Little Dieter Needs to Fly is a 1997 documentary film made for German television, written and directed by Werner Herzog, produced by Werner Herzog Filmproduktion. The film was released to DVD in 1998 by Anchor Bay.
Herzog found a kindred spirit in a German-American Navy pilot and Vietnam veteran, Dieter Dengler. Like Herzog, Dengler grew up in a Germany reduced to rubble by World War II. Dengler's stories of hunger and deprivation in the years after the war echo similar stories from Herzog's past. Dengler recounts an early memory of Allied fighter-bombers destroying his village, in which he saw one of the pilots and decided that he too wanted to be a pilot. At 18, Dengler immigrated to the United States. He served a two-year enlistment in the Air Force, but was frustratingly unable to gain a pilot's slot in that service. After leaving the Air Force, Dengler attended college and then joined the Navy. After completing flight training, he was assigned as a Douglas A-1 Skyraider pilot in Attack Squadron 65 on the USS Constellation.
In 1966, Dengler served aboard the USS Ranger (CV-61) with VA-145 (Attack Squadron 145). At the time, the squadron was equipped with the Douglas AD-6/A-1H Skyraider, a single-engine, propeller-driven attack plane. On the morning of 1 February, Lt. Dengler launched from the Ranger with three other aircraft on an interdiction mission near the Laotian border. Visibility was poor due to weather, and upon rolling in on the target, Lt. Dengler and the remainder of his flight lost sight of one another. Dengler was the last man in and was hit by anti-aircraft fire. He was forced to crash-land his Skyraider in Laos.
Dengler was taken prisoner by the Pathet Lao, then turned over to soldiers of the Army of North Vietnam. After a period of torture and starvation chained to the bottom of a bamboo cage, Dengler escaped. The bulk of the film consists of footage from a trip Herzog took with Dengler back to Laos and Thailand to recreate his ordeal. Herzog hired locals to play the part of his captors and had Dengler retrace his steps while describing his experiences.
Herzog directed a feature film based on the actual events, starring Christian Bale as Dieter, called Rescue Dawn. The film was released on 24 July 2007.