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Major World War I Aces and Aviation Pioneers
Famous Aces, Forward Thinkers, and Good Stories of WWI Aviation
An ace was a pilot with at least 5 victories or 5 credits for downing an enemy plane. Different nations had different standards for counting and confirming victories, but many of the pre-eminent pilots of WWI were aces. Through their character, creativity, and vivid personalities, these WWI pilots started many traditions that endure to this day in the United States Air Force.
Max Immelmann (Germany)
One of the first celebrity aces, called the “Eagle of Lille”, he applied to join the Aviation Corps at the beginning of the war. In 1915 he joined Oswald Boelcke flying bi-planes. Scored the first-ever victory by a pilot in an officially designated “fighter” plane, the Fokker E2 with machine gun synchronized with the propeller. Developed Immelmann Turn (see this link for an explanation of what Immelmann developed, compared to the modern maneuver of that name.) Died in a crash in June 1916, probably by shooting off his own propeller, after surviving a similar accident in May. Score: 15.
Oswald Boelcke (Germany)
Another early ace, whose strategy was to spot the enemy first and use the sun, clouds, and Allied planes’ blind spots to keep the enemy from spotting him. Wrote his guidelines for air combat in the Dicta Boelcke. Flying with Immelmann, he developed the concept of fighting in pairs, and formation flying. Brought gifts with him on hospital visits to those he shot down. Picked Manfred von Richthofen and other top pilots for Jagdstaffel (squadron) 2, or Jasta 2. Killed at the age of 24 in a crash resulting from a wingtip collision with his friend Erwin Boehme. Score: 40
Werner Voss (Germany)
Scored 48 victories in 10 months. One of the first test pilots for the Dr1 triplane made famous by the Red Baron. Shot down by the British while trying for an even 50 victories; his enemies expressed sorrow he hadn’t survived the crash.
Manfred von Richthofen
Manfred von Richthofen, the “Red Baron” (Germany)
With 80 confirmed aerial combat victories, Richthofen was the “Ace of Aces” for WWI, leading all other aces of all other countries. Led the “Flying Circus” Jagdgeschwader (fighter wing) where all the planes were painted in bright colors to be distinguishable in combat, but Richthofen’s was the only completely red plane. The blood-red color was intended to scare enemies, and it did, even if now it looks like a cute little red plane – for a generation new to flying machines, it was a fearsome monster of the air. The Red Baron is one of the best-known names from WWI, partly because of Charles Schultz’s comic strips about Snoopy’s imaginary fights with the Red Baron. Richthofen died in pursuit of his 81st victory in April 1918; Roy Brown was credited with shooting him down, but it is more likely he was killed by Australian ground fire after landing his plane. Another HubPages author has a picture of her father with the Red Baron.
Mick Mannock (UK)
Though nearly blind in one eye, he was the top British ace with 61 victories. He attacked from above and behind if possible. Hated Germans, refusing to join other pilots toasting their “greatest enemy”, Richthofen. Raised confidence of beginners by “giving away” victories, letting them finish what he had started. Despised cowardice, but encouraged anyone who was afraid yet did his duty. Died in July 1918 from ground fire while following a German plane to make sure of a kill.
Albert Ball (UK)
First British celebrity ace. Aggressive fighter who flew a Nieuport, using such tactics as flying head-on at an enemy plane, then shooting when the enemy swerved. His victory from shooting rockets (intended for a balloon) at an enemy plane was probably the first air-to-air rocket attack. Challenged two German planes to a duel over German territory; when six showed up, and he ran out of ammunition, he landed, tricking them into thinking he was dead, then took off when the Germans landed to see if they had really killed the great Albert Ball. In another fight with him against five enemy planes, he downed four of them and the last fled. Known for playing the violin while walking around a red flare outside his tent. Lothar von Richthofen, Manfred’s brother and another leading German ace, shot at him and believed he had shot him down, later evidence suggested what actually downed Ball was a machine gun mounted on a church steeple. In any case, he died at the age of 20 with 44 victories.
