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His eyes froze in the icy height, then he fell down

At exactly 10,093 meters he made a serious mistake.

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His eyes froze in the icy height, then he fell down

At exactly 10,093 meters he made a serious mistake. Rudolph William Schroeder (1885–1952) removed his goggles to check the oxygen supply. The film of moisture on his eyeballs immediately froze in the open cockpit at temperatures below minus 50 degrees Celsius. Then Schroeder passed out in the thin air. His LUSAC 11 biplane fell.

The powered aircraft was in free fall for two minutes before the pilot regained consciousness 600 meters above the ground. Almost blind, Schroeder was able to arrest the plane's nosedive and landed safely at McCook Field in Dayton, Ohio.

The world record was set on the morning of February 27, 1920: Never before had a person climbed more than 10,000 meters in a turbocharged aircraft. Schroeder thus joined behind daredevils like Otto Lilienthal and the Wright brothers: pioneers who were willing to risk everything for their dream of flying - which some of them had to pay for with their lives.

Schroeder was lucky and survived. But he wasn't satisfied with his performance, because his goal had been 12,000 meters. While he was still in the field, he had to be given emergency medical care by rushing helpers and was taken to a military hospital because of shock and partial blindness. His vision was to remain limited for weeks.

On the camp bed, Schroeder told reporters of the New York Times about the near-death experience at icy altitude: “Suddenly the oxygen stopped flowing. Then, all of a sudden, it felt like my head was going to explode. My eyes hurt, I couldn't open them. I noticed that I was falling.” From this he drew the bold conclusion on his sickbed that he wanted to fly again as soon as possible.

Rudolph William Schroeder was born in Chicago in 1885 to German-Irish parents. He was technically talented and experimented early on with his own glider designs. As a mechanic, he learned to fly from 1910 with Otto Brodie, who completed demonstration flights. His employer is said to have given him the famous nickname "Shorty" - Schroeder was 1.93 meters tall.

Pilots risked their lives often enough in those days. For example, the Farman biplane that Brodie flew had no brakes: to land, the aviators had to throttle the output of the 50-horsepower Gnome rotary engine with the so-called "blip" switch and navigate to a spot on the ground where they could could roll far before the plane came to rest in the grass.

In April 1913, Brodie lost control of his aircraft during a routine test flight. In the nosedive, the engine came loose from its mount and crushed him. Another pilot, who Schroeder had joined as a mechanic, died shortly afterwards.

In 1916 he joined the flight section of the U.S. Army Signal Corps and became senior test pilot at McCook Field in Dayton. Probably influenced by the recent accidents, Schroeder concentrated more on flight safety: He is said to have been the first military pilot to wear one of the parachutes developed by James Floyd Smith. He also opened a night flight school for military training.

During World War I, the US Army began conducting high-altitude test flights. In the next few years, Schroeder kept setting new records. After the memorable February 27, 1920, however, his time of flying high was over - even if Schroeder remained an enthusiastic pilot: In the same year he took part in a flying race in Paris, but did not finish the race due to engine failure. In 1925, as a test pilot for a Ford subsidiary, he was the first to fly the three-engine passenger aircraft Stout 3-AT, and in 1926 a Ford Trimotor, type Ford 4-AT.

In 1940, Schroeder became vice president of security for United Airlines. He died on December 29, 1952 at the age of 67. The "Chicago Tribune" wrote on the occasion of his death: "His life as an adult spanned the entire period of commercial and military aviation, to which he made a major contribution at great personal cost." He never lost his fascination with flying: himself after a stroke in 1941, he is said to have continued to work on aviation projects while still in bed.

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This article was first published in February 2022.

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