who became the Commanding Officer of Jasta 6 in November of 1917.  He was promoted to Hauptmann in March 1918. Following the death of Manfred Von Richtohfen in April of the same year, Reinhard assumed command of JG1.  In July 1918, he attended aircraft trials near Adlershof.  Hermann Göring of Jasta 27 also attended the trails.

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Both Wilhelm Reinhard and Hermann Göring were scheduled to fly a radical new airplane at the competition,  the all-metal Dornier Zeppelin D.I  which was one of the first planes of the era with a metal stressed-skin.   The revolutionary Dornier fighter had not passed the official construction and delivery regulations, yet its testing was still permitted.

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Hermann Göring flew the plane first, but it had problems and  was supposed to have been grounded pending structural upgrades.  For reasons unknown, Reinhard was allowed to take the plane up later on during the trails and was killed when the top wing broke free while pulling out of a dive. JG1 had lost its second commander in just five weeks!   Following Reinhard’s death, in July of 1918, Göring was transferred from JG III to JG1 to assume command.  This lineage in JG1 as the second successor of Manfred Von Richtohfen helped Göring build his post war success that put him in a position of power and infamy during World War II

Fact, Fiction…..Fate?  Bruno was so close to salvation, but failed in the end. This failure lead to him accepting his fate as a fundamentally flawed man.  In Goring’s case he used someone else’s tragedy to launch his own infamous career.  What if Göring had flown after Reinhard? How would history have been different?

These two stories mix and blur together in the final chapter of  The Blue Max,  Stachel and Göring  cross paths in a bar where Göring is lecturing a group of men about the future leadership in Germany, foreshadowing the coming of the Nazi regime.  Stachel refers to Göring as “Squareface” and comments to him that he gave “quite a speech”.  Göring responds.

“I fell very deeply about those things.  Germany’s future will be in the hands of men like you and me.”

Stachel raised a finger to the barman.  Giving Squareface his most sincere gaze, he said:

“I’ll drink to that.”

And with that..I add the Thirteenth Plane to my plane set, mixing the fictional Adler D-III with the factual Dornier Zeppelin D.I, their history intertwined much like that of Stachel and Göring.

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