During World War One, the airplane, less than two decades old, became a new weapon of war. At first, it was used for reconnaissance, but then its value in battle became recognized.
Being a fighter pilot during the war was not for cowards. The aircraft were open air and there were no safety features or parachutes. There was no protection from the weather or decrease in oxygen. To make matters worse, the training period was just a few days, if not hours.
To be considered an ace, a pilot had to have a certain number of kills, the specific number varying between fighting forces.
Let’s take a look at the exploits of four World War One flying aces.
Manfred von Richthofen
Perhaps the most famous flying ace, Manfred von Richthofen is better known as the Red Baron. The son of a Prussian nobleman, he joined the German Air Force in 1915.
Richthofen’s nickname comes from his airplane that was painted red.
Two years after joining the air force, he became commander of a unit known as the Flying Circus.
He is credited with 80 kills.
In April 1918, he was shot down and killed. He was 25. It is unclear who shot down Richthofen. At the time, credit was given to Canadian Arthur Brown, but it was equally possible Richthofen was shot by Australians on the ground.
Billy Bishop is credited with 72 kills, making him the most successful Canadian ace of the war. He earned the nickname the Lone Hawk because he preferred to fly solo missions.
Bishop had attended a military college and fought in the infantry before requesting to be transferred to the British Royal Flying Corp. (Canada did not yet have its own air force.) He flew from 1917 to June 1918 when the military pulled him from service, fearful his death would lower morale on the home front.
He won both a Distinguished Flying Cross and a Victoria Cross, among other awards, for bravery.
During World War Two he served as Air Marshall. He lived to be 62.
An Ohio native, Eddie Rickenbacker is of Swiss descent and was a race car driver before the war.
When the United States joined the war effort, he enlisted and was assigned to be General Pershing’s driver.
Eventually, he made his way to the Air Army Mission and flew his first mission in 1918. He was 27 and considered too old to be flying, but he proved everyone wrong, having 26 kills.
Like Bishop, he survived the war and went on to serve in the Second World War. He lived to be 82.
Albert Ball had more kills than any other British pilot – 44.
Ball joined the army shortly after the start of the war and the Royal Flying Corp. the following year. Unlike most of his British contemporaries, Ball received fame for success.
He preferred flying alone and attacking his enemies from below.
In 1917, he was killed when his plane crashed. He was 20. The circumstances surrounding his death are unclear. The Red Baron’s brother Lothar von Richthofen was credited with the kill, but it is possible Ball suffered vertigo and lost his bearings.
He was awarded a Victoria Cross posthumously and had received numerous awards prior to his death.
Who should I have included in the list? Leave a comment below.
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