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How to Be an Ace

Updated on February 12, 2014
aethelthryth profile image

Karen gets fascinating WWI and WWII aviation stories from the Vintage Aero Flying Museum as writer for the Great War Stories Gift Shop.

Field Kindley

About World War 1 Ace Field Kindley

The number one ace pilot for America in World War 1, Eddie Rickenbacker, was previously a race car driver. America’s number four ace pilot (number five, if you count Raoul Lufbery) was previously a movie projectionist: Field Kindley. Yes, that’s written the right way around, though after his death an airfield in the Philippines, and later one on Bermuda, were named Kindley Field in honor of Field Kindley.

One can see some overlap in skill sets between a race car driver and a fighter pilot. But how does a movie projectionist become a top ace? In reading War Bird Ace: The Great War Exploits of Capt. Field E. Kindley, I noticed the author, retired USAF officer Jack Stokes Ballard, had a lot of discussion of the qualities that might predict a top ace. This book should be very interesting to Air Force cadets in general, and pilot candidates in particular, because it is both foundational history of the Air Force and also gives insight into that burning question, “will I be selected for pilot training or washed out?”

Foundations of the Air Force

I discovered this book through the Vintage Aero Flying Museum, which was one of the book’s information sources. Kindley’s name is barely known today, partly because nobody pays attention to number four of anything, but mainly because he died in a postwar flying accident at the age of 23. Otherwise, he seemed on track to become one of the foundational pilots of the Air Force, as he was an ace like Eddie Rickenbacker and promoted aviation through air racing like Jimmy Doolittle. Also, like Billy Mitchell, he stayed in the Army after the war and spoke up for a cabinet-level Department of the Air.

As it was, Kindley put a lot of living in 23 years, and a 23-year-old in those days did not seem as young as now. (Another WW1 pilot at the age of 24 said flying and fighting made him look 40 and feel 90 years old.)

The two Kindley Fields and other places related to Field Kindley

show route and directions
A markerPhilippines -
get directions

Where Field Kindley grew up, also where there was a Kindley Field named for him.

B markerBermuda -
get directions

Site of the second field named for Field Kindley, an airfield used in World War 2.

C markerEngland -
England, UK
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Kindley's flight training was in England.

D markerFrance -
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At the front in France.

E markerArkansas -
Arkansas, USA
get directions

Kindley's birthplace.

Kindley Field in Bermuda

By US Army [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By US Army [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons | Source

Not so average

At the time the US entered World War 1, Field Kindley was a movie projectionist from Kansas. After the war, he had the chance to be part of movies about aviation. How many projectionists watch thrillers and imagine themselves as the hero? But then how many of those, within a couple of years, actually become that hero, and get offered a part in a movie?

Actually, Kindley’s life was not as average as that description sounds. He was born in Arkansas, but his mother died before he was 3, and from 7 to 12 he lived in the Philippines where his father was a schoolteacher. Later he returned to the US to live with relatives in Arkansas, while his father stayed in the Philippines. Besides being a projectionist, he was also a part owner of the movie theater, and a successful entrepreneur, recognized for honesty and success.

Kindley joined the Army about a month after the US declared war on Germany. He started in the infantry, but decided the Air Service sounded better.

Many ace qualities were lacking

Kindley had no strong mechanical bent, and no tendency to recklessness or thrill seeking. As a boy, he was not particularly adventuresome or driven. His decisions seemed to be made calmly and thoughtfully. His high school grades were only slightly above average, with no particular strength in math or science, and he quit school before graduating. He played sports, but was not a star. He wasn’t known for hunting or any other involvement with firearms. He could make minor repairs and adjustments to a car or motorcycle, but did not know gasoline motors. Nothing about him showed particular aptitude for aviation.

Ace potential

He did have some promising, though less obvious, characteristics. Kindley was open to making changes in his life, maybe because of the major changes he’d already handled. He was already fairly self-reliant and independent. His world travel was unusual for his generation, and was a good preparation for being sent to Europe. His loose family ties made it easier for him to decide to leave for parts unknown.

Kindley’s country charm (“Everyone liked Field”) helped him both in business and in getting into Air Service leadership positions. His business experience was considered valuable enough to equate to two years of college education. Kindley was curious, always wanting to learn, which was vital in an era when both cars and airplanes were newfangled monstrosities. Finally, he had a toughness and determination that served him well in dogged pursuit of enemies in the air.

Field Kindley and Sopwith Camel

Pilot training

Kindley’s flying training was in England, making him one of the RAF-trained American “War Birds”, and he was complimented on his nerve on his first solo flight. He liked flying, apparently finding it exciting, which it certainly was; he survived various narrow escapes in his training. He was taught formation flying and ground strafing, subjects that didn’t exist a few years before!

