A Higher Call : Humanity Trumps Hate in the Skies Over Germany

The immense canvas of World War II serves also as a mirror on the attitudes and behavior of us human beings. That viewpoint motivates me to read more of the history surrounding the conflict – as I wrote in a recent blog post, here. Almost before that new quest began, a World War II story came to my attention (via a recent Facebook post) which relates a fascinating encounter in the skies over Germany on December 20, 1943. I post this account as a prime example of the complex human attitudes and emotions exhibited in all-out warfare.

 Higher Call PS_2A sure “kill” is spared: Aviation artwork by John Shaw

The main characters: A German fighter pilot on the hunt for another “kill” to add to his already burgeoning total and the pilot of a crippled and hapless B-17F “Flying Fortress” bomber, barely able to fly and struggling to reach friendly territory. Pilot Charles (Charlie) Brown, his crew, and his torn and tattered plane quickly found themselves in the gunsight of German Luftwaffe ace, Franz Stigler. One press of the “fire button” and Ye Olde Pub and its crew of ten would be history – torn apart by 20 mm cannon shells from the Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter.

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Charles Brown and Franz Stigler

Pilot Brown and his nine-member crew were flying their very first mission together on that twentieth day of December, 1943. The target: A German aircraft factory in Bremen, Germany. As the B-17 was preparing for its bomb-run on the target, German anti-aircraft fire and its exploding shrapnel found the aircraft and quickly left its deadly imprint upon Ye Olde Pub.

With its Plexiglas nose-dome shattered and its number two engine disabled, the bomber fell out of formation and became a straggler – an easy target for the swarms of Bf 109 and Focke-Wulf 190 fighters which came up to defend the German target area.

While being harassed in retreat for several minutes by German fighter aircraft, the venerable Flying Fortress suffered considerable additional damage. Now flying alone over German territory, the B-17 could barely stay aloft. One of her engines was out, half of her rudder was shot-off, and most of her left horizontal stabilizer (tail) was gone. Most of her guns were disabled and some of the crew badly wounded. The tail gunner was hunched dead and bloody behind his downward-facing guns.

As the B-17 lumbered precariously at low altitude, struggling to make it home back in England, she was spotted passing over a small airfield by a German crew on the ground which was refueling and re-arming the Bf 109 fighter of Franz Stigler. At first surprised by the low-flying bomber, Stigler instinctively jumped into the cockpit of his aircraft and took off after the crippled B-17. In no time at all, the German ace settled in on the tattered tail of the bomber and prepared for the kill. He could afford to take his time in that position, for the tail-guns of the Fortress remained pointed downward during the entire encounter – a sure sign that the gunner was dead or the guns disabled. Pilot Stigler already had 22 air “victories” to his credit; one more and he would earn the coveted Luftwaffe award, the Knight’s Cross.  Maneuvering to several vantage points around the lumbering bomber, the German ace could see, through a few gaping holes in the fuselage, that there were badly wounded fliers in the belly of the aircraft. He also sensed that he was relatively safe from any rash behavior on the part of the surviving crew and the one or two operational gun stations, but he was taking a chance, nevertheless, by closing in for a better look.

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A German Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter like that of Franz Stigler

As Stigler trailed the hapless bomber while considering his options, he recalled a comment made by Gustav Rodel, his Luftwaffe Commanding Officer: “If I ever hear of any of you shooting at someone in a parachute (a helpless flyer who had bailed-out), I’ll shoot you myself.” Rejecting his inbred instincts as a fighter pilot, Franz Stigler heeded a higher call – namely, his personal humanity. Stigler slipped into a “10 o’clock” position over the B-17, and proceeded to escort the bomber over hostile territory toward open water. He gestured from his cockpit to the astonished bomber pilot to turn and head for Sweden and safe, neutral territory. Instead, Brown opted to continue on the longer course to England, hoping to make it back home. At that point, Stigler saluted to Charles Brown and peeled off, leaving the bomber and her crew in the hands of fate.

91y6AaiYq7L._SL1500_[1]It is that moment which is so beautifully captured in the aviation artwork of artist John Shaw. Given the quality of the piece and its depiction, it is no wonder that limited editions of those prints sold out and are hard to locate, today.

Franz Stigler answered “a higher call” in showing mercy to the hapless bomber and its helpless crew. Despite the obvious difficulties one has with the nature of Nazi Germany, we are reminded that many who fought on that side earnestly felt they were defending the motherland – an essentially patriotic attitude. Franz Stigler assumed huge personal risk in not summarily dispatching the helpless bomber. His was an action for which he could have been executed had it been reported to German authorities. One could easily imagine a second German fighter pilot happening upon the scenario described and formulating many pointed questions! At an altitude of only a few thousand feet, the incident could have been observed on the ground, as well.

