Jack D. Hunter's Blog

May 21, 2007

As it does for so many of us airminded airheads, my livelihood depends pretty much on the Internet.  And when my computer has been reduced to a smoldering heap, as it has been for the past week or so, I alternate between stiff-legged tantrums and mood indigo.

To get my mind on other things during this latest electronic swoon, I set about putting some old files in order.  As I leafed, brooding, through some newspaper columns I’d written back in the late 70s, I came across the one on August Quoos, an erstwhile German World War I pilot.  And my mood lifted.  Even after all this time, little old August reminded me that resignation – surrender – ain’t an option.

Since the column seemed apropos of this newsletter’s preoccupation with World War I planes and fliers, I thought you might enjoy reading it.

Here’s the column as it appeared in the Sunday News Journal, Wilmington, Delaware, March 6, 1977:

There aren’t many of them left.

Those who remain have white hair and dimming eyes now, and they usually admit to no more than sketchy memories of that ancient war, and who was in it, and why.

August Quoos is different, though.  He has the white hair, to be sure, but he can still tell you precisely why the Fokker D7 was such a fine airplane to fly, why the Albatros D3 was not, and just how it feels to be hurtling through a dogfight, squinting across the sights of twin Spandau machine guns and tack-tack-tacking shots into the tail of a falling Spad.

Quoos’ luck ran strong, for those terrible times.  He served with the German Air Service throughout the hell of World War I, surviving four years of aerial combat over three fronts and earning a few broken bones and a respectable number of medals in the process.

Four years amount to a lot of survival, when you consider the fact that the average combat life span of a flier in those days was measured in minutes.

Today Quoos is a retired mechanical engineer, living with his wife in Chestertown on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.  He came to the States in 1927, and in the subsequent decades he built a career in the American steel industry and its satellite activities.

Quoos dropped me a note the other day, inviting me down to his home.  We hadn’t met, but he’d heard that I’m an antique airplane buff and he thought it would be pleasant for us to get together for a bit of hangar flying.

He’s a small man, with a soldier’s square shoulders, and a face open and quick to smile.  He’d prepared for my visit by getting out his photo albums and memorabilia, and we had no more than shaken hands when the room was full of airplane talk.

“Yes, I had some difficult experiences,” Quoos said, German inflections still to be heard in his voice after all his years of speaking fluent English.  “The worst, though, was in January 1917, just after I had been transferred to the Western Front from Russia, where I’d been flying observation and bombing missions.

“My observer and I were familiarizing ourselves with the new Rumpler C-4, one of the latest reconnaissance biplanes, and part of the exercise called for air-to-ground gunnery.  I’d dive the plane toward a target at the edge of the airfield and fire a burst from my forward gun.  Then I’d pull up in a climbing turn, and the observer would fire the rear gun at the target as we flew away.

“In the last pass of the flight, I was in a sharp turn to the left when the ailerons froze.  With the controls jammed, I was locked into the turn and sinking, and it looked as if we were finished.  But I thought real fast, and I figured I could keep us from falling into a tight spiral if I applied full power.

“I did, and the nose rose nearly to the horizontal, although the wings were still cocked in a steep bank to the left.  Well, I kept gunning the engine, and instead of coming down in a hopeless spin we flew into the ground in a kind of controlled crash.

“The observer flew right out of his cockpit and landed some distance away, unhurt.  But I was trapped in the wreckage with a pair of broken knees and a strut piercing my fur flying suit and pinning me to the seat.”

“How long were you in the hospital?”

“Four weeks.  Then I was assigned to a flight school as an instructor, and I taught 31 men to fly.  It was very boring duty, and so, when the chance came, I volunteered for assignment to the  Mesopotamian Front.

“My friends said I was crazy to give up a soft job behind the lines for combat service in a filthy, sand-filled no-where.  Maybe I was.  But I was young and ambitious. You know how it is with young people.  Hunger for recognition, and so on.”

“Any rough incidents there?”

