Flying ace

Flying ace
For other uses, see Flying Ace (disambiguation)
Flying ace
Pegoud croix de guerre.jpg
The "first ace", Frenchman Adolphe Pégoud being awarded the Croix de guerre.

A flying ace or fighter ace is a military aviator credited with shooting down several enemy aircraft during aerial combat. The actual number of aerial victories required to officially qualify as an "ace" has varied, but is usually considered to be five or more. The few aces among combat pilots have historically accounted for the majority of air to air victories in military history.



World War I

Manfred von Richthofen, better known as the "Red Baron". He scored the most kills in World War I and is arguably the most famous flying ace of all time.

World War I began the historical experience that has shown that approximately five percent of combat pilots account for the majority of air to air victories in warfare.[1] Use of the term “ace” to describe these pilots began in World War I, when French newspapers described Adolphe Pégoud, as l'as (French for "Ace") after he became the first pilot to down five German aircraft. The British did not initially use the term very much – ace pilots often being designated as “star-turns” (using show business rather than sporting terminology), while the Germans described their elite fighter pilots as Überkanonen (which roughly translates to “big gun”).

The systematic use of true single-seat fighter aircraft, with enough speed and agility to catch and maintain contact with targets in the air, and sufficiently powerful armament to destroy them, really dates from the period of the Fokker Scourge (the last half of 1915). The successes of such ace pilots as Max Immelmann and Oswald Boelcke were much publicised for the benefit of civilian morale, and the Pour le Mérite, Germany’s highest award for gallantry, became part of the uniform of a leading German ace. In the Luftstreitkräfte the medal was nicknamed ("Der blaue Max"/"The Blue Max"), after Max Immelmann, who was the first fighter pilot to receive this award. Initially aviators who had destroyed eight Allied aircraft received this distinction,[2] as time went by, the qualification for the Pour le Mérite was progressively raised,[2] but German fighter pilots continued to be officially hailed as national heroes for the remainder of the war,

As the Jagdstaffeln (German single-seat fighter squadrons) usually fought well within German lines, it was practicable to establish and maintain very strict guidelines for the official recognition of victory claims by German pilots. “Shared” victories were either credited to one of the pilots concerned, or to the unit as a whole – the destruction of the aircraft had to be physically confirmed by locating its wreckage - or an independent witness to the destruction had to be found. Victories were also counted of course, for aircraft “forced down” within German lines, and this usually resulted in the capture or death of the enemy aircrew.

British (and Commonwealth) fighter pilots fought mostly in enemy (German held) airspace[3][4] and while on offensive patrol miles over the German lines were often not in a position to confirm that an apparently destroyed enemy aircraft had in fact crashed, so that victories were frequently claimed as "driven down", "forced to land", or "out of control" - what would in later wars have been described as "probables". These "victories" were, however, usually included in a pilot's totals in (for instance) citations for decorations.[5]

The American literary scholar Francis Peabody Magoun claimed to be Canadian in order to join the RAF, in which service he achieved ace status.

“Excessive” praise of fighter pilots, to the detriment of equally brave bomber and reconnaissance aircrew was considered unfair by the British high command – so that the British air services did not publish official statistics on the successes of individuals. Nonetheless some pilots did become famous through press coverage.[2] In this context the whole British "system" for the recognition of successful fighter pilots was much more informal, not to mention inconsistent.

In one instance, Royal Flying Corps pilot Arthur Gould Lee described his own score in a letter to his wife as "Eleven, five by me solo - the rest shared". He went on to say, "so I am miles from being an ace".[6] This has several interesting implications. Lee’s unit (46 Sqn RFC) obviously counted shared kills, but separately from "solo" ones. This is one of a number of factors that seems to have varied from unit to unit, possibly depending on the whim of the commanding officer. Also evident is that a considerably higher figure than five kills was considered as the requisite total for "ace" status, again, at least in No. 46.

