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A TEST PILOT'S ODYSSEY

Luftwaffe test pilot: Flying captured Allied aircraft of World War 2 - Hans-Werner Lerche
This is the kind of aviation book that was tailor-made for the dyed-in-the-wool aviation aficionado. It is not wholly suited for the layperson with only a cursory or casual interest in the subject, for some of the quasi-technical language in this book would be lost on him/her.

The book is divided into 13 chapters, the majority of which are replete with the author's wartime experiences of flying a variety of captured Allied aircraft at the Luftwaffe's chief flight testing center at Rechlin near Berlin. Lerche's deep love for aviation shines forth, as well as his keen desire to fly as many different types of aircraft as possible --- from sleek, single-seat fighters to the heaviest multi-engined transports, gliders, long-range reconnaissance planes (e.g. the Junkers Ju 390), and bombers.

In flying the various types of captured Allied aircraft that came his way, Lerche did not have the benefit of falling back upon any pilot's notes or operations manual to help him know how each type worked. As a test pilot and a qualified engineer, Lerche learned by doing, taking the aircraft aloft and putting it through its paces. Among the Allied aircraft Lerche flew were the Avro Lancaster bomber, the B-17 Flying Fortress, the B-24 Liberator, the B-26 medium bomber, the Supermarine Spitfire Mk II, the Hawker Tempest, the Yak-3 and Lavochkin La-5 Soviet fighters, the P-51B Mustang, and the P-47 Thunderbolt. (He also had the opportunity of test flying various Italian aircraft during a brief sojourn in Italy in 1943 with his Italian counterparts.)

I was particularly interested in Lerche's comments about the Thunderbolt, with which he was much impressed. He flew 2 variants of the fighter, one of which he went to Italy to retrieve in June 1944, just days before Rome came under American control. (Indeed, Lerche managed to get to Rome shortly before it was declared an open city and enjoy a good meal and its cultural delights with his comrades.) His following comments are full of fulsome praise for the Jug:

“The strength of the Thunderbolt in dive was particularly impressive, and to this I probably owe my life. I am thinking here of a really critical situation, the critical things being that afterwards I could not remember the actual sequence of events. It happened this way: during a high-altitude flight in the Thunderbolt between 9000 and 11,000 m (29,500-36,000 ft) the oxygen supply must have been insufficient, with the effect that after some time I found myself at about 4000 m (13,000 ft) with the engine throttled back. That I had been temporarily dead to the world could also be noted from the fact that the engine was so cool that it could not be revved up any more. With the cowling gills closed I then very gradually and carefully let out the throttle until I slowly managed to get the engine running at speed again, found my way back to base and landed safely. It only became clear to me later on what had really happened, or rather what could have happened! Altitude sickness, especially in single-seat aircraft, is quite an insidious thing and it is perhaps a little-known fact that at the beginning of the war our losses of flying crews due to altitude sickness were higher than those due to enemy action. It works like an intoxication, the danger being that one feels so well that one doesn’t notice becoming slowly drowsier and is then gone for good without oxygen. As was shown in my case, an altitude of 11,000 m (36,000 ft) was about the maximum a human being could manage without a pressurized cabin.”


Lerche also sheds light in one chapter on how it was he got into flying in the first place -- by first qualifying as a glider pilot and instructor in the early 1930s. All in all, this book is a gem. Absolutely priceless, full of amazing photos of the various aircraft Lerche flew, excerpts from his personal logbook, and appendices for readers hungry for more specific details about Lerche's wartime service.