Second Lieutenant Charles Brown went on to complete a full tour of duty as a bomber pilot. After the war, Brown returned home to West Virginia, went to college, and – following stints in the newly created Air Force and the U.S. State Department – retired in 1972. The harrowing episode of Ye Olde Pub and its crew remained indelibly etched in Brown’s memory, and, in 1986, he decided to try to find the German pilot who spared the lives of him and his crew.

After numerous efforts, Brown finally received a letter responding to his outreach attempts. Stigler, living in Canada since 1953, wrote that he was the one, and he verified his claim by describing the entire episode in detail – right down to the departing salute to Brown and his hapless bomber. The two met, and developed a great, ongoing friendship from 1990 until 2008, the year in which they both passed away within several months of one another.

Franz Stigler’s enlistment in the Luftwaffe began in 1939. In 1940, his brother was killed in action, an event which he hoped to avenge through his personal wartime contributions. Long after it was all over and the two protagonists of this story were reunited, Stigler inscribed a book to his former enemy, Charles Brown:

In 1940, I lost my only brother as a night fighter. On the 20th of December, 4 days before Christmas, I had the chance to save a B-17 from her destruction, a plane so badly damaged it was a wonder that she was still flying. The pilot, Charlie Brown, is for me, as precious as my brother was.

Thanks Charlie,
Your Brother,
Franz

I have seen the YouTube video account of the story, including film footage of the reunited flyers reminiscing together at the time of their initial meeting. In one touching scene with Franz, the stoic German fighter ace, visibly struggling to hold back multiple emotions which had suddenly descended upon his brow like a dark cloud, he turns to Brown and blurts out, “I love you Charlie!” A higher call, indeed, and such a poignant commentary on humans at war.  

Jet Engines and Michelangelo’s “Moses”

What do these two “finished products” have in common?

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The “reason” side of us acting alone would likely prompt the quick response, “Not much!” After some careful thought, our “reflective” side could provide some convincing arguments to support the contention that these two seemingly diverse objects, one from the world of technology, one from the art world, actually have much in common. Here is the way I see it.

The famous “Moses” at Rome, sculpted in hard marble by Michelangelo, represents the epitome of man’s ability to represent life and human nature using artistic mediums. In Moses, the inherent artistic genius of Michelangelo is brought to full bloom by the countless hours of diligent study and practice he devoted to mastering the techniques of working with marble. One man’s extreme dedication to his artistic cause has given us such priceless art as Moses, the Pieta, and the Sistine Chapel just to name a few.

As with Michelangelo’s Moses, the modern turbojet engine used in today’s airliners is the epitome of a product which demanded extreme dedication to a cause – only, here, the dedication extends over decades, indeed centuries, as armies of thinkers, scientists, and engineers fought to understand nature and natural forces.

Michelangelo’s Moses began as nothing more than a rudimentary “chunk” of marble; correspondingly, man’s knowledge of the various technologies inherent in modern turbojet engine designs ranged from rudimentary to non-existent as recently as four hundred years ago – well after Moses emerged from his marble prison. Michelangelo at least had his toolbox of fairly refined chisels and sculpting tools with which to work. The early “natural philosophers,” as early scientists and technologists were called, had little with which to work. They initially faced a confusing scramble of nature’s puzzle-pieces requiring painstaking assembly into a larger picture before true technology was possible.

Even allowing for whatever handed-down knowledge the artist might have received from mentors and colleagues, I see Moses more as the ultimate tribute to a single man’s talent and determination. I see the modern turbojet engine (and virtually all other technological wonders) as the ultimate tribute to mankind as a whole – the cumulative outcome of generations who worked to build our technology hierarchies. The iPhone, the modern automobile, the internet – these and all such technology triumphs are a tribute to the human spirit and its desire to “know.”

Highly-Polished Works of Art!

Michelangelo sculpted Moses cut-by-cut, chip-by-chip. And when Moses’ rough form finally emerged from the block of marble, he polished the innumerable rough spots – over and over again until the rippling muscles in Moses’ forearms fairly glistened of sweat. Like Moses, the modern turbojet engine is a highly-polished work…of the technological art, but with a much-extended gestation period and many fathers!

We recently returned from a two-week trip to New England, made possible by the marvels of modern aviation…and, specifically, the turbojet engine. Whenever I travel, I am cognizant of this monument to man’s ingenuity and dedication. Today, these engines are called upon to power countless tons of aircraft, passengers, baggage and cargo into the sky, hour after hour, trip after trip, week after week, without hesitation and without the need for frequent maintenance. Today, jet engine performance and reliability are so highly refined that travelers rarely think twice about flying over the rugged, isolated regions of polar routes in a large aircraft with only two engines.

