The Red Baron may have been foiled by injury

Mistakes: Two retired Air Force psychologists believe a head wound months earlier affected famed pilot's judgment.

Medicine & Science

October 04, 2004|By Alan Bavley | Alan Bavley,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

It's never been clear why the World War I German flying ace dubbed the Red Baron took the chances that got him killed one spring day in 1918.

Now two retired U.S. Air Force psychologists think they have an answer: Manfred von Richthofen suffered so traumatic a brain injury in an earlier battle that his judgment was fatally impaired.

"He had clear lapses in judgment," said Daniel Orme, a neuropsychologist at the University of Missouri-Columbia. "He wrote the book on what to do, and he broke his own rules."

Orme and colleague Thomas Hyatt of Cincinnati, also a neuropsychologist, took up the Red Baron mystery after long careers evaluating U.S. Air Force pilots for their mental fitness to fly after injuries or illnesses.

They had seen a television documentary that investigated theories about who shot the Red Baron. But it didn't examine to their satisfaction how von Richthofen's brain injury might have affected his behavior.

After analyzing accounts of the Red Baron's injuries and his medical records, Orme and Hyatt concluded that the ace exhibited classic signs of traumatic brain injury, including depression, fatigue and impulsive behavior. Their study is to be published this fall in the international journal Human Factors and Aerospace Safety.

Von Richthofen was wounded on July 6, 1917, by a bullet that creased his forehead. He was momentarily paralyzed and blinded and his plane plunged into a dive, but he recovered in time to make a crash landing.

His headgear had filled with blood. The wound never fully healed, and for the rest of his life, his head was bandaged.

"If the Baron were in the U.S. Air Force today and had such an injury, he probably would have come to my attention," Orme said. "He would have been grounded at minimum for 10 years, according to the regs."

Orme said the bullet, which "put a divot in his skull," likely damaged the frontal lobes, which play an important role in governing mood, judgment and impulse control. The impact also could have caused the brain to shake violently in his skull.

"It was a very serious injury," Orme said. "Immediately, he became a changed person. He was miserable, in bad spirits, impulsive." This lack of inhibition, he said, led von Richthofen to do uncharacteristic things.

The Red Baron's final battle came in April 1918, nine months after he was injured. Von Richthofen, 25, pursued a fleeing British plane near Vaux sur Somme, France, locking the pilot in his sights and following him into British territory at treetop level where he faced deadly enemy fire. His Fokker triplane was shredded.

"It was a shooting gallery down there," Orme said.

Orme said von Richthofen broke his own rules by continuing the chase into enemy airspace.

"He wouldn't have done what he did the day he was killed if he didn't have the brain injury," was Orme's opinion.

"We [as psychologists] would call it mental rigidity. In the Air Force we call it target fixation."

Canadian historian Alan Bennett, co-author of the book The Red Baron's Last Flight: A Mystery Investigated, agreed that the injury might have affected von Richthofen's judgment but said, "There was nothing wrong with his flying ability. The day before he died, in less than five minutes he shot down two Sopwith Camels."

Von Richthofen was credited with about 80 "kills" of Allied aircraft during the war.

The day he was shot down, the prevailing winds had reversed direction and clouds obscured the ground, Bennett said. Many German pilots strayed into Allied territory.

"It seems fairly obvious [von Richthofen] had lost his air position. He was not where he thought he was," Bennett said. "The wound in his head would have helped with that disorientation, but the major factor was the wind direction."

Bennett agrees with Orme on at least one point: Von Richthofen should not have been flying with that head injury.

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