It seemed to Viv as if it had always been inevitable. A trip to Germany. In mid-May of 1939, the time was fairly good. Hitler and Mussollini were getting palsy, and nothing would happen until they cemented their alliance. Besides, the invitation to Ivan had come, not from official sources, but from Ernst Udet in his capacity as private citizen and friend. Ivan said, “I’ve made sure. We’re not going to be the Lindberghs. We’re not meeting Goering, or any other high-ups, and we’re not being given any medals. We just stay a couple of days with Ernst in his cottage at the experimental depot at Rechlin and meet some pilots.”
“Do I get to fly a 109?”
“Definitely not! It’s a hot tricky plane, and even an expert pilot can get killed on the first take-off. I’ve insisted on that with Ernst. However, in order to make that up to you, we may be able to arrange a visit with Hanna Reitsch.”
Hanna Reitsch was the world’s most famous aviatrix, more than Amelia Earhart or the British Amy Johnson. Apart from setting many records, both in gliders and powered aircraft, she was a foremost test pilot, and had barely survived the sorts of mishaps to be expected with experimental aircraft. Virtually everyone in Germany knew who she was, as did many elsewhere.
By contrast, Viv was known only in what amounted to the inner circles of military aviation. Indeed, because of the Communist connection, she wanted to keep it so. However, according to Ivan, Hanna knew of Viv and wanted to meet her. The trouble was that Hanna was just recovering from a scarlet fever which had triggered an extreme and unusual form of arthritis. She was in great pain, and, since the doctors hardly knew what to expect, the meeting might not be possible.
Ivan further explained that Ernst was close to Hanna, virtually regarding her as a daughter. However, there was now a certain tension between them. Hanna had wanted to go to Spain, but Ernst, in his high Luftwaffe position, had blocked it. As Ivan said, “He’s treating her much as I’m treating you. If you do meet her, that may come up.”
At Berlin, they took a different train to get to Rechlin. Ernst was at the little station to meet them, and Viv had forgotten how short he was. But she recognized the energy and the bounce.
It was a pretty place in a flat district of lakes and woods, and the town reminded Viv of Suippes, the French village she had just left. However, by the time that they had had dinner at a restaurant and stopped for a drink afterwards, Viv was aware of the vast difference. Despite the language, she felt as if she were in America. She remarked on this, and Ernst replied, “Yes. Germany and America are alike. The rest of the world, including England and France, is very different.”
Part of it was the egalitarian jocularity in the streets. When a policeman came through, there were catcalls from the men working in a garage, and he responded in kind. Everything seemed relaxed and humorous. But, of course, there was Hitler and the Nazis.
Udet himself didn’t seem at all a Nazi type. Concerning Goering, he said, “I didn’t like him when he was my squadron commander in the war. I think he also inflated his victory claims. However, we were civil to one another, and our common interests have thrown us together.”
He then laughed and, addressing Viv, said, “You and I also have a common interest, the Curtiss Hawk.”
Viv wasn’t surprised that Udet knew of her activities in France. She already knew that there were no secrets in the aviation world, and asked his opinion of the Hawk.
“That’s a bit complicated. I first came across the Hawk 65, the biplane version, in America. Some six years ago, I asked Goering to get me two of them. He agreed if I would join the Party. I was as non-political as ever, but I wanted the planes and got them.”
“Were you pleased?”
“Yes. Having flown one in America, I was impressed with its strength and stability. I didn’t think that it was, or would be, a great fighter. But I thought, correctly as it turned out, that it would make a very good dive-bomber.”
Viv already knew about the dive-bombing demonstration Udet had put on with his Hawk in front of the aviation notables. The conclusion had been that the good results depended too much on Udet’s skill and nerve in just barely managing the low level pull-out, and that the average pilot wouldn’t be able to do the same. However, the principle had been proven, and had led to the design and production of the work-horse Stuka dive bombers. Viv said, “As you know, the monoplane 75s are a development of the biplane 65s, and they probably do have most of the same flying characteristics. I haven’t tried dive-bombing with one.”
“I wouldn’t recommend it. The extra speed would be a detriment, and you might not be able to pull out in time. But what do you think of it as a fighter?”
The answer was sensitive in one way, but obvious in another. Viv could only shrug and spread her hands. Udet laughed again, and said, “You reportedly did very well in your trial against a Spitfire.”
Viv hadn’t known that he knew about that, and replied,
“I think male aviators are worse gossips than women ever were.”
Udet admitted it cheerfully, and Ivan put in, “Ernst, we all know what Viv can do, so her performances have to be regarded as atypical in the same way yours are.”
“Yes, maam, it would be interesting to see what you could do with one of Willy’s creations, but your father has been insistent on that point.”
“Willy doesn’t often come here, does he, Ernst?
“No. Only for certain tests. He otherwise stays in Bavaria. Which is just as well. I try to keep him apart from Milch, but, since Goering has made me, too, an official and a bureaucrat, I have to be careful for my own position. You’re lucky in being rich and not having to answer to anyone.”
“Yes. It’s been a long time since I actually worked for Sikorsky.”
“The great Eye-Eye. I bet he’s working on something!”
“Of course, helicopters continue to fascinate him. Before too long, people will be landing them on their roof-tops.”
“I hope not in my lifetime. Anyway, I come here to escape from Berlin and do some flying.”
“How is your flying?”
“Probably like yours. I can still do stunts, but I’m not what I was twenty years ago.”
“I don’t think anyone our age is, as far as combat.”
