- For other uses, see Flying Ace (disambiguation)
|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
World War I introduced the systematic use of true single-seat fighter aircraft, with enough speed and agility to catch and maintain contact with targets in the air, coupled with armament sufficiently powerful to destroy the targets. Aerial combat became a prominent feature with the Fokker Scourge, in the last half of 1915. This was also the beginning of a long standing trend in warfare, showing statistically that approximately five percent of combat pilots account for the majority of air-to-air victories. 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 initially used the term “star-turns” (a show business term), while the Germans described their elite fighter pilots as Überkanonen (which roughly translates to “top gun”).
The successes of such German 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 Pour le Mérite was nicknamed Der blaue Max/The Blue Max, after Max Immelmann, who was the first fighter pilot to receive this award. Initially, German aviators had to destroy eight Allied aircraft to receive this medal. As the war progressed, the qualifications for Pour le Mérite were raised, but successful German fighter pilots continued to be hailed as national heroes for the remainder of the war,
As the German 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 for aircraft “forced down” within German lines, as this usually resulted in the death or capture of the enemy aircrew.
British and Commonwealth fighter pilots fought mostly in German held airspace and were often not in a position to confirm that an apparently destroyed enemy aircraft had in fact crashed, so these victories were frequently claimed as "driven down", "forced to land", or "out of control" (called "probables" in later wars). These victories were usually included in a pilot's totals and in citations for decorations.
The British high command considered praise of fighter pilots to be detrimental to equally brave bomber and reconnaissance aircrew – 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, making the British system for the recognition of successful fighter pilots much more informal and somewhat inconsistent. One pilot, Arthur Gould Lee, described his own score in a letter to his wife as "Eleven, five by me solo — the rest shared", adding that he was "miles from being an ace". This shows that his No. 46 Squadron RAF counted shared kills, but separately from "solo" ones—one of a number of factors that seems to have varied from unit to unit. Also evident is that a considerably higher figure than five kills was considered as the requisite total for "ace" status, at least in Sqd 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. They usually demanded independent witnessing of the actual destruction of an aircraft, making confirmation of victories scored in enemy territory very difficult. The Belgian crediting system sometimes included "out of control" to be counted as a victory.
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. American newsmen, in their correspondence to their papers, decided that five victories were the minimum needed to become an ace.
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. Another RAF Airco DH.9 pilot, Bermudian Lieutenant Arthur Rowe Spurling of 49 Squadron, with his observer, Sergeant Frank Bell, single-handedly attacked thirty Fokker D.VII fighters, downing five of them (see Ace in a Day, below). Two days later they shot down another D.VII.
Between the world wars
Part of the outside intervention in the Spanish Civil War was the supply of "volunteer" foreign pilots to both sides. Russian and American aces joined the Republican air force, while the Nationalists included Germans and Italians.
The Soviet Volunteer Group began operations in the Second Sino-Japanese War as early as 2 December 1937, resulting in 28 Soviet aces. The Flying Tigers were American military pilots recruited sub rosa to aid the Chinese Nationalists. They spent the summer and autumn of 1941 in transit to China, and did not begin flying combat missions until 20 December 1941.
World War II
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. 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. 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.
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. In addition, Luftwaffe pilots generally flew many more individual sorties (sometimes well over 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.
Similarly, in the Pacific theater, one factor leading to the superiority of Japanese aces such as the legendary Hiroyoshi Nishizawa (about 87 kills) could be the early technical dominance of the Mitsubishi A6M "Zero" fighter.
Post World War II aces
The Korean War
The Korean War of 1950–53 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.
Squadron Leader Muhammad Mahmood Alam of the Pakistan Air Force emerged from 1965 War as Pakistan's top scoring fighter Ace. During the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965, Muhammad Mahmood Alam was credited with nine aerial victories and two probable victories.
The Vietnam War
The North Vietnamese air force was the world’s sixth largest air force at the height of its power in 1974 but armed with mostly obsolete aircraft. This allowed many North Vietnamese pilots to claim "ace" status. American 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: 17 North Vietnamese pilots, two American pilots, three American Weapons Systems Officers or WSOs.
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.
Brig. General Jalil Zandi (1951–2001) was an ace fighter pilot in the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force, serving for the full duration of the Iran-Iraq War. His record of 8 confirmed and 3 probable victories against Iraqi combat airplanes qualifies him as an ace and the most successful pilot of that conflict and the most successful F-14 pilot worldwide.
