Erich Hartmann, the Most Successful Fighter Pilot of All Time

A new book examines the life of the WWII German ace.

Luftwaffe fighter pilot Erich Hartmann was exceedingly good at aerial combat. (Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-502-0195-09A/Sperling)
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While serving in Germany’s Luftwaffe in World War II, Erich Hartmann flew more than 1,400 missions in the Messerschmitt Bf 109, enabling him to score an astonishing 352 kills. How did Hartmann get so good at dominating the skies over the Eastern Front? What were his beliefs? In Black Tulip, author Erik Schmidt seeks to illuminate the complexities of Hartmann’s personality. Schmidt spoke with Air & Space senior associate editor Diane Tedeschi in August.

Air & Space: Why did you decide to write this book?

Schmidt: “I’m drawn to aviation and history naturally, but I really committed to the project when I saw how simplified and celebratory [the coverage of] Hartmann’s life has been over the years. I wondered what else was there. At the start, I didn’t really have an opinion about him. So in part I saw the project as a chance to go into the history and see what I ought to believe, as opposed to going into the history with an existing belief you’re trying to validate.

What made Hartmann such a great fighter pilot?

Hartmann was in the early cohort of German pilots who got exhaustive training before they were sent to the Front. The Germans couldn’t sustain this through the war, but it was crucial early on. He knew his plane, mission, and tactics extremely well. Pilot training is almost always the dominant factor in an air battle.

He also had a dogfighting strategy that was a great match for his situation on the Eastern Front. It was more of an anti-dogfighting strategy, really. Hartmann always sought quick, surprise attacks and avoided twisting-and-turning engagements that would have made him more vulnerable. This is exactly as it should have been, since he usually had free-hunt missions, a choice of targets, and the luxury of deciding when, and if, to engage.

Finally, Hartmann is well known for striking at very close range. This made his gunfire lethal, saved ammo for more enemies, and didn’t alert his targets before absolutely necessary. A lot of his victims never knew anyone was there until one of their wings ripped off or their engine blew up. Hartmann essentially shot himself down a few times by running into his enemy’s shrapnel—that’s how close he liked to get.

Why did Hartmann paint his aircraft with the image of a black tulip?

I think it was actually someone else’s idea, but it caught on quickly and he really owned it. The Soviets started recognizing the black tulip in the air, so much so that they would just head for home whenever Hartmann showed up. This reduced his kill rate for a while, so he loaned his tulip-painted plane to younger, inexperienced recruits so they could have a little space to figure things out. Then, in an anonymous 109, Hartmann could resume downing more planes.

Aside from good airmanship, was there something in Hartmann’s psychological makeup that enabled him to excel in such a harsh environment as the Eastern Front?

Endurance. Resiliency. Hartmann survived more than 1,400 missions, which amazes me almost as much as his kill tally. [The Eastern Front] really was as frigid, unforgiving, and demanding as they say. I don’t know what exactly went through his head before those early-morning sorties, but it probably wasn’t desperation or doubt. He had a reputation for coolness. Like most fighter pilots, he also had a confidence and a stick-to-it mindset that served him well.

What do photographs tell you about Hartmann? Do you think he looked the part of a fighter pilot?

Yes and no. He was lanky, with thick blond hair that never seemed to cooperate. In this way, he lacked a traditionally military bearing, though in uniform he looked the part just fine. He always seemed a little like a boy who was out of place—he definitely wasn’t the super-masculine archetype we see from Robin Olds in Vietnam, for example.

Is there substantive evidence (letters, diaries, oral histories) that proves Hartmann was a hardcore believer in Third Reich ideology?

Hardcore? No, you’re not going to see that. Receptive and compliant? Yes. It’s hard to give a black-and-white answer to this, actually. Hartmann wasn’t a philosopher—he and the other German kids were trained not to be. He was essentially obedient and vocationally focused, which is what the ardent Nazis wanted. They never needed to convert everyone as long as [people] kept doing the jobs.

How did Hartmann’s 10 years as a POW in the Soviet Union affect him?

It completely crushed him, as you’d imagine. There’s a photo of him during his return trip and he looks like he’s had the life drained out of him. He kind of did. Most of the abuse he absorbed in those years was psychological—the Soviets were pinning fake war crimes on him, trying to get him to work for them and turn on his peers. His reintegration into the new West Germany was an ordeal of its own.

As part of your research, how did you get the opportunity to sit in the cockpit of a Messerschmitt? How did it feel to be in the cockpit of a World War II aircraft?

This was an early highlight. I contacted the curator at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in Oregon (near where I lived at the time) asking if I could go behind the ropes and inspect their 109. It was a Bf 109G-10, which is one of the versions Hartmann flew. How did it feel? Cold and hard. You can tell right away that this thing was made from sheet aluminum and rivets. There was a strange fragility to the plane, actually. The cockpit was painted a dark gray, which is accurate—it would have been a stormy gray called RLM 66—and aside from a few splashes of color from knobs and switches, it was awfully dark in there.

For some reason, I remember being fascinated by a little side vent near the pilot’s left arm. It seemed so underdeveloped. It could be adjusted to let outside air in, but it fit imperfectly and I could always see daylight out of it, even when it was closed. These machines really were mass produced by the tens of thousands—and in a hurry. It was an important moment for me. It’s rare and special to access an artifact like that. When I finally climbed out, I felt closer to Hartmann and his experience, but I was also aware of how radically different my life is from his.

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