An Afternoon with Erich Hartmann

The most enjoyable thing about meeting Erich Hartmann, the man who shot down 352 airplanes, was learning that, like any pilot, he loved talking about flying. His flying experience was more than the famous fighter pilot. He learned to fly gliders as a youth and was a glider instructor at age 14. His mother was his first instructor. He got his civilian powered pilot’s license when he was 17 in 1939. After he retired from the Luftwaffe in 1970 he went back to being a civilian instructor pilot in Germany.

Because of his young looks his nickname, or call sign, was Bubi, German slang for young boy.

Because of his young looks his nickname, or call sign, was Bubi, German slang for young boy.

The mission the day I spent at Erich Hartmann’s house was to interview him and discuss flying safety. At the time (1983 to 1986) I was on the flight safety staff at the headquarters for U.S. Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. In addition to my duties as the action officer for flight safety and accident investigation for all F-15s, F-5s and F-4s in Europe I was also a contributing editor to the USAFE safety magazine called “Airscoop”. Military pilots, like all pilots, can’t be forced to be safe, they have to want to be safe and the way you develop that desire is by leadership and example. My thought was that our pilots would respect Erich Hartmann’s perspective on flight safety based on his qualifications as an accomplished fighter pilot who was, in fact, an old, bold pilot. I found out how to get in touch with Hartmann, asked for an interview on the topic of flying safety and he said sure. Since I was the one to set it up I got to do the interview but the interview team included the editor of the magazine and an interpreter. Although Hartmann spoke English he wanted a professional interpreter with aviation background in case he wanted to make some points that he might not know exactly how to say in English. His English turned out to be just fine.

Hartmann had two main points: Have good maintenance and know your pilots. On the first point Hartmann developed a very good rapport with his mechanic, Heinz Bimmel, who worked with him on all his aircraft. One time, when Hartmann was forced to land behind Russian lines, Bimmel grabbed a rifle and went looking for Hartmann to rescue him. Hartmann was captured but managed to escape and make it back to the German lines. On the last day of the war Hartmann put Bimmel in the back of his Bf-109 and flew to the American sector to surrender rather than being taken prisoner by the Russians. The Americans promptly turned both of them over to the Russians in accordance with the Yalta Agreements which said German POWs would go to the Ally in whose sector they were fighting. Hartmann then spent 10 years in Russian prisons before being repatriated to Germany. I asked him which was better, his Russian or his English and he said it was his Russian.

When it came to knowing his pilots Hartmann said he could tell after the first interview with a new pilot in the squadron if the pilot was going to be an asset or a liability. It was simply a matter of attitude. Even among fighter pilots, who are notoriously self-confident, he could tell which ones would listen and learn and which ones thought they already knew it all.

According to historians Hartmann was never shot down although he did make several forced landings after flying through the debris of an airplane he just shot down and a couple of times after running out of gas before getting back to a base to land. Needless to say there were no air-to-air missiles so all of his aerial victories were from gun shots, many of which were taken at less than 300 feet slant range (he liked to get close to his work) which explains the battle damage he sustained as he flew through the exploding frag pattern of the airplane he just shot.

His risk mitigation in combat, a form of aeronautical decision making, was his doctrine of “See – Decide – Attack – Coffee Break” meaning he would visually acquire a target, determine if he had an offensive advantage and only attack if he could do so safely. He had no problem passing up engagements where he couldn’t enter with an advantage. Finally, after every attack he would completely disengage, regroup and then start looking for another fight. He would often fly five or six sorties in a day. Hartmann is convinced that up to 80% of his targets never knew he was there until he opened fire which is why we place so much emphasis on visual lookout to this day. Hartmann feels his greatest accomplishment, surpassing his 352 victories, is that he never lost a wingman. There’s a bit of a stretch there in that he did have one wingman get shot down but he parachuted to safety so Hartmann never had a wingman get killed (lost).

After Hartmann was released from Russian captivity he joined the West German Air Force and flew F-86s and F-104’s. He got his checkout in the F-104 at Luke AFB outside of Phoenix. He then went head to head with the German Air Force leadership saying the F-104 was not a good choice for Germany and subsequently retired from the Luftwaffe in 1970. The F-104 became known as the widow maker. The German Air Force lost 282 F-104s and 115 pilots in training crashes.

Hartmann’s house in Weil im Schönbuch, just south of Stuttgart, was located under one of our air-to-air training areas (MOAs) for F-15s, F-4s, F-104s, F-18s, F-16s and Toronados. He often sat on his patio watching and critiquing engagements.

Erich Hartmann flew west in 1993 at the age of 71. A good biography on Erich Hartmann is called “The Blond Knight of Germany” by Raymond Tolliver and Trevor Constable.

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About Rich Martindell

Instrument flight instructor (CFII), rated airline transport pilot (ATP), former military instructor pilot in F-4s and F-15s. Aircraft accident investigator and flight safety consultant. FAA Safety Team Lead Representative.
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