Richthofen passed observer training and was then sent to the eastern front to report enemy troop movements. After several months of flying as an observer in the East, Manfred was told to report to the "Mail Pigeon Detachment," the code name for a new, secret unit that was to bomb England.
Richthofen had his first air fight on September 1, 1915. He went up with pilot Lieutenant Georg Zeumer, and for the first time, spotted an enemy aircraft in the air. Richthofen had only a rifle with him and though he tried several times to hit the other plane, he failed to bring it down.
A few days later, Richthofen went up again, this time with pilot Lieutenant Osteroth. Armed with a machine gun, Richthofen fired at the enemy plane. Then the gun became jammed. Once Richthofen unjammed the gun, he fired again. The plane started to spiral and eventually crashed. Richthofen was elated. However, when he went back to headquarters to report his victory, he was informed that kills in enemy lines did not count.
Meeting His Hero
On October 1, 1915, Richthofen was on board a train heading for Metz. After entering the dining car, he found an empty seat, sat down, and then noticed a familiar face at another table. Richthofen introduced himself and found that he was talking to the famous fighter pilot Lieutenant Oswald Boelcke.
Frustrated at his own failed attempts to shoot down another plane, Richthofen asked Boelcke, "Tell me honestly, how do you really do it?" Boelcke laughed and then replied, "Good heavens, it indeed is quite simple. I fly in as close as I can, take good aim, shoot, and then he falls down."2
Though Boelcke hadn't given Richthofen the answer he had hoped for, a seed of an idea was planted. Richthofen realized that the new, single seated Fokker fighter (Eindecker) - the one that Boelcke flew - was much easier to shoot from. However, he would need to be a pilot to ride and shoot from one of those. Richthofen then decided he would learn to "work the stick" himself.3
Richthofen asked his friend Zeumer to teach him to fly. After many lessons, Zeumer decided Richthofen was ready for his first solo flight on October 10, 1915.
There are few moments in life that produce as nervous a sensation as the first solo flight. Zeumer, my teacher, announced to me one afternoon: "You are ready to fly alone." I must say that I would rather have answered: "I am too afraid." But this could never come from a defender of the fatherland. Therefore, good or bad, I had to swallow my cowardice and sit in the machine. . . . The engine started with a roar. I gave it the gas and the machine began to pick up speed, and suddenly I could not help but notice that I was really flying. Suddenly it was no longer an anxious feeling, but, rather, one of daring. Now it was all up to me. No matter what happened, I was no longer frightened.4
Richthofen, after much determination and perserverance, finally passed all three of the fighter pilot examinations. On December 25, 1915, he was awarded his pilot's certificate.
Richthofen spent the next several weeks with the 2nd Fighting Squadron near Verdun. Though Richthofen saw several enemy planes and even shot one down, he wasn't credited with any kills because the plane went down in enemy territory with no witnesses. The 2nd Fighting Squadron was then sent to the East to drop bombs on the Russian front.
Collecting Two-inch Silver Trophies
On a return trip from Turkey in August 1916, Oswald Boelcke stopped to visit with his brother Wilhelm, Richthofen's commander. Besides a brotherly visit, Boelcke was scouting for pilots that had talent. After discussing the search with his brother, Boelcke invited Richthofen and one other pilot to join his new group called "Jagdstaffel 2" ("hunting squadron") in Lagnicourt, France.
Suddenly in the early morning there was a knock at the door and before me stood the great man with the Pour le Mérite. I really did not know what he wanted of me. To be sure, I knew him . . . but it did not occur to me that he had sought me out to invite me to become a pupil of his. I could have hugged him when he asked whether I wanted to go to the Somme with him.5
By September 8, 1916, Richthofen and the other pilots that had been invited to join Boelcke's Jagdstaffel 2 (often abbreviated to "Jasta") had arrived in Lagnicourt. Boelcke then taught them all he had learned about fighting in the air.