I am Oberleutnant Heini Opitz of Test-Commando 16 and this is not a war story. It's the story of a lunatic revolution-the inmates with Bedlam's keys-and the boys all call me Pitz.
We fly (fly? ride!) the Messerschmitt 163, the first manned rocket-powered aircraft, the first aircraft in the world to exceed a thousand kilometers an hour in level flight, and in statistical terms the most dangerous aircraft ever built in a series. We sit in these squat fireworks with wings and are skyrocketed upwards eight thousand meters in under a minute to bring down the Allied bombers. Mostly we bring down ourselves.
(We move at such speeds that they can barely touch us with their defensive fire, and we have little more success shooting at them.) The emblem of our fighter wing is an escutcheon depicting a jet-propelled silhouette of a flea, bracketed by the inscription Like a flea-but oho! We strap ourselves in and lock down the canopies and plug our helmets'R/T leads into the radios and give our thumbs up, and before we ignite the witches' cauldrons behind our rear ends we shout as loudly as we can into our masks, “Climb aboard the mighty flea!”
Our field controllers know to pull away their earphones at the last minute. It's a tradition. We've been doing it for weeks.
On our nose shield we have a little emblem of Baron Munchhausen riding his cannonball.
We are all good Germans but we've stopped caring about the war. They'll bomb Leipzig flat or they won't; either way we'll be tearing their engines out by the roots with our cannons.
If anything ever goes right. Either way we go up and come down, skidding and bouncing and exploding across our grassy airstrip. Either way we lose two pilots and four aircraft per week. Either way sense has long since abandoned us.
Our aircraft's designation is Komet, which suggests that someone in Aircraft Development at Messerschmitt A.G. still has some wit: sorties, and careers, with the thing tend to be nasty, brutish and short. Wörndl-who received his certificate in philosophy from Heidelberg-says they should have named it the Hobbes.
Diffidence, timorousness and timidity. Bad hygiene. Paltry thoughts. Stupidity. The inability to think. As a boy in Aschau I was a real one-legged duck. I was prim. I lacked the masculine touches. I hoarded recipes.
I imagined girls as the way out. I did at the age of twelve induce one to touch me, but she only did so with a stick.
Afterwards she reported the incident to her friends.
Wörndl became my friend out of pity, he says. He called me Baby Bird when he first watched me dismount from the step of the train car at the Bad Zwischenahn station. Apparently there was something insufficiently masculine about the care I was taking to avoid the mud with my shoes. He called Ziegler Toffee and myself Baby Bird when announcing himself as our ride to the airfield. He was my rank and I raised my arm as if to give him the back of my hand and he pushed me down. There was no passenger door on the truck, and when trying to find my posting orders at the main gate I fell out of the seat.
His bunk was below mine and when I set my kit on his blanket for a moment while emptying my duffel, he pitched it out the window.
I pitched the rest of my duffel after it, and he laughed.
He had a boxer's flattened nose and wide ears and an exaggeratedly wide head. “You know what they say about big ears,” I said, apropos of nothing, and he laughed again, while going about his business.
Gradually I learned about him from the other fellows.
No one is sure why he's still an Oberleutnant. He's at least three years older than everyone else. He told us one night in the mess that he was involved in rocket development back when it was so secret that people would joke that documents were stamped To Be Burned Before Reading.
Every unit needs a certain number of matter-of-fact, heavy-lidded types who never complain. The day after I arrived he put a Stummel-Habichts glider into the ground on a low-level loop right in front of all the assembled trainees. We ran to the wreckage to discover him shaking the shattered wooden pieces of the glider from his shoulders the way a dog shakes water from its fur. Our Commanding Officer said about him that he combined maximum sturdiness with absolute dependability.
“Are you a bed wetter, Baby Bird?” he said to me that night during a quiet moment before lights out. I pitched my duffel out the window again, and again he laughed.
The next morning he asked if I wanted to help test the very latest thing in Home Air Defense. First he led me to the aircraft hangars, completely swathed in camouflage netting.
Squatting out of the sunlight in the comparative gloom of the hangar door was an A prototype, as graceful as a young bat.
He opened a hinged hatch like an icebox door in the fuselage and we peered in at a maze of pipes that resembled a refrigeration unit. This, I was told, was the engine. Two thousand horsepower.
The test he was talking about was at the engine hangar at the far end of the airfield. He called it the Poison Kitchen.
When we arrived, I was introduced to two of our engineers, Eli and Otto. Otto poured a thimbleful of white liquid into a saucer on the floor. I had a sense from his face that this was standard treatment for the new arrivals. Then Eli, leaning away, held his arm at head height and squeezed an eyedropper over the saucer. The saucer blew up with a surprisingly loud bang. A piece of it rattled off the far window.
“Your aircraft carries a ton of each of these in its wing tanks,” Otto said.
Wörndl made bogeyman noises.
Otto poured a little more of his liquid into another saucer.
“Touch it,” he said.
I rested my fingertip on its surface, held my hand up, and the tip was white, and burned like a horrible sunburn.
“I'd put it in my mouth if I were you,” Wörndl said offhandedly.
I did, and the burning stopped. It was explained that my saliva neutralized the effect.
“Completely eats through anything organic,” Wörndl said.
