The most successful fighter pilots who took part in aerial battles during the First World War were called flying aces. The term first appeared in 1915 when French newspapers described Adolphe Pegoud as a flying ace after he became the first pilot to shoot down five German aircraft.
In 1916 during the Battle of Verdun the French fighter units began publishing the scores of individual pilots. German Air Service followed the example of France but their pilots were only listed when they had achieved eight confirmed 'kills'. In 1916 Oswald Boelcke and Max Immelmann were Germany's two most successful flying aces. Both these men benefited from the introduction of the synchronized gear which made it easier for pilots to hit their targets.
The Royal Flying Corps also began publishing figures in 1916. It was also decided that British pilots who achieved eight victories would be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Pilots who won this award included Major Mick Mannock (73 victories), William Bishop (72), Raymond Collishaw (68) and James McCudden (58).
France's most successful pilots included Rene Fonck (75), Georges Guynemer (53) and Charles Nungesser (43). However, it was the German pilot, Manfred von Richthofen, the 'Red Baron', with eighty victories, who achieved the highest figure during the First World War.
The publication of these figures helped to build up morale during the war. They were also used to persuade young men to join the armed forces and to encourage experienced pilots to compete with their comrades.
The figures published in the newspapers were not always accurate. Dogfights often involved large numbers of aircraft and it was not always clear who was really responsible for the actual 'kill'. To obtain a 'confirmed' victory involved the inspection of the wreckage, and this was of course impossible when the aircraft had come down behind the enemy front-line.
On 26th September 1918 I obtained permission to take off. That date marks one of the toughest days of my fighting career. I remained in the air from morning to night, and if my machine gun had not jammed, I would have added eight planes to my credit.
Our infantryman had advanced several kilometers and menacing Boche patrols were flying above them. The first patrol that I attacked consisted of five Fokkers. Without giving them the time to work out by signals their plan to attack me, I dived into them at full speed, guns blazing. Letting myself then fly on my wing, I turned over completely in order to rocket up behind one of the planes which had already fired at me. But I had also had fired, and two of the German aircraft crashed to earth in the vicinity of Somme-Py. The others, fearing for their safety, had thought it more prudent to take to their heels.
I then gained altitude and saw in the direction of Suippes an enemy plane being fired at by our own anti-aircraft artillery. I headed there at full speed and reached it at an altitude of 18,500 feet above Perthesles-Hurles. With the first burst that I fired at 30 yards, the observer was killed. The defenceless pilot became frightened and his vertical dive was so sudden and steep that his companion, whom I had just sent off to join his ancestors, toppled overboard and almost fell on me at the moment of me finishing my loop. I must admit, an odd feeling at suddenly seeing a body falling in space. The corpse, like a sack, dropped down and little by little seemed to shrink as it approached the ground - but I did not have time to analyze mt feelings; it was necessary to fight and win.
Without further delay I charged again. Through a sudden bank, I caught the enemy plane under the tail and sent a few incendiary bullets through his fuselage. A little later, while I expected to see him in flames, one of his wings broke off and the plane came crashing down to the ground.
We met at the same altitude. As the sun caught it, I saw the other man's machine painted light brown. Soon we were circulating round each other playing for an opening. Below we probably looked like two great birds of prey indulging in spring-time frolics, but we knew it was a game of death. The first man to get behind the other's back was the winner. In the single-seater fighters you could only shoot forward, and if your opponent got on your tail you were lost.
Sometimes we passed so near to each other that I could see every detail of my opponent's face - that is, all that was visible of it below his helmet. On the machine's side there was a Stork and two words painted in white. The fifth time that he flew past me I managed to spell out the word, Vieux. And Vieux Charles was Guynemar insignia. Georges Guynemar had some 30 victories to his credit and I knew that I was in for the fight of my life.
I tried every trick I knew - turns, loops, rolls, sideslips - but he followed each movement with a lightning speed and gradually I began to realise that he was more than a match for me. But I had to fight on, or turn away. To turn away would be fatal.