Other Allied countries, such as France and Italy, fell somewhere in between the very strict German approach and the relatively casual British one. For instance they usually demanded independent witnessing of the actual destruction of an aircraft, [7] making confirmation of victories scored in enemy territory very difficult. On the other hand the Belgian crediting system sometimes included "out of control" to be counted as a victory. [8]

The United States Army Air Service adopted French standards for evaluating victories, with two exceptions – during the summer of 1918, while flying under operational control of the British, the 17th Aero Squadron and the 148th Aero Squadron used British standards.[9] American newsmen, in their correspondence to their papers, decided that five victories were the minimum needed to become an ace.[10]

While "ace" status was generally won only by fighter pilots, bomber and reconnaissance crews on both sides also destroyed some enemy aircraft, typically in defending themselves from attack. A prime example is John Stevenson Stubbs, an Airco DH.9 bomber pilot credited with 11 aerial victories, including one over a German observation balloon.[11]

Between the World Wars

There were two theaters of war that produced flying aces between the two World Wars. They were the Spanish Civil War and the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Part of the outside intervention of "volunteers" to both sides in the Spanish Civil War involved the supply of foreign pilots to the air forces of both the Spanish Republicans and the opposing Nationalists. Both Russian and American aces aided their Spanish colleagues in the Republican air force; the Nationalists included Germans and Italians along with their Spanish aces.

The Soviet Volunteer Group began operations in the Second Sino-Japanese war as early as 2 December 1937; as a result, there were 28 Soviet aces in the Group.[12] The Flying Tigers were American military pilots recruited in a sub rosa effort to aid the Chinese Nationalists. They spent the summer and autumn of 1941 in transit to China, but did not begin flying combat until 20 December 1941.

World War II

Erich Hartmann, the highest-scoring ace in history, with 352 kills claimed.
Russian Lydia Litvyak of the Soviet Air Force, one of only two female flying aces in history.

In World War II, many air forces adopted the British practice of crediting fractional shares of aerial victories, resulting in fractions or decimal scores, such as 11½ or 26.83. Some U.S. commands also credited aircraft destroyed on the ground as equal to aerial victories. The Soviets distinguished between solo and group kills, as did the Japanese, though the Imperial Japanese Navy stopped crediting individual victories (in favor of squadron tallies) in 1943.

The Soviet Air Forces claimed the only female aces of the war: Lydia Litvyak scored 12 victories and Yekaterina Budanova achieved 11.[13] Fighting on different sides, the French pilot Pierre Le Gloan had the unusual distinction of shooting down four German, seven Italian and seven British planes, the latter while he was flying for Vichy France in Syria.

The Luftwaffe continued the tradition of "one pilot, one kill", and now referred to top scorers as Experten.[14] During the war, and for some years after, the very high victory totals of some experten were considered to be coloured by grandiose Nazi propaganda. Historical research has since shown this generally not to have been the case[citation needed] - although overclaiming undoubtedly occurred, this was by no means confined to the Luftwaffe.

A number of factors probably contributed to the very high totals of the top German aces. For a limited period (especially during Operation Barbarossa), many Axis kills were over obsolescent aircraft and either poorly-trained or inexperienced Allied pilots, especially Soviet ones.[15] In addition, Luftwaffe pilots generally flew many more individual sorties (sometimes up to 1000) than their Allied counterparts. Moreover, they often returned to the cockpit until they were captured, incapacitated, or killed, while successful Allied pilots were usually either promoted to positions involving less combat flying or routinely rotated back to training bases to pass their valuable combat knowledge to younger pilots.

Post World War II aces

The Korean War

The Korean War of 1950 - 1953 marked the transition from piston-engined propeller driven aircraft to more modern jet aircraft. As such, it saw the world's first jet vs jet aces.

Indo-Pakistani Wars

During the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965, Muhammad Mahmood Alam of the Pakistan Air Force was credited with nine aerial victories and two probable victories.[16]

The Vietnam War

Air to air combat during the Vietnam War generally matched intruding United States fighter-bombers against the radar-directed integrated North Vietnamese air defense systems. American F-4, F-8, and F-105 fighter crews usually had to contend with both surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery and machine gun fire before opposing fighters attacked them. The long-running conflict produced 22 aces: 16 North Vietnamese, five American (two of whom were Weapons Systems Officers or WSOs and one Radar Intercept Officer or RIO), and one Russian instructor pilot.

The Middle East conflicts

The series of wars and conflicts between Israel and its neighbors began with Israeli independence in 1948 and continued for over three decades. Of the 50 known aces during these battles, one was Egyptian, three Syrian, and the rest Israeli.

Conflicts in Southwest Asia

The most recent known flying ace is Jalal Zandi of the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force; he scored his fifth of nine victories on 29 August 1987.[17]


Realistic assessment of enemy casualties is important for intelligence purposes,[18] so most air forces expend considerable effort to ensure accuracy in victory claims. In World War II, the aircraft gun camera came into general usage, partly in hope of alleviating inaccurate victory claims.

