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What to Do When Your Ammo is on Fire

eddie rickenbacker ernst udet frederick libby red baron

Dangerous Toys for Boys

There are many discussions on the Internet about whether kids are overprotected in today's world. But powered flight, and probably also powered vehicles would never have happened with today's rules, for kids or anyone else. One can only imagine what the WWI generation of aviators would have thought of this sign about how to properly use a sandbox and slide.

The opening page of Eddie Rickenbacker's biography tells of him and six other boys trying to ride a hundred feet down into a gravel pit in a steel cart used for pulling the rock out. The other six fell out and away, but Rickenbacker, at about the age of 8, was run over by the cart. "I still have the scar. It was one of my first; there were many more to come." That attitude seems to have been typical of WWI aviators. The young Rickenbacker, after all, was nothing compared to the young Frederick Libby, and the young Manfred von Richthofen climbed the steeple of Wahlstatt by its lightning rod - all for the purpose of tying his handkerchief to the top.

Nothing Says Danger Like WWI Aircraft

There are many dangers in being high in the air in a craft made of wood, canvas, and dope, carrying a load of fuel, powered by what is supposed to be a smooth series of explosions in the engine, and creating other explosions by firing a gun.

One effect of all those explosions is that the engine and the gun can get rather hot. Around this point in August 1918, Ernst Udet was convinced he was going to die. He had been protecting balloons from English SE5s, and had just shot down the leader, running his motor at 1600 RPM in the process. But three of the other SE5s came after him, and showed themselves to be veterans of air combat by the way they separated rather than coming after him together. "Old fighter pilots know that during a pursuit you only get into each other's way." 

Udet knew he was trapped, unless the German anti-aircraft batteries would take care of the SE5s, but they seemed to be afraid of hitting Udet instead. 

Comes Equipped With a System for That

Then Udet noticed a hole in the ammunition case. "The heat - the phosphorus ammunition has ignited itself - in a matter of seconds, my aircraft will be in flames."

Conveniently, the aircraft comes with a dedicated system for ejecting ammunition.

In a situation like this, one doesn't think. One acts or dies. A squeeze on the machine gun trigger and from both barrels the ammunition stabs out into the blue sky, trailing white smoke.

Udet's enemy turned away, perhaps thinking Udet was firing backward. Udet flew home and didn't get out of the cockpit for a long time after landing. When he did, he went on leave rather than meet his commander Goering in that state.



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