Air Pressure Changes to Infected Ears
Flying with a cold is a problem. Stuffed-up ears can't equalize the pressure as you go up and down, so eardrums can rupture and cause hearing loss. Ear problems can be a hazard if you fly a lot for business. But what if flying is your job, flying in an open cockpit and going from humid summer conditions to a wintry altitude many times in a day?
Serious ear problems kept both Ernst Udet and Eddie Rickenbacker out of combat for long periods of 1918. Around this time a hundred years ago, Udet had to leave his new squadron in the Flying Circus to recover:
During the following days, the ear pains become worse. It is as though one were chiseling and boring within my head.
Landing, after his twenty-fourth victory,
As I land, I am so overcome by pain I can hardly walk. Richthofen stands on the airstrip, and I stumble past him without salute toward the quarters.
We only have a hospital corpsman. The group has not yet been authorized a doctor. The corpsman is a nice, heavy-set guy, but I don't have too much faith in his medical competence. He digs around my ear with his instruments so I think he wants to saw open my head. "The back of the ear is filled with pus," he finally pronounces.
Goodbye to the Red Baron
Already, pilots fearless enough to take WWI airplanes miles up in the air are finding they are afraid of doctors - or at least what doctors might order. Richthofen is informed, and tells Udet he'll have to leave until he is healthy.
It is hard for me to leave my new staffel, to interrupt my success. [Richthofen] knows this, because we all more or less believe in the Rule of the Series [that it is bad luck to interrupt a string of victories]. Because of this he escorts me to the two-seater himself next morning. He stands on the airstrip and waves at me with his cap. His blond hair glistens in the sun.
It is the last time Udet will see his hero Manfred von Richthofen. On his return home, Udet's family doctor tells him he is finished with flying. "Your eardrum is gone and the inner ear infected."
Something Worse Than Hearing Loss
Udet is twenty-one. He was born into a world without powered flight, but now he can't stand the thought of living without flying. "This would be like putting black glasses on me, to let me wander around for the rest of my life." He decides he is willing to risk hearing loss rather than give up flying. But he still has to recover from his current ear problems. So he has an interlude in wartime to spend with his family, time to grieve the death of a childhood friend, time to be accused of being too old not to be in the trenches, time to go out with his girlfriend Eleanor (or "Lo!," the name painted on the side of his airplane), and time to entertain her by wearing his Pour le Merite medal past a guard station where the guards have to stop what they are doing and salute him. But he only does it a couple times - "the Guard detail is no toy for little girls."
Try That Sometime With an Earache
Eddie Rickenbacker is currently flying in old aircraft that don't even have guns. In July, after finally getting a SPAD, he too will be grounded for ear trouble.
My right ear suddenly developed an excruciating pain. An abscess had formed, and I went back to Paris to have it lanced. But the pain came back more agonizingly than before. I could not afford to take any more time out of the air. To alleviate the pain at night, I had the cook heat a salt bag for me, and I slept with it over my ear. An ice bag would have been more effective, I learned later. During the day I do not believe anything could have dulled the pain. My new Spad had an altitude of 22,000 feet; try that sometime with an earache.
The earache will develop into mastoiditis, keeping him out of action for three of the remaining months of 1918.