He spent some time in spring 1918 ferrying aircraft around Britain and over the Channel. One day Kindley tried to fly the Channel in bad weather (probably because of a French girl he’d met). Experiencing engine problems in 25-foot visibility, he crashed into the white cliffs of Dover. Unlike his aircraft, he survived with no major injuries, and was lucky in how the accident was written up, deemphasizing pilot errors. His commanding officer was protecting Kindley, seeing that his willingness to take a chance and his determination to do a job were qualities badly needed at the front.

Combat flying

In the 148th Aero Squadron, high-school dropout Kindley was among a group of mostly Ivy League graduates. Like 7th-grade dropout Eddie Rickenbacker, he earned their respect with what he did in the air and his eagerness for combat, and he soon became a flight commander. A fellow pilot described Kindley as a born leader without a nerve in his body.

Qualities of a flight commander

A flight commander had a lot to do: watching for enemy aircraft and understanding their strategy, making sure the flight was in formation, trying to get in a good position relative to the enemy, dodging anti-aircraft fire, and when necessary, retreating without leaving anyone behind. Anti-aircraft fire usually missed, but Kindley noted that with the number of shots fired at some pilots, statistics were not in favor of the pilot!

As flight commander, Kindley was a father figure to his pilots. He was noted for planning and concern for his pilots, being more of a team player than most flight commanders, being tenacious and with quick reactions, but also quiet, and level-headed. Even when he was nervous, he appeared cool and deliberate. He was also respected in the enlisted ranks, since he showed appreciation for his mechanics at a time when acknowledging the contributions of others was less expected.

Camels in a row

Ace strategy

Kindley became an ace (five air victories) on September 2, 1918, and ended the war with 12 victories. Different aces had different strategies, some relying on surprise, others relying on dogged tenacity. Kindley was aggressive, getting an enemy in point-blank range before firing. Like many other pilots, he had a mascot, an English bull terrier named “Fokker”.

Field Kindley and "Fokker"

Kindley's mascot dog was named "Fokker".
Kindley's mascot dog was named "Fokker". | Source

End of World War 1

Pilots often got fatalistic about their own deaths, as the stress of combat and the deaths of friends mounted. They often appeared to live only for the day, because it was a way to hide the fear and sorrow – it was vital to keep the fear from spreading through the unit.

The stress affected Kindley enough that a medical evaluation recommended leave for him, which he got after the war ended. But also after the war he became squadron commander of the 141st Aero Squadron, which even after the war was quite a challenge – how to keep up the morale of a squadron that is not fighting but not yet home?

Aviation after World War 1

As a squadron commander and a top ace, Kindley got to write some of the “lessons learned” from WW1 air combat; lessons which became part of Air Force doctrine. As mentioned before, he was also offered money to make a movie, but didn’t think it would be an ongoing job, and also didn’t think the movie would do justice to aerial combat. He stayed in the Army, and started representing the Army in air races, which helped raise public awareness of flying. (Many pilots in World War 2 were inspired to fly by barnstormers and air racers between the wars.)

However, Kindley didn’t get far in air racing. He survived (with literally only a scratch) a crash in Albany, where there were unexpected air currents - he heroically wrecked his plane to avoid hitting the crowd. In another race from Long Island to San Francisco, he had difficulties and was dropped from the race.

In 1919, Kindley testified for a Congressional hearing about forming a united air service. Saying much the same thing as what Billy Mitchell got in trouble for, Kindley testified that aviation was too big a job for the Army or Navy, and that pilots should be trained and flying in preparation for the next war – in fact, he noted, in the next war, the first battle could be in the air!

Perhaps this hearing was part of why Kindley was reassigned to Kelly Field, at San Antonio. He was to take over command of the 94th Aero Squadron, the one Rickenbacker had commanded (Rickenbacker was now a civilian.)

Sadly, while the base was preparing for a visit by General Pershing, Kindley saw from the air some men near a target for a firing demonstration. He dove down to warn the men away from the area, but after warning them, something happened. The aircraft hit the ground and “War Bird” ace Kindley was killed in a peacetime accident.

And much more aviation history

This article has only summarized the discussion about what makes an ace, but War Bird Ace covers many more aviation history subjects. For instance:

  • How flying changed during WW1
  • How aircraft were used and how they affected the ground war
  • Why squadrons flying Camels got most of the missions attacking ground targets
  • The Jasta with blue tails that may have been better than Richthofen’s Flying Circus
  • How the German air effort managed to stay deadly even as the war drew to a close

This book is great for anyone interested in WW1 aces or Air Force history. It is not long (there isn’t that much recorded information about Kindley) but the book is carefully sourced, and its bibliography itself is a great resource for books on aviation history.


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    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 3 years ago from American Southwest

      Thank you, RonElFran. It's interesting when there's an opportunity to learn about the second, third, or fourth best in a category, because usually we only hear about #1.

