During World War I, the airplane became a new weapon of war. It was less than two decades old, and was used originally for reconnaissance. It didn’t take long for planes’ value in battle to be recognized. Soon, people on the home front had a new hero — flying aces. (This post is a companion piece to Melina Druga’s WWI Trilogy, Angel of Mercy, Those Left Behind and Adjustment Year, available wherever eBooks are sold.)
Being a fighter pilot was not for cowards. The aircraft were open air — meaning no protection from the weather and no method to combat decreased oxygen levels — and there were no safety features either, including parachutes. To make matters worse, the training period was just a few days, if not hours.
To be considered an ace, a pilot had to achieve a certain number of kills. The specific number varied between fighting forces.
Let’s take a look at the exploits of four World War I 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 red airplane.
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 years old. 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.
When he died, even his enemies gave him honors.
“Details of the death of the airman are lacking but as showing the temper of the British officers that it may be said the correspondent heard the ardent hope expressed that Richthofen died fighting in an air battle with a worthy opponent rather than being shot down by anti-aircraft guns,” The Charlotte News said April 22, 1918.
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 attended a military college, though he didn’t graduate, 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.
“The moment my machine-gun commenced to fire,” Bishop said, “I felt the old feeling of exultation, and this always remained with me throughout the whole of every fight.”
He won a Distinguished Flying Cross and a Victoria Cross, among other awards, for bravery.
During World War II he served as Air Marshall and died at the age of 62.
An Ohio native, Eddie Rickenbacker was 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, flying his first mission in 1918. He was 27 and considered too old to fly, but he proved everyone wrong, having 26 kills.
“This pursuit and fighting part of aviation requires a type of aviator who will stick, especially the way we fly in groups,” Rickenbacker said.
Like Bishop, Rickenbacker survived the war and went on to serve in WWII. He lived to be 82.
Albert Ball has more kills than any other British pilot – 44.
Ball joined the army shortly after the start of the war and the Royal Flying Corp. in 1915. Unlike most of his British contemporaries, Ball received fame for his success.
He preferred flying alone and attacking his enemies from below.
In 1917, at the age of 20, he was killed when his plane crashed. The circumstances surrounding his death are unclear, as he was reported missing for several days before his death was confirmed.
“He was not seen to fall, and no word thus far has been heard from the German Aerial Corps as to whether he was killed or captured,” the New York Evening World said May 12, 1917.
The Red Baron’s brother Lothar von Richthofen was credited with the kill, but it is possible Ball suffered vertigo and lost his bearings.
Ball was awarded a Victoria Cross posthumously as well as receiving numerous awards prior to his death.
Updated: 16 October 2020