For eight minutes we had been flying round each other in circles. Suddenly Guynemer looped, and flew on his back over my head. That moment I relinquished hold of the stick, and hammered with both hands at the machine-gun. I missed him and he again passed close over my head, flying almost on his back. Guynemer now knew I was his helpless victim. And then, to my great surprise, he raised his arm and waved to me. Guynemer gave proof that even in modern warfare there is something left of the knightly chivalry of bygone days.
I was flying over a layer of white clouds when I saw a two-seater just above me. This German machine was all alone. Neither the pilot nor the observer saw me. They flew along blissfully ignorant of my existence, while I kept carefully underneath them. I was only ten yards behind the Hun when I fired directly up at him. Although I managed to fire ten rounds I did not hit anything vital. I dived at him, firing as I came. The German observer shot at me with his swivel gun. I could now see my own bullets hitting the right part of the Hun machine. It burst into flames. A second later it fell a burning mass, leaving a long trail of smoke behind as it disappeared through the clouds.
While I have no desire to make myself appear as a blood-thirsty person. I must say that to see an enemy going down in flames is a source of great satisfaction. You know his destruction is absolutely certain. The moment you see the fire break out you know that nothing in the world can save the man, or men, in the doomed aeroplane. I flew away with great contentment in my heart.
Those who hear nowadays of the colossal bags made by certain aviators must feel convinced that it has become easier to shoot down a machine. I can assure those who hold that opinion that the flying business is becoming more difficult from month to month and even from week to week. Of course, with the increasing number of aeroplanes one gains increased opportunities for shooting down one's enemies, but at the same time, the possibility of being shot down one's self increases. The armament of our enemies is steadily improving and their number is increasing. When Max Immelmann shot down his first victim he had the good fortune to find an opponent who carried not even a machine gun. Such little innocents one finds nowadays only at the training ground for beginners.
Upon the tragic death of Major Lufbery, who at that time was the leading American Ace, with 18 victories, the title of American Ace of Aces fell to Lieutenant Paul Frank Baer of Fort Wayne, Ind., a member of the Lafayette Escadrille 103. Baer then had 9 victories and had never been wounded.
Baer is a particularly modest and lovable boy, and curiously enough he is one of the few fighting pilots I have met who felt a real repugnance in his task of shooting down enemy aviators.
When Lufbery fell, Baer's Commanding Officer, Major William Thaw, called him into the office and talked seriously with him regarding the opportunity before him as America's leading Ace. He advised Baer to be cautious and he would go far. Two days later Baer was shot down and slightly wounded behind the German lines.
Thereafter, Lieutenant Frank Bayliss of New Bedford, Mass., a member of the crack French Escadrille of the Cigognes, Spad 3, held the American title until he was killed in action on June 12th, 1918. Bayliss had 13 victories to his credit.
Then David Putnam, another Massachusetts boy, took the lead with 12 victories over enemy aeroplanes. Putnam, as I have said, was, like Lufbery, shot down in flames but a day or two before my last victory.
Lieutenant Tobin of San Antonio, Texas, and a member of the Third Pursuit Group (of which Major William Thaw was the Commanding Officer), now had six official victories. He led the list. I for my part had five victories confirmed. But upon receiving confirmation for the two Fokkers I had vanquished yesterday and to-day, I would have my seven and would lead Tobin by one. So it was with some little interest and impatience that I set off to try to find ground witnesses of my last two battles above St. Mihiel.
Mingled with this natural desire to become the leading fighting Ace of America was a haunting superstition that did not leave my mind until the very end of the war. It was that the very possession of this title - Ace of Aces - brought with it the unavoidable doom that had overtaken all its previous holders. I wanted it and yet I feared to learn that it was mine! In later days I began to feel that this superstition was almost the heaviest burden that I carried with me into the air. Perhaps it served to redouble my caution and sharpened my fighting senses. But never was I able to forget that the life of a title-holder is short.
To youngsters like myself, when I joined the Royal Air Force in 1928, the names of Mannock, Ball, McCudden, Bishop, von Richhoften and others were an inspiration. I read all about these great fighter pilots of World War I. Their methods and tactics stayed in my mind when I started to fight in the air in May 1940. Their three golden rules for a fighter pilot were: (1) Get above your opponent and the advantage is yours. (2) Get up-sun of your opponent and he won't see you. (3) Get close before shooting and you won't miss.