      Anyway, I found Field Kindley interesting, or rather, fascinating!

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 3 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Interesting story. Rickenbacker's name is familiar, of course, but I had never heard of Field Kindley, so I've learned something from this.

    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 3 years ago from American Southwest

      Jay O'Brien, Jesus said many things, including Matt 10:34, Luke 22:36, Rom 13:4, Rev 19:15, not to mention Jesus praised a centurion for his faith rather than rebuked him for his line of work. This is not a great place for a detailed discussion, so I am going to have to quit discussing it here, but if you are serious, you might look into Alvin York's book to find out how a conscientious objector ended up receiving the Medal of Honor, or read Officers Christian Fellowship's article on "May a Christian Serve in the Military?" (they get that question a lot.)

    • profile image

      Jay O'Brien 3 years ago

      Since you mentioned The Bible let us look at what Jesus said and taught as our guide, OK?

      Love your enemies (not friends, but enemies).

      Do good to those who hurt you and use you.

      Peter, sheath your sword.

      You judge by human standards, I judge not.

      Jesus established a new standard: love one another, do not have enemies. Jesus never fought anyone. In WWI there was simply no reason Americans went to fight a European war. As individuals we are to choose Not to fight people, but to find constructive alternatives to fighting. What do you not understand?

    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 3 years ago from American Southwest

      Jay O'Brien, I want my children to know how to fight if needed, have the wisdom to know when fighting is necessary and when it can be avoided, and understand from the Bible why most reasons to fight are evil but some are good.

      Easy to say, tough to teach, much less do!

    • profile image

      Jay O'Brien 3 years ago

      Thank you for your response. You are to first person to have addressed such a question for me. I stopped reading books becuause books cannot answer a single question. Living authors can answer questions which is why I turned to Hub Pages.

      So what do you want to teach our children on this subject?

    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 3 years ago from American Southwest

      Jay C OBrien, I think you bring up some good points many people are confused about, though this is not necessarily the place to go on discussing them. What I see in my own heart is that I have a tendency toward evil, and what keeps that in check is the knowledge that if I do the evil thing, there will be a painful consequence. The only thing that changes that tendency rather than just holds it in check is being transformed by following Jesus.

      I see the same thing internationally; pretty much every nation, given the power to do so, will find an excuse to encroach on another unless there is some external consequence or an internal intention to follow God's laws. But God does authorize a response to injustice by the governments he puts in place to carry out justice (see Romans 13) and if those governments aren't just, God is watching them. In WWII, Allied violence stopped Hitler's violence, and it didn't breed more Hitlers. Also, Allied violence stopped Japanese violence against Asia, and Japan hasn't done anything like it since.

      We have to distinguish between violence that arises from the evil of human nature, and violence that is a just response authorized by God which checks the violence of human nature.

    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 3 years ago from Houston, TX USA

      Thank you for the explanation. I believe people are people and have had the same issues for thousands of years. What do we want to teach our children? I suggest we teach them to walk away from a fight. Violence only breeds more violence.

      Teach the Peace Testamony:

      Renounce war and violence for any purpose or under any pretense whatsoever.

      I hope you understand. It is better not to become enmeshed in war, violence or fighting at any level; international, national or personal.

    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 3 years ago from American Southwest

      Jay C OBrien, I think "why" is an important question. Basic reasons why people do things have changed a lot in 100 years. I would recommend reading biographies of Kindley and Rickenbacker and drawing your own conclusions. From what I have read, in both cases, the answer was, they thought a lot of people would suffer greatly if Germany won the war, and they wanted to help those people, and they had the gifts to do it. Both were extremely independent, capable men who were not blindly doing anything, and probably enjoyed glory like anyone, but could have found it closer to home if they'd wanted.

    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 3 years ago from Houston, TX USA

      Thank you for your response. I often wonder why someone would make a personal decision to go overseas in order to kill people. WWI did not give the US voting rights. Field Kindley and Eddie Rickenbacker both decided to do this. Why? There is a difference between what is good for the government and what is good for individuals. Since I am a common person and not wealthy or a politician I am stumped as to why people fling themselves into battle at great risk to themselves. Are they doing this for glory or do they blindly follow leadership? These are not trick questions. I have wondered this for a long time. Please address them.

    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 3 years ago from American Southwest

      Jay C OBrien, I would say it's easy to talk about not getting involved in a war when we live in the US, where most of our country (with a certain exception called New York City) hasn't had enemy soldiers coming through our front yards for one or two hundred years.

    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 3 years ago from Houston, TX USA

      Yes, a world war is pretty complex and the reasons for entry may vary. I suggest the main reason the US entered WWI was to assure the collection of debts from Brittan. The US banks used the US military for debt collection.