A Bit of Historical Perspective

Jet engines were not so reliable in early aircraft. As a young boy, I recall numerous accounts of early jet fighter planes going down due to “flameouts” where the continuous fiery combustion and expelling of combustion materials out the back ceases and all thrust is lost. That problem and other major issues have long been solved. Today’s engineering efforts are focused on fuel efficiency and performance/cost factors along with quieter operation.

I also recall the public interest and excitement when the first U.S. commercial jet airliner service began – in 1959. My family lived not too far from San Francisco International Airport at the time. We could see the earliest American Airlines Boeing 707 jetliners off in the distance on final approach to the airport. It is interesting, today, to recall the fascination and excitement attendant to the advent of the commercial jet age, especially in light of today’s tendency to take it all for granted – which is a shame. I am a firm believer that when society loses its sense of wonder and perspective, it has lost something vital and precious.

The fundamental principle of physics which explains rocket and jet propulsion was first formally identified by Isaac Newton in his scientific masterpiece of 1687 – his book known as the “Principia” (See my post of Oct. 27, 2013, “The Most Important Scientific Book Ever Written: “Conceived” in a London Coffee House).

The third of Newton’s foundational “three laws of motion” states:

For every action, there exists an equal and opposite reaction

Despite this revelation and other fundamental physical principles so expertly articulated by Mr. Newton in 1687, much more physics and many new technologies were required for the first baby-steps on the long journey necessary to produce “engines” capable of powering our human desire to travel. The critical mass of required knowledge had not materialized until the nineteen-thirties when Frank Whittle, an English engineer, built the first laboratory version of a jet engine; it was operating by 1937.

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 An early Whittle engine

As with so many technologies, potential military applications provided great momentum to the product development cycle of the jet engine. The first airplane to fly powered solely by a turbojet was the German Heinkel 178, in 1939. In the 1944/45 time frame of World War 2, German engineering produced the Messerschmitt 262, the first jet-powered operational aircraft.

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 Messerschmitt 262

While much faster than the propeller-driven aircraft of the Allies, the planes were too few, too late, and plagued with reliability issues (including its pioneering jet engines) for it to be a decisive weapon in the war.

The die was cast by the end of the war, however; the jet engine’s rapid maturation and future domination was inevitable. One of the technologies which quickly matured out of necessity was the science of materials which dealt with the  “strength of materials” and their physical properties. The multiple internal turbine-fans spinning at very high speeds are populated with hundreds of turbine “blades.” The metallurgy to insure that these relatively small blades withstand the extreme forces and temperatures they experience requires a sophisticated metallurgical knowledge.

An interesting aside: One of the very first “textbooks” on the strength of materials was written by Galileo Galilei in 1638. The first half of Discourses on Two New Sciences is Galileo’s pioneering analysis of material strength and reliability – one of the “two new sciences.” The second half consists of his milestone revelations on the developing science of motion physics. The latter work qualifies this book as one of the most important science books ever published, one tier below Newton’s Principia of 1687 – like all other books except Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

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The next time you are at an airport, you might make it a point to observe jet aircraft which pull into a gate, power down, and sit there awaiting the next flight. The engine turbine fans can be seen still spinning 45 minutes after power-down, thanks to the superb, ultra low-friction ball-bearing designs which support the rotor shafts. You might notice also a “curly-cue” spiral painted on the front of the fan assembly just inside the engine cowl. They are there to provide easy visual indication that an engine is powered-up and turning at very high RPM. The tremendous appetite of these engines for air creates enough suction at the front-end to actually ingest ground crew members who get too close. This has, in fact, happened many times over the decades. Like the whirling propellers on older aircraft, jet engine intakes pose a deadly hazard to the folks who work around them.

Engine manufacturers such as General Electric and the U.K.’s  Rolls-Royce have learned enough of nature’s secrets to manufacture this product with an almost inconceivable reliability and performance capability. There is one aspect of nature which has proven stubborn to control and deal with, however.

Modern Jet Engines are NOT for the Birds!

The greatest enemy of the jet engine appears to be …birds! Our science and engineering capabilities have not figured out how to prevent the ingestion of our fine feathered friends into the compressor blades of these engines; it happens all too often. Do you recall Captain “Sully” Sullenberger and his short trip into the Hudson River minutes after takeoff from LaGuardia in New York? No engine is tough enough to digest a large bird and spin merrily along as if nothing happened. Oh well, even Moses has always been susceptible to “chipping” if not handled carefully.

One final comment about the similarities drawn between Michelangelo’s Moses and the highly developed modern jet engine: I am certain that jet engine technology will continue to evolve and that the end-product will improve even beyond today’s high standard. I am not sure there will be anyone coming along anytime soon who will improve upon Michelangelo’s “design!”