The First Jet Pilot: The Story of German Test Pilot Erich Warsitz – Lutz Warsitz and Geoffrey Brooks

WarsitzEvery time I board a flight at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, I am amazed at the concept of flight. And while I do understand how an aircraft works from a technical standpoint, the process of taking off, cruising and landing still fascinates us and captivates our attention. Today, we reap enormous benefits from the trials and errors of those before us who sometimes gave their lives in the pursuit of flight. In June, 1939, a German pilot named Erich Warsitz (1906-1983) flew an aircraft named the Heinkel He – 176, equipped with a rocket booster for extra lift and speed. The flight was successful and the result of many years of dangerous tests.   The pilot and the engineers around him had just changed history forever and ushered the world into the jet engine era.  This book is a look back at that miraculous time and Warsitz’s life as presented by his son Lutz. 

Instead of writing a standard biography of his father from a third-person point of view, Lutz sat down with his father in the years before his death and conducted numerous interviews with him about his life.  The result is Erich presenting his story as the narrator, taking us back in time before Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) started World War II and led Germany to the brink of total destruction.  And although Hitler does appear in the story, those appearances are few.  The majority of the story takes place at the development facility at Neuhardenberg, where he forms a trio of dedicated flight personnel with Walter Künzel and Wernher von Braun (1912-1977).  Warsitz was a bachelor at the time and as a result, the story remains highly focused on the developments taking place as the engineers get closer to achieving their dream.  He does however, make reference to his personal life on occasion but as readers will learn at the book’s conclusion, his personal life picked up and changed following his release from Soviet control.  Here, we become fully immersed in the world of flight engineering in what could be called an inside look into the development of the He 176. 

What I noticed as I read was the level of danger that the pilots courted each day.  Accidents did happen and in some cases, death was the end result.  Warsitz had his own brushes with danger and describes them in detail as he tells his story.  But with each experience, we see his knowledge as a pilot increase tenfold and by the time the He 176 was ready for final production, he was ready to take the skies.  It is also clear that flying was his passion and he makes this perfectly clear in the book.  His companions in the project also shared his enthusiasm and the success of the He 176 was lost on no one. In fact, the feeling among the crew is summed up by Walter Künzel:

“None of those involved will ever forget the great impression which this maiden flight made on us all. As regards myself personally, who had overall responsibility for the preparation, and gave permission for the take-off, I may say that though outwardly calm, after the successful landing I was absolutely bathed in sweat, and several of us, myself included, had tears in our eyes once the aircraft came to a stop on the ground.”

Because the Third Reich was in power at the time, the work on the He 176 was subjected to scrutiny and approval by the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (RLM).  Officials pay visit on several occasions to take note of the plane’s development.  Politics come into play and Warsitz duly notes the maneuvers required to keep the project afloat as eagle-eyed officials look for any reason to stop all work on the project.  Today, we have the benefit of hindsight to look back on the project’s success, but at that time, Warsitz and the other pilots and engineers walked a very fine line as they pursued jet flight and some of those close calls are described by the narrator. They provide the right amount of suspense in a story that is fascinating at its base. 

The collapse of the Third Reich saw the complete acquisition of Germany by Allied forces. Warsitz recalls his actions as the war came to a close, including his capture and incarceration by the Soviet Union.  He also mentions an interesting fact about German research and where it went after the war.  Upon his release from Soviet hands, he reconstructed his life and explains the path his life took as a former German pilot. But curiously, Warsitz was never officially in the German Air Force. In fact, he makes it clear that he had no interest in politics and regretted Hitler’s decision to ignite a war: 

“It is a dreadful period to look back on. The war took on a peculiar form and Hitler’s leadership became the purest madness. The worst was the deportation of the Jews: I had many working for me in Amsterdam and when I received the deportation orders I was able to help many by giving them ‘indispensable for the work’ status. I employed others intentionally in the hope of offering them protection. Money was the decisive factor. I could help many, but not in all cases and not all the time, and I had to be very cautious, for the Gestapo was present everywhere and always!”

Aside from this statement, there is no mention of the Final Solution or other nefarious acts by the Third Reich. This could be due to his isolation at the development facility and the fact that he was not in the “chain of command” so to speak. Whether he knew more and refrained from saying is lost to history.  But the focus here is on the aircraft and the story does stay on track. Further, there are plenty of books on the Third Reich and its horrible actions in World War II.  The story here is solely about the jet engine age which we all take for granted each time we board a flight at the airport.  Warsitz and others around him, realized the effect their success would have on the world and the importance of their mission was never far from their minds. But with determination, skill and brilliant minds, they changed world history in a way no one thought possible.  Good read. 

“At the time of writing in 1982, forty-three years have elapsed since the world’s first jet flight, and in the intervening years I have often been asked if I realized at that time that the German rocket and jet test programme would be the decisive step forward. We knew – from our technical espionage service – that the British and Americans had such a project but were not so far advanced as we were.”  – Erich Warsitz 

ASIN : B00AE7DHFY