James McCudden (UK)
Studied German tactics, became tactical expert. Flew the SE5, specialized in fighting enemy observation planes, which were two-seaters, meaning that one man had the full-time job of shooting back at McCudden. Known for being a good instructor and an excellent leader in the last years of the war, when formation flying superseded individual dogfights. Died when his engine failed on takeoff and he tried to turn back after losing too much height. Score: 57
William Barker (Canada)
Hunted elk from horseback as a boy. Fought on the Austrian front, which included mountain flying in winter (in an open cockpit!) Showed the power of low-level ground attacks by shooting up an aerodrome and the Austrian Army headquarters. Survived crash-landing on a mountain, and another time in a lake. Dropped hundreds of leaflets on enemy airfields, challenging Austrian pilots to combat. When he was eventually sent back to England to keep him alive, he attacked an observer plane he saw on the way, then a Fokker, and then sixty or so enemy fighters attacked him. Despite major injuries, which caused him to faint twice during the air battle (both times revived by the cold air rushing past him), he got four more victories and landed with both legs and one arm not working. The war ended with him in the hospital, and he fully recovered, living until 1930, when he died as a test pilot. Score: 50
Eddie Rickenbacker (US)
Already famous as a race-car driver, Rickenbacker became the top American ace, receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor, though he had only 26 aerial victories, far down on the list of aces. Because of coming to the war late, as an American, and having ear problems a lot of the time he was at the front, he actually had more victories for his time in combat than anybody else. Upon receiving the title of “American Ace of Aces”, Rickenbacker noted that all previous holders of the title were dead. However, he lived through the war, going on to become president of Eastern Airlines. Despite an extremely eventful life including two airplane crashes and weeks at sea, he died in bed in 1973.
Ernst Udet (Germany)
Germany’s second best ace, with 62 victories, Udet is famous for one of the only instances of airplane tail art – “Du Doch Nicht!!” (German idiom meaning more or less, “Certainly not you!”) in white across the red tail of his plane. Udet did not get along with von Richthofen’s successor, Hermann Goering. When the war ended and Udet was still alive, he became an aerobatic showman and friend of many Americans including Hollywood stars. When he proudly showed his friend Eddie Rickenbacker Germany’s military buildup between the wars, Rickenbacker (and others, including Jimmy Doolittle and Charles Lindbergh) tried vainly to warn the US to be on guard against Germany. Udet committed suicide during WWII, maybe; many say it appeared to be a murder made to look like a suicide for Nazi propaganda reasons.
Ernst Udet aerobatics
Billy Bishop (Canada)
Top Canadian/British ace. While attacking a German airfield, shooting planes as they took off to attack him, he got at least 100 bullet holes through his plane, along with several victories. In one battle, his guns jammed, but he was able to cause the enemy plane to crash by deliberately colliding with the enemy’s wingtip. When told that he would be sent back to England in two weeks, for his own safety, he spent the two weeks shooting down 25 more planes. He was the second-highest scoring of all aces to survive the war, and was in charge of recruiting for the Royal Canadian Air Force in WWII. Died in bed in 1956. Score: 72
Roderic Dallas (Australia)
Australian ace who, among other planes flew Sopwith Triplanes against Albatros triplanes, fighting against some of Germany’s best fighter units, including the Red Baron’s. Known for his leadership abilities. Unusually for an Allied pilot, he painted his plane in a distinctive green and brown, similar to the pattern the RAF later used. Tested a prototype for oxygen equipment while setting an altitude record at 26,000 feet. Once dropped a package on a German aerodrome with the note “If you won’t come up here and fight, herewith a pair of boots for work on the ground, pilots for the use of.” Killed a few months before the war ended, while attacking one plane without noticing others waiting in ambush. Score: 45
Norman Prince (US)
American pilot who started up the Escadrille Americaine, a squadron of Americans fighting alongside French air forces before America’s entry into the war. The squadron’s name changed over time depending on how American participation in the war was seen, and is generally known as the Lafayette Escadrille. Besides Prince, the original squadron included William Thaw, Victor Chapman, Kiffin Rockwell, James McConnell, Bert Hall, and Elliot Cowdin. Prince was killed in 1916 by hitting wires during landing. Score: 5
Raoul Lufbery (US)
One of the earliest American pilots, Lufbery was an American citizen born in France and a leader in the Lafayette Escadrille. Acquired lion cubs named Whiskey and Soda that became the squadron mascots. After America entered the war, Lufbery became commander of the 94th Aero Squadron and introduced Eddie Rickenbacker (who later succeeded him as commander) and others to aerial combat. Developed landing traffic patterns to keep pilots from using the same runway in opposite directions. Died after jumping or falling from his plane in May 1918. Official score: 17; unofficial score possibly four times that.