But when the first engines were fired! There was never anything like it. The noise was colossal, sheeting against the eardrums even when you covered your ears. I shouted in Wörndl's face and heard no trace of what I said. The hangar had instantly become a washhouse, steaming and roaring and fire-spitting, with billowing clouds swirling and colliding.
The engine shut off with a bang and the silence seemed to oscillate. Wörndl led me like a child over to the cockpit and front half of an A prototype with the engine exposed on a mount behind it. The engine exhaust was aimed out a huge aperture in the opposite wall. The entire thing was bolted and cabled to the floor. He gestured me up the short steel ladder and into the cockpit. He followed me up the ladder rungs, and settled me in. When Otto called out “Ready!”
he showed me which button to punch. The hangar bellowed and the cockpit bucked and thrummed so my teeth rattled.
Wörndl had to hold the ladder with both hands. I could see the walls shaking. The plates that held the stay wires quivered.
He gestured for me to push the thrust lever forward, and the increased sound and power cleared away all before it. I screamed; I braced myself; I shrieked with laughter. For three and a half minutes I was Thor, controlling the thunder and the lightning. After a muffled bang and the end of the ride I was still shrieking and laughing. Wörndl and Otto had to pull me out of the cockpit by my armpits.
What does a man have the right to do to feel better about himself? From that instant onward I've been an acolyte or a high priest, and I've loved our 163 As and Bs no matter what they did or will do to us.
As is often the case when learning something lethal, our training began innocuously: serene flights in gentle gliders.
We progressed through a series of shortening wing spans, and with each lost inch the landing speed rose. It was useful training, we were told, since the A had a landing speed of over 180 kilometers per hour, while the fully loaded B touched down at around 240. To add to the entertainment value, those landings were accomplished without a real undercarriage. The wheels were jettisoned on takeoff. Only a skid cushioned the impact on touchdown. Flight trials at Peenemilnde had already taken their toll of vertebrae.
And of course the rocket pilot enjoyed no second chance if he muffed his approach; he couldn't just open the engine up and go round again. He had to bring it in on the first approach and touch down with enough sliding space to decelerate to a standstill before running out of airfield. Flipping the craft, given the fuel, was fatal.
So? we said to ourselves. Everyone knew that learning to fly meant little more than learning to land.
But pilots are taught to land by flying alongside instructors.
There was no room for two in these things. So we'd have to be told, rather than shown.
“Does the landing,” Ziegler asked in a classroom session, “have to be perfect?”
“No,” Wörndl shrugged. “You could die instead.”
There were other complications as well, he remarked. A perfectly acceptable takeoff or landing could provoke the engine into exploding. Or it might explode without provocation.
Constant experimentation had been conducted with the aim of eliminating that possibility, without success.
The A and B's cockpits also periodically filled with steam, almost completely obscuring the pilot's view.
By October of 1944 everything bad that could have happened to our brain-dead but still staggering little war machine of a Reich had already happened. Kursk, Stalingrad, Normandy, the firebombing of everything from Berlin to the most inoffensive and lonely hayrick. My hometown of Aschau had its cathedral so obliterated by a night raid, my sister wrote, that the next morning no one could find the site. Our bunch came together from Fighter Geschwaders in lost causes all over Europe, from the Ukraine to France to Africa to Italy to the Dalmatian coast. We had each volunteered for our own reasons. We took as the most ominous sign of all, however, the revelation that Fighter Command had spared nothing when it came to our mess. Items that had long since been hoarded as precious holiday treats were apparently for us a matter of course, every day: creamed rice with fruit preserves, omelettes with kidneys, macaroni with goulash, toast with real white bread. When we asked why we rated such a table, we were told, “Altitude diet.” It seemed clear that this was a kind of in-joke. “Altitude as in the afterlife,” Wörndl explained.
That first breakfast after our Commanding Officer spoke, Wörndl welcomed us to what he called with some pride a program of flight testing more lethal than any in the history of aviation. But what followed seemed no more hazardous than a lazy drift down a stream: hours on the gliders, followed by towed flights with the A, with the rocket fuel replaced by water ballast. We cast off the tow cables, got whatever feel of the aircraft we could while we lost altitude and tried to hit the house-sized touchdown cross paintedб on the field.
Landing approach-flaps down-a little right rudder-a gentle bank-level off-stick back slightly-and the thump and the slither. What could have been easier? On my first such landing, after a lengthy slide along the grass, my wing dropped almost tenderly, and I came to a gentle, spinning standstill.
I threw up down my front at my debriefing. Too much rich food, Ziegler suggested.
For excitement we stood a hundred meters from the rocket-testing apertures while the rockets were going. We ground the heels of our palms into our ears and marveled like idiots on parade at the hot waves of air pounding our stomachs and chests. One hundred meters away, and it was like a jolt from a strong man's forearm. While the old hands looked over every so often with unreadable expressions, we competed at how far we could advance, step by step, before the heat became too intense.
On a Saturday afternoon two weeks later a locomotive pulled a solitary, sealed freight car along the airfield branch line and came to a hissing halt beside the largest of our hangars. It was the arrival of the first B, the Komet. The seals were broken and the doors pushed back in a frenzy. It was like we were outside the Pharaoh's Tomb. The thing was wheeled out on a dolly into the cold November sunlight.