Red Baron May Have Played Part in Own Demise

Study suggests earlier head wound hurt judgment on fatal flight

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HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Sept. 23, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- The history books say an Allied soldier downed the legendary German flying ace known as the Red Baron near the end of World War I in 1918, but a new study suggests that the baron was an agent in his own downfall.

The real damage to Baron von Richthofen was done nine months earlier when he sustained a brain injury, which ultimately led to some fateful errors he made on his final flight, according to two American neuropsychologists. Brain damage from that injury, suffered when he was hit by a bullet, probably contributed to the poor judgment that led him to his death.

"Using today's standards, he clearly should have been grounded," said study co-author Daniel Orme, a clinical associate professor at the University of Missouri at Columbia who formerly evaluated pilots for the Air Force. "Perhaps the guy who shot him back in July of 1917 should get credit for the partial downing of the baron, setting the stage for his ultimate demise."

As airborne combat was developed and perfected during World War I, the dashing von Richthofen was the "ace of aces," with 80 "kills" during his career. He was shot down on April 21, 1918, behind enemy lines, apparently the victim of antiaircraft fire as he flew dangerously low, barely above the trees. He was pursuing an Allied pilot; at the same time, another Allied pilot was chasing him.

In death, as in life, the most successful fighter pilot in World War I has been lionized. He has appeared in numerous books and films and even in the comic strip "Peanuts," where Snoopy fantasized about dogfights with the baron.

Orme and co-author Thomas L. Hyatt, a retired neuropsychologist, became interested in the baron's head injury after PBS aired a documentary on the pilot's death. They studied his head injury and will report their findings in an upcoming issue of the journal Human Factors and Aerospace Safety.

According to Orme, the injury explains his behavior on the day he died. "He had significant errors in judgment," Orme said. "He put himself into a position into which he would have been shot and killed. He violated some of the major rules in the manual on flying that he himself wrote."

The injury came in 1917 when a machine-gun bullet smashed into the baron's head, creating a four-inch groove in his skull, Orme said. "He lost control of limbs and was blind for a period of time. He regained motor control and vision enough to crash-land the plane and then collapsed."

The injury, essentially a "very severe concussion," would have caused his brain to become bruised as it bounced around inside the fluid of the skull, Orme said. That could have led to an injury to the frontal lobe of the brain, which helps control judgment.

With such injuries, "people do things they wouldn't normally do. They can be impulsive, have difficulty monitoring their own behavior, difficulty recognizing if what they're doing is appropriate."

Indeed, the baron, his friends and his mother noticed changes in his behavior after he was hit in the head, Orme said. "He's described as being much more immature. He was moody and brooding."

If he had suffered similar injuries today, rehabilitation would help him get better, but "a lot of recovery from head injury just takes a natural course. [Patients] improve on their own for a year or two after the injury. If they still have deficits and changes, those are more likely to remain."

Dr. James Grisolia, a neurologist at Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego, said the findings are interesting but hard to prove. How can experts "differentiate such behavior from the uninhibited behavior likely in an air ace to begin with, or from depression or other factors?" he asked.

Ultimately, he said, "the investigators' idea is plausible, but it's always hard to make definite judgments about historical figures when we can't examine them."

More information

An episode of the PBS television show Nova inspired researchers to explore the Red Baron's brain injury. Learn more about the show and the baron's life.

SOURCES: Daniel Orme, Ph.D., clinical associate professor, University of Missouri at Columbia; James Grisolia, M.D., neurologist, Scripps Mercy Hospital, San Diego; Human Factors and Aerospace Safety

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