Quoos nodded reflectively. “It was all rough there. Very primitive.  A pilot had to fly all kinds of bad equipment under all kinds of bad conditions.  For instance, we used to have to fly an Albatros C3 to a depot, fill the rear cockpit with fuel drums, and then return to the squadron so we could fly our missions the next day or so.  On one of these shuttle flights I was attacked by two British Spads.

“I had no machine gun, no rear gunner.  Just a load of gas.  I went down to the deck and hedgehopped to my airfield with the English chasing me all the way.  At the edge of the field was this 100-foot cliff, and, since I was landing downwind I saw I wouldn’t be able to stop before I went over the cliff.  So, while the plane was still rolling, I crawled out of my cockpit and jumped over the side.  I just sat in the dust and watched the C3 roll right to the edge of the cliff and stop inches away from a 100-foot fall.”

“So what happened next?”

“The following day I went up for revenge.  I was in an Albatros D5 fighter, which had a radiator in the top wing, just right of the cockpit.  The radiator in this machine was defective.  I saw a formation of three DeHavillands and two Spads, and I attacked.  Just as the fight began, with everybody milling about, my cooling system broke a line and squirted hot water all over me.  I was surrounded by Englishmen, and I couldn’t see a thing. So, wiping my face and flying by feel, I turned tail and ran.  The Albatros was a mass of bullet-holes.”

“And you ever see the British guys again?”

“A few days later I was on patrol and I saw the same bunch.  I attacked again and shot down one of the Spads and one of the DeHavillands.”

He’d said it so casually, so rather modestly, it was difficult to discern the drama that’s implicit in a lone pilot’s attacking five enemy planes.  It takes a special breed for a scene like that, I thought.  And then I felt a kind of weariness — a Weltschmerz — in which I had a sense of all the young hotheads of all the wars in history, all seeking and striving and yearning for the medals and applause and the national adulation.

For every lionized superhero, there are a thousand heroes who go unsung.  For every Von Richthofen there are legions of August Quooses.  And when all the shooting’s done and all the dying is accomplished and all the crying is stilled, enemies become allies and allies become enemies, and planning for the next one begins.  And the medals are locked away in attics, and nobody gives a damn.

I think Quoos detected this sudden gloom of mine.  When I was at the door, ready to leave, he gave me a steady blue stare and said, “I learned something important in the crash of that Rumpler.”

“Learned what, Mr. Quoos?”

“A man must never give up.  If I’d have shut my eyes and given up, the Rumpler would have spun in, and my observer and I would have died.  Too many pilots did that.  They gave up too soon.  And they died.  I learned that I must always keep my eyes open and keep thinking and struggling to the very end.”

As I drove home I realized he’d been trying to tell me that all of life is like a Rumpler with jammed ailerons.

If we don’t give up — if we keep our eyes open and keep struggling, applying whatever power we have — chances are the bumps won’t get us.

* * *

Work on my new novel (working title The Ace) continues, with the cursor hovering around the 300-page mark out of a projected 400 pages.  The toughest part, as it was with The Blue Max, is trying to make historical fact read like entertainment fiction — and vice versa. This time the work is much more complex.  The Blue Max was centered primarily on a canvas limited by the experiences of a single pilot in a German frontline Jasta in the period January 1 through November 30, 1918.  The Ace is a multi-tiered epic spanning the entire history of the American Air Service, from its birth-pangs in 1916 through its climactic involvements on the Western Front in 1918.

The story entwines three sub-plots: (1) the rise of a penniless youngster to the peak of World War I combat achievement and fame; (2) the corruption and sleight-of-hand at the highest levels of government as the nation struggles to provide the planes and equipment needed by the young men who will fight the actual air battles; and (3) an off-beat love story.  The cast of characters is so lengthy I have to keep notes on who’s who and why.  And one of the biggest challenges is to make the dialogue “sound” the way people talked back then and to avoid usages and slang that prevail today.  What was “cool” back in World War I rings pretty durn corny today, and, as an author with one eye on editors and critics, I need to convey a sense of real time without myself coming across as corny.  Oy, boy....

Copyright © 2007 by Jack D. Hunter.  All rights reserved.  No part of this document may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.