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ICARUS RISES

The Blue Max - Jack D. Hunter

I picked up this novel in an airport after having seen on TV during the 1970s the movie adaptation of "The Blue Max", which impressed me a lot.

The novel is centered on Bruno Stachel, a young man of humble origins (his father worked in a modest hotel in the Black Forest), who had transferred from the infantry to the Imperial German Air Service. As a newly minted fighter pilot, he arrives at a Jasta (fighter squadron) situated not far from the Front. It is early 1918, several weeks before Germany would embark on a series of offensives to win the war before the Americans could arrive in strength and help ensure an Allied victory. Stachel is a bit ill-at-ease for he is the new guy at the Jasta, the greenhorn. So he puts up a brave front with his comrades. He wants so much to be the hero and join the pantheon of the great German aces (e.g., Boelcke, Immelmann, and Manfred von Richthofen aka The Red Baron) by earning Imperial Germany's highest award for bravery: the Order Pour le Mérite. Better known as the Blue Max.

But in order to earn the Blue Max -- not an easy feat --- a fighter pilot has to earn his mettle through the crucible of air combat by shooting down a significant number of enemy aircraft. Stachel is on a steep learning curve and has to prove himself. So, his commander, Hauptmann Heidemann (himself a holder of the Blue Max) assigns him a Pfalz DIII, which though graceful in appearance, is one of the unit's cast offs, a marked contrast to the standard Albatros and Fokker Triplane fighters with which the majority of the Jasta is equipped.

As the novel progresses, the reader experiences the ups and downs of life at the Front (with some views of life back in Germany), as well as Stachel's burning ambition to be the best fighter pilot in the Jasta. It is an ambition that alienates Stachel from many of his comrades, who resent his growing arrogance as he grows in experience and skill as a combat pilot.

This is a novel that I -- as a student of World War I air combat -- thoroughly enjoyed reading. It's packed with adventure, excitement, raw human emotions, and tragedy. And it's well-written. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.