And yet, to quote an extreme example, in the Korean War, both the U.S. and Communist air arms claimed a 10 to 1 victory-loss ratio.[19][20] Without delving too deeply into these claims, they are obviously mutually incompatible. Arguably, few recognized aces actually shot down as many aircraft as credited to them.[21] The primary reason for inaccurate victory claims is the inherent confusion of three-dimensional, high speed combat between large numbers of aircraft, but competitiveness and the desire for recognition (not to mention sheer optimistic enthusiasm) also figure in certain inflated claims, especially when the attainment of a specific total is required for a particular decoration or promotion.[22]

The most accurate figures usually belong to the air arm fighting over its own territory, where many wrecks can be located, and even identified, and where shot down enemy are either killed or captured. It is for this reason that at least 76 of the 80 planes credited to Manfred von Richthofen can be tied to known British losses[23] — the German Jagdstaffeln flew defensively, on their own side of the lines, in part due to General Hugh Trenchard's policy of offensive patrol.

On the other hand, losses (especially in terms of aircraft as opposed to personnel) are sometimes recorded inaccurately, for various reasons. Nearly 50% of RAF victories in the Battle of Britain, for instance, do not tally statistically with recorded German losses - but some at least of this apparent over-claiming can be tallied with known wrecks, and aircrew known to have been in British PoW camps.[24] There are a number of reasons why reported losses may be understated - including poor reporting procedures and loss of records due to enemy action or wartime confusion.

Non-pilot aces

Charles B. DeBellevue, the first USAF Weapon Systems Officer (WSO) to become a flying ace.

While aces are generally thought of exclusively as fighter pilots, some have accorded this status to gunners on bombers or reconnaissance aircraft, and observers/gunners in two-seater fighters such as the Bristol F.2b. Because pilots often teamed with different air crew members, an observer or gunner might have been an ace while his pilot was not, or vice versa. Observer aces constitute a sizable minority in many lists. World War I observer Charles George Gass, who tallied 39 victories, was the highest scoring observer ace in World War I.[25]

In World War II United States Army Air Forces B-17 tail gunner Michael Arooth is credited with 17 victories.[citation needed]

With the advent of more advanced technology, a third category of ace appeared. Charles B. DeBellevue became not only the first U.S. Air Force Weapon Systems Officer (WSO) to become an ace, but also the top American ace of the Vietnam War, with six victories.[26] Close behind with five were fellow WSO Jeffrey Feinstein and Radar Intercept Officer William P. Driscoll.[citation needed]

Ace in a day

The first military aviators to score five or more victories on the same date, thus becoming "ace in a day", were pilot Julius Arigi and observer/gunner Johann Lasi of the Austro-Hungarian air force, on 22 August 1916, when they downed five Italian planes.[27] The feat would be repeated five more times during World War I.[28][29][30]

Becoming an ace in a day became fairly common during World War II; for instance, 68 U.S. pilots—43 Army Air Forces, 18 Navy, and seven Marine Corps—were credited with the feat.[citation needed] The list of Luftwaffe aces in a day is much longer.[citation needed]

On 6 September 1965, during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965, Muhammad Mahmood Alam of the Pakistan Air Force shot down five Indian Air Force Hawker Hunter Mk.56 fighters in less than a minute, four being within 30 seconds. He was awarded the Sitara-e-Jurat ("The star of courage") and bar for his actions.[31][32]

