I’ve always been fascinated with airplanes and one of the planes that always evoked a feeling of historic importance to me was a Fokker Dr.I triplane. That type of plane has 3 tiers of wings and seats two people. The Fokker was a popular plane during World War I and became the plane most closely associated with the greatest flying ace of the era, The Red Baron.
Manfred von Richthofen began his life on May 2, 1892 in what is now Poland. He went to the military academy and by 1911, he had become a cavalry officer. In 1912, he was promoted to Lieutenant. In 1914, war broke out and mounted cavalry became a thing of the past, so Richthofen joined the German air force to become a pilot. He met his mentor and idol--Oswald Boelcke—and dedicated himself to becoming a fighter pilot.1
During World War I, airplanes were a relatively new invention and something that was still under development. At that time, 20 kills would win a pilot legendary status. That’s 20 kills in his life. Twenty kills during a fighter pilot’s lifetime would earn him legendary status and a very prestigious award. Manfred von Richthofen, The Red Baron, had a confirmed kill count of 80. He was the best of the best.
He had his Fokker Dr.I painted red—he was, after all, le Diable Rouge, the Red Devil. He remarks in his autobiography of an incident that he found particularly amusing. He and his troupe had shot down several British planes and taken the pilots as prisoners. One of the English pilots began talking with Richthofen and inquired about the red plane. Richthofen had this to say regarding the Englishman:
In the Squadron to which he belonged there was a rumor that the Red Machine was occupied by a girl, by a kind of Jeanne d'Arc. He was intensely surprised when I assured him that the supposed girl was standing in front of him. He did not intend to make a joke. He was actually convinced that only a girl could sit in the extravagantly painted machine.2
April 21, 1918, just after 11am, a single bullet ripped through his chest cavity while he was pursuing his target. He landed the plane in the nearby French territory. An Australian military unit nearby found him. His last words were simply, “Kaputt,” finished. But nothing is ever as simple as it seems. In a Kennedy-esque controversy, the question still remains under debate to this day: Who killed the Red Baron?