“We have one man, Johannes Fink, who was a pilot in the war and still leads a medium bomber geschwader, but that’s hardly the same.”
“I’ve heard that you even wanted to have the Heinkel and Dornier medium bombers dive-bomb.”
Laughing, Udet replied, “I did, but I wasn’t taken seriously. Fink won’t have to dive-bomb Buckingham Palace in his HE 111.”
When they were later alone in the little flat that had been reserved for them, Viv said to Ivan, “It’s so funny when you people get together. You seem to forget that there’s a war coming on, much less that we’re likely to be on opposite sides.”
“The main thing is that Ernst has been, and still is, a great aviator. He’s a loyal German, but he hardly cares who leads the country. After the war, if we’re still alive, he’ll have drinks with us.”
“And he’ll have a lot of new stories to tell.”
The next morning, they went to the pilots’ lounge at the airfield. This was really the point. They wouldn’t learn much that they didn’t already know by watching l09s take off and land, but they wanted to know what sorts of men the pilots were.
It began with Viv being introduced to the young man she had, most famously, shot down in Spain. However, there was a lot of winking and suppressed laughter, and Viv, being gracious, was pretty sure that he wasn’t the one. The man had, indeed, parachuted to safety. However, even if he was still alive, they probably wouldn’t have known who shot him down.
A lot of the men spoke English fairly well, and one, somewhat older, pilot said of the 109, “In a sense, it’s overpowered with the new engine. The take-off is a wild ride, and you don’t really feel in control until you’ve reached a certain speed. But, then, you feel as if you could shoot down anything.”
Ivan replied, “All the fighters will eventually be like that. Every designer will be squeezing heavier and more powerful engines into slightly modified airframes.”
It was pointed out that cooling the glycol for the liquid-cooled engines was already a problem, the result being that it wouldn’t be possible to run the engines at full power for very long. Just bursts in combat. Viv responded, “There’s no problem with the Curtiss Hawks I’ve been flying. The air-cooled engines don’t run fast enough to get very hot.”
Surprisingly, a man named Hans had been a civilian pilot in China, flying an export version of the Hawk against the Japanese. Since Germany was in an alliance with Japan, this wasn’t something he wanted to advertize. However, everyone present was an aviator, and there were a few chuckles. Hans said, “The Japanese fighters are amazingly light and maneuverable. You can get behind one, and then have it dart completely out of sight.”
Viv asked, “How did you manage with the Hawk?”
“I didn’t get shot down. I was faster, and they were very lightly armed. I felt fairly safe.”
The Japanese fighter was described as having an open cockpit and fixed landing gear, rather like an American P-26, but probably half the weight. It sounded to Viv as if attacking one would be like trying to shoot down a butterfly or hummingbird.
When they went outside to watch the flying, Ivan joked with Udet about the incident with the French General Vuillemin. At one point, Ernst said, “I wanted to be beside him, so that I could see his reaction. But the only little two-seaters we had here had one man behind the other. So we had to borrow a private plane. Of course, the whole thing was originally Hermann’s idea.”
“You and Goering have at least one thing in common. You’re both jokesters.”
“Yes. Perhaps not so much else. I’ve just recently been flying with the Italians.”
“What are they like?”
“Not terribly good. Some are puffed-up and over-confident.”
Looking at Viv, he added, “It’s lucky for them that they didn’t have any run-ins with your daughter.”
The next morning was the most exciting part for Viv, the visit to Hanna Reitsch. She was still in the infirmary at Rechlin, in great pain, and sometimes drowsy from the drugs being given her. However, when they entered her room, she was sitting up in bed her eyes sparkling. She looked as if she might ignore her pain and jump out of bed at any moment. Ernst did the translating, but she spoke so quickly that he had trouble keeping up.
They started with the sort of conversation about flying and airplanes that one would have expected, but, at a certain point, Hanna banished Ivan and Ernst, asking for a particular nurse. It turned out that the nurse was a good friend, and could also interpret, almost as well as Ernst. When she was sure the men were gone, she asked Viv, “How did you get them to let you fly in combat?”
“It was mostly because they were Russian. I was sent to their squadron as a nurse because I speak Russian, and they had no medical personnel at all. So I played an important role.”
“But, still, there’s quite a jump from nurse to fighter pilot. Even if they did come to trust you.”
“It was an odd thing that happened. The squadron commander’s dog was hit by a car, and I saved her life. At least, he thought that I did. After that, we talked a lot, and I told him about my flying. It turned out that there’s a vast organization of women pilots in the Soviet Union, some actually in the VVS, the air force. So he wasn’t too surprised at that.”
“I begin to see.”
“Yes. I happened to be at the airfield one day when he landed an I-15 and taxied up. The engine was still running when I asked casually if I could take her up. He hesitated only a minute, and waved me to the plane.”
“And, then, as they were watching, you showed what you could do.”
“It was easy with the biplane. I mostly did standard aerobatics, but close to the ground, perhaps scaring them a little. After that, it was accepted for me to fly the planes, including the I-16s. The other pilots more or less enlisted me in patrols without any objections from the commander. It seemed that they felt a little safer if they had me flying on their wings.”
Hanna laughed, at the same time seeming to wince from a sudden pain. After a moment, she said, “If only I can make them realize that I can protect them, they’ll let me fly.”
Hanna then closed her eyes, and the nurse, with a gesture, indicated to Viv that it was time to leave. Outside, Ivan and Ernst, almost at once, asked Viv what Hanna had said to her. Viv refused to tell them.