See also


  1. ^ Dunnigan, How to Make War, p. 149.
  2. ^ a b c Dr David Payne (21 May 2008). "Major 'Mick' Mannock, VC :Top Scoring British Flying Ace in the Great War". Western Front Association website. 
  3. ^ Above the Trenches: A Complete Record of the Fighter Aces and Units of the British Empire Air Forces 1915-1920. p. 6. 
  4. ^ Pusher Aces of World War 1. p. 39. 
  5. ^ Shores, Franks & Guest, Above The Trenches, 1990, p.8.
  6. ^ Lee, Arthur Gould, No Parachute (London: Jarrolds, 1968), p.208
  7. ^ Over the Front: A Complete Record of the Fighter Aces and Units of the United States and French Air Services, 1914-1918. p. 6. 
  8. ^ Above Flanders' Fields: A Complete Record of the Belgian Fighter Pilots and Their Units During the Great War, 1914-1918. p. 34–85. 
  9. ^ Over the Front: A Complete Record of the Fighter Aces and Units of the United States and French Air Services, 1914-1918. p. 6. 
  10. ^ Rickenbacker's Luck: An American Life. p. 55. 
  11. ^ Retrieved 2 May 2011.
  12. ^ Retrieved 28 July 2011.
  13. ^ Bergström, Christer (2007). Barbarossa - The Air Battle: July–December 1941. Classic Publications. p. 83. ISBN 1857802705. 
  14. ^ For the award of decorations, the Germans initiated a points system to equal up achievements between the aces flying on the Eastern front with those on other, more demanding, fronts: one for a fighter, two for a twin-engine bomber, three for a four-engine bomber; night victories counted double; Mosquitoes counted double, due to the difficulty of bringing them down. See Johnson, J. E. "Johnnie", Group Captain, RAF. Wing Leader (Ballantine, 1967), p.264.
  15. ^ Shores, Christopher (1983). Air Aces. Bison Books Corp.. pp. 94–95. ISBN 0861241045. 
  16. ^ "PAKISTAN AIR FORCE - Official website". Retrieved 2011-11-16. 
  17. ^ Retrieved 26 July 2011.
  18. ^ The classic instance of this is the catastrophic failure of German intelligence to accurately assess RAF losses during the Battle of Britain - due (in large part anyway) to wild over-claiming by German fighter pilots (Galland, 1956: p. 279)
  19. ^ "Korean Air War". Retrieved 2011-11-15. 
  20. ^ Shores pp. 161-167
  21. ^ See for example the analysis by Christopher Shores 2007 online at the Japanese and Allied air forces in the Far East forum
  22. ^ Hermann Göring - quoted by Galland, 1956: p. 279. Goering actually goes much further, and claims that scores were deliberately falsified for the purpose of fabricating grounds for decorations - but this seems unlikely to be the case, nor Goering's real opinion.
  23. ^ Robinson 1958, pp. 150–155
  24. ^ Lake P 122
  25. ^ Above the Fronts, p. 18.
  26. ^ "Col. Charles DeBellevue". U.S. Air Force official web site. Retrieved May 22, 2010. 
  27. ^ Air Aces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire 1914 - 1918, pp. 190-191, 272, 324.
  28. ^ Above the Lines: The Aces and Fighter Units of the German Air Service, Naval Air Service and Flanders Marine Corps, 1914-1918, p. 70.
  29. ^ Above the Trenches: A Complete Record of the Fighter Aces and Units of the British Empire Air Forces 1915-1920, pp. 368, 390.
  30. ^ Over the Front: A Complete Record of the Fighter Aces and Units of the United States and French Air Services, 1914-1918, p. 161.
  31. ^ Air Cdre M Kaiser Tufail. "Alam’s Speed-shooting Classic". Retrieved 2011-11-15. 
  32. ^ Fricker, John. Battle for Pakistan: the air war of 1965. "before we had completed more than of about 270 degree of the turn, at around 12 degree per second, all four hunters had been shot down." 
  • Dunnigan, James F. How to Make War: A Comprehensive Guide to Modern Warfare in the Twenty-first Century. HarperCollins, 2003. ISBN 006009012X, 9780060090128.
  • Farr, Finis. Rickenbacker's Luck: An American Life. Houghton Mifflin, 1979. ISBN 0395271029, 9780395271025.
  • Fricker, John. Battle for Pakistan: The Air War of 1965. I Allan, 1979. ISBN 0711009295, 9780711009295.
  • Hobson, Chris. Vietnam Air Losses, USAF, USN, USMC, Fixed-Wing Aircraft Losses in Southeast Asia 1961–1973. North Branch, Minnesota: Specialty Press, 2001. ISBN 1-85780-1156.
  • Galland, Adolf The First and the Last London, Methuen, 1955 (Die Ersten und die Letzten Germany, Franz Schneekluth, 1953)
  • Johnson, J. E. "Johnnie", Group Captain, RAF. Wing Leader (Ballantine, 1967)
  • Lake, John The Battle of Britain London, Amber Books 2000 ISBN 1-85605-535-3
  • Robinson, Bruce (ed.) von Richthofen and the Flying Circus. Letchworth, UK: Harleyford, 1958.
  • Shores,Christoper Air Aces. Greenwich CT., Bison Books 1983 ISBN 0-86124-104-5
  • Stenman, Kari and Keskinen, Kalevi. Finnish Aces of World War 2, Osprey Aircraft of the Aces, number 23. London: Osprey Publishing. 1998. ISBN 952-5186-24-5.
  • Toliver & Constable. Horrido!: Fighter Aces of the Luftwaffe (Aero 1968)
  • Toperczer, Istvan. MIG-17 and MIG-19 Units of the Vietnam War. Osprey Combat Aircraft, number 25. (2001).
  • Toperczer, Istvan MIG-21 Units of the Vietnam War. Osprey Combat Aircraft, number 29. (2001).

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