Frederick Libby (US)
Another early American pilot – from Sterling, Colorado – he became the first American ace in the summer of 1915, though since he volunteered for the Canadian army, he was not an American citizen at the time. A cowboy before the war, he got his first victory on his first combat mission, which also happened to be his birthday. He was a unique triple ace: flying as an observer, a bomber pilot, and also a fighter pilot, he scored enough victories in each of the three positions to count as an ace. After the war he founded Eastern Oil Company and Western Air Express, and lived to 1970 despite being crippled by inflammation of his vertebrae. Score: 18
Frank Luke (US)
“Balloon Buster”: American pilot famous for shooting down 18 balloons and planes in 17 days. Balloons were was the most difficult target for many reasons, as explained by Eddie Rickenbacker in one of his books as a tribute to Frank Luke. One reason was that guns on the ground could protect a balloon better than a plane because the balloon stayed in the same place, so a curtain of antiaircraft fire could be set up around it. When he was shot down, rather than surrender, Luke died beside his plane with his handgun blazing.
Georges Guynemer (France)
Early French ace who started in the French Air Corps as a mechanic and so knew the planes well. Injured in air battle in 1916, he got tired of being in the hospital and returned to his squadron, but when his commanding officer saw him, he sent Guynemer back for three more weeks of recovery. Used the frontal attack because it gave a pilot the best chance of hitting a plane’s most vital parts (propeller, engine, radiator, and pilot). Once shot down 3 Fokkers in 5 minutes, leading his friends to joke that to cook an egg, you put it in boiling water until Guynemer has shot down 3 planes. A year later, died at the age of 22 in aerial combat. Score: 53
Rene Fonck (France)
Allied Ace of Aces, with a score second only to Manfred von Richthofen, he was the highest-scoring ace to survive the war. The fact that he survived several years of air war was also remarkable; he joined the French Air Corps in 1915, where he spent the first two years as a reconnaissance pilot. Most of his victories were in the last six months of the war; he had only 12 victories at the time France’s previous hero, Guynemer, died. A great marksman, Fonck studied bullet holes in shot-down enemy planes to see where the blind spots for each plane were. He checked his bullets, and rejected any that were even slightly imperfect, to minimize the chance of his guns jamming. A methodical scientist of aviation combat, he brought a new dimension to the developing image of the fighter pilot. His status as a French hero was somewhat tarnished during WWII by his associations with Goering, when he was sent to see if he could find out from Goering what Hitler planned for France, but he was finally vindicated. Died in 1953. Score: 75
Billy Mitchell (US)
US Army officer who made a made a very risky flight in 1918 to see the situation as Germans poured across the Marne on bridges the Allied army headquarters didn’t know about. The risk, and the benefit, were in the fact that Mitchell was not an average pilot but a colonel with understanding of the troop movements he was seeing below him. What he saw gave the Allies a plan to attack Germany in the rear, and win. Later, Mitchell assembled an operation that looked more like WWII: 1481 British, American, and French planes in the largest number yet used for any one operation, working strategically with each other and with ground operations. After the war, Mitchell strongly expressed his views that the Army Air Corps should be made into a separate service. Though court-martialed for his insubordination, he is now considered the father of the US Air Force.
Field Kindley (US)
A movie projectionist/small businessman before WWI, he became one of America’s leading aces and survived the war, only to be killed in 1920. Like Billy Mitchell, after the war Kindley argued strongly for a separate air service. Kindley flew for the Army in air races to keep aviation before the public. Had he not been killed in a flying accident at age 23, he would perhaps have become one of the famous names in interwar and WWII aviation like Doolittle and Mitchell. Score: 12
Eugene Bullard (US)
The first American black pilot, Eugene Bullard, was not officially flying for America, but was one of the Americans flying for France. He earned the respect of his fellow pilots both by his performance and by his physical presence, having previously been a boxer. James Norman Hall described his first impression of Bullard as a "vision of military splendor". However, as a corporal Bullard got in a fight with an officer and was withdrawn from the aviation corps. He stayed in France into World War II and helped the French Resistance, earning the Legion of Honor. Score: 2
James Norman Hall
James Norman Hall/Charles Nordhoff (US)
Both writers, both American pilots in the Lafayette Escadrille, these two men collaborated on several famous books, the best known of which is Mutiny on the Bounty. Hall was shot down and became a German prisoner of war, and after the war lived in Tahiti. His daughter married Nicholas Rutgers, a descendant of the family that established Rutgers University, who flew in WWII.
Books by Nordhoff and Hall
Victor Parks (US)
Instructor pilot who thus knew many of the pilots, who tried to get his cousin Charles Parks into the flying corps. Charles Parks was gassed before he could get there, but after the war stayed friends with many pilots and WWI veterans. Charles’s son James Parks grew up knowing many pilots and being fascinated with their stories, and they passed on their memorabilia to him as they grew older. James took his family, including his son Andy Parks, on many trips to meet veterans of WWI, passing on to one final generation a chance to personally know the pilots of WWI. The Lafayette Flying Corps made James Parks their ninth honorary member; the eighth honorary member was Charles Lindbergh.