      US casualties

      Killed 116,000

      Wounded 200,000

      Total for WWI

      Killed 5 million

      Wounded 12.8 million

      My point is not to follow your government and get yourself involved in a war. A few people get rich off of wars, we common folk just get the shaft.

    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 3 years ago from American Southwest

      Jay C O'Brien, actually our family just did a talk for homeschoolers tracing the tensions behind WWI back to the fall of the Roman Empire. A world war is pretty complex; there are lots of reasons why any country does anything. But my facile answer for why the US entered WWI is "Because God wasn't ready for Britain and France to be destroyed yet."

      As to how many died, it was 10 or 20 percent of the number who died shortly thereafter in the influenza pandemic. Disease is a result of God's curse on this world, while war is a result of human nature, but it is also a response to human nature, so few to no wars are universally a "good" or "bad" thing.

    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 3 years ago from Houston, TX USA

      GetitScene wrote, " I read the book Flying Aces of World War I and became obsessed with these brave pilots."

      Has anyone stopped to consider why the US entered WWI? How many died during this European war?

    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 5 years ago from American Southwest

      Yep, good thing we had him on our side!

    • GetitScene profile image

      Dale Anderson 5 years ago from The High Seas

      Will do!

      Actually, I just did and I laughed out loud at "More sopwith camels than we ever built." That Snoopy was an over achiever.

    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 5 years ago from American Southwest

      GetitScene, I suppose if I had known who to look for, I might have been able to meet an ace when they were still around, but I only discovered WWI aviation in the last few years, when I visited the Vintage Aero Flying Museum outside Denver and talked to its director, Andy Parks, who pretty much grew up with WWI pilots visiting the family all the time.

      I think Snoopy should have a lot of credit for creating references to WWI in the minds of many who wouldn't know of it otherwise.

      Speaking of Snoopy, you might also want to look up the "What We Do" page of the Man Will Never Fly Memorial Society,

    • GetitScene profile image

      Dale Anderson 5 years ago from The High Seas

      When I was a boy, 12, just after my mother died and I went to live with my grandmother, I read the book Flying Aces of World War I and became obsessed with these brave pilots. (I read the book because of Snoopy's antics battling the Red Baron.) A few years later I had the incredible fortune to meet one of the fighter pilots from WWI who gave me an intense description of his beloved sopwith camel. No boy has ever had a better moment than I had that rainy afternoon and, when i read your articles about the aces, it takes me right back to that childhood moment, every time. Thank you.

    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 5 years ago from American Southwest

      Thank you, old albion. I espcially appreciate opinions on WWI articles from "over there"!

    • old albion profile image

      Graham Lee 5 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      Hi aethelthryth. First class research as usual. Picture are brilliant. First class presentation and links.

      Voted up and all.


    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 5 years ago from American Southwest

      phdast7, why thank you! And to you too. The more I am learning about history, the more I want to know!

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Fascinating article about a slice of history that I knew nothing at all about. Interesting and Informative. Sharing, of course. :)

      Have a wonderful Thanksgiving. ~~Theresa

    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 5 years ago from American Southwest

      UnnamedHarald, yes, I found it impressive that anyone would survive that many crashes and close calls and still want to fly! I think by that time a lot of aviation cliches were probably already well known, such as "Flying is not dangerous, crashing is dangerous," and "You can land anywhere once."

      Pavlo Badovskyy, you are right. It's a lot harder to become a pilot today, though that's not all a bad thing. There is less need for new pilots because pilots aren't getting killed all the time, which is because pilot training is more extensive! However, shortly after Kindley's time becoming a pilot was even harder. I read that between WWI and WWII, the Army had so many men interested in becoming pilots and they needed so few of them that the Army Air Corps made the qualifying exam so hard the president of MIT couldn't pass it.

      shningirisheyes, well said, and thank you!

    • shiningirisheyes profile image

      Shining Irish Eyes 5 years ago from Upstate, New York

      Field Kindley displayed many traits that would all do us well to carry through our life as well. Being open to making change, staying the course with a calm manner while caring for others, always receiving more education and knowledge making strategy and planning optimal. What a fantastic human being. Although, I would like to think the luck o' the Irish helped him out at the White Cliffs of Dover.

      Such a sad and premature end to someone who had so much to offer this world. But how much he did provide while he was here, even sacrificing heroically so others could enjoy their lives.

      Outstanding hub and I am voting up.

    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

      Pavlo Badovskyi 5 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      What a simpl life people had 100 years ago! From cinema -to racer- to ace pilot! I think nowadays it would not be that simple. Interesting hub!

    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Very interesting article, aethelthryth. I'd heard of Kindley Field-- but not Field Kindley! I thought I'd read somewhere that more Allied pilots were killed during training than during combat. In those days any kind of flying was still dangerous and Kindley seemed to lead a charmed life, walking away from so many crashes-- except the last one, of course. Voted up etc.