Afghanistan invasion (2001- )
There are no known aces (in terms of air-air combat fight with at least five downed foe planes/airships) of the Afghanistan war and the ongoing 21st century conflicts. It is actually more likely that flying aces won't occur due to technological changes. This is due to the fact that the traditional fighter-versus-fighter dogfight is extremely rare in contemporary warfare, as unmanned aircraft and other computerized technology, including anti-aircraft missiles, have taken a prominent seat in contemporary aviation warfare.
Realistic assessment of enemy casualties is important for intelligence purposes, 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. 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. 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 optimistic enthusiasm) also figure in certain inflated, especially when the attainment of a specific total is required for a particular decoration or promotion.
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 — 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 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. 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.
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. Charles George Gass, who tallied 39 victories, was the highest scoring observer ace in World War I.
In World War 2, United States Army Air Forces B-17 tail gunner S/Sgt. Michael Arooth (379th Bomb Group) was credited with 17 victories. Royal Air Force Flight Sergeant FJ Barker scored 13 victories while flying as a gunner in a Boulton Paul Defiant turret fighter, piloted by Flight Sergeant ER Thorne.
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. Close behind with five were fellow WSO Jeffrey Feinstein and Radar Intercept Officer William P. Driscoll.
Ace in a day
The first military aviators to score five or more victories on the same date, thus each becoming an "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. The feat was repeated five more times during World War I. On 23 August 1918, an RAF Airco DH.9 bomber flown by Bermudian Lieutenant Arthur Rowe Spurling of 49 Squadron, with his observer, Sergeant Frank Bell, single-handedly attacked thirty Fokker D.VII fighters, downing five of them (three by Spurling, two by Bell). Two days later Spurling shot down another D.VII over Mont Notre Dame. The two crewmen shared each other's victories, each attaining ace status.
Becoming an ace in a day became relatively 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. In the Soviet offensive of 1944 in the Karelian Isthmus, Finnish pilot Hans Wind shot down 30 enemy airplanes in 12 days and in doing so obtained "ace in a day" status three times.
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 of them within 30 seconds. He was awarded the Sitara-e-Jurat ("The star of courage") and bar for his actions.
- List of World War I flying aces
- List of World War II flying aces
- List of World War II aces by country
- List of German World War II jet aces
- List of Spanish Civil War flying aces
- List of Korean War flying aces
- List of Vietnam War flying aces
- List of flying aces in Arab–Israeli wars
- List of Egyptian flying aces
- List of Israeli flying aces
- List of Syrian flying aces
- List of aces of aces
- Iranian aerial victories during the Iran-Iraq war
- Iraqi aerial victories during the Iran-Iraq war
- Dunnigan, How to Make War, p. 149.
- Payne, Dr David (21 May 2008). "Major 'Mick' Mannock, VC: Top Scoring British Flying Ace in the Great War". Western Front Association. http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/great-war-at-sea-in-air/the-aces/283-mick-mannock.html.
- Above the Trenches: A Complete Record of the Fighter Aces and Units of the British Empire Air Forces 1915–1920. p. 6.
- Pusher Aces of World War 1. p. 39.
- Shores, Franks & Guest, Above The Trenches, 1990, p. 8.
- Lee, Arthur Gould, No Parachute (London: Jarrolds, 1968), p. 208
- Over the Front: A Complete Record of the Fighter Aces and Units of the United States and French Air Services, 1914–1918. p. 6.
- Above Flanders' Fields: A Complete Record of the Belgian Fighter Pilots and Their Units During the Great War, 1914–1918. pp. 34–85.
- Rickenbacker's Luck: An American Life. p. 55.
- "Aces". Stubbs. http://www.theaerodrome.com/aces/england/stubbs2.php. Retrieved 2 May 2011.
- "Arthur Rowe Spurling". Theaerodrome.com. http://www.theaerodrome.com/aces/england/spurling.php. Retrieved 2013-06-16.
- "Retrieved 28 July 2011". Wio.ru. http://wio.ru/spain/china-a.htm. Retrieved 2013-06-16.
- Bergström, Christer (2007). Barbarossa - The Air Battle: July–December 1941. Classic Publications. p. 83. ISBN 1-85780-270-5.
- 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.
- Shores, Christopher (1983). Air Aces. Bison Books Corp.. pp. 94–95. ISBN 0-86124-104-5.
- "PAKISTAN AIR FORCE - Official website". Paf.gov.pk. http://www.paf.gov.pk/mmalam.html. Retrieved 2011-11-16.
- "Aces". Safari Kovi. http://aces.safarikovi.org/victories/usa-v1.html. Retrieved 10 March 2012.
- "Jalil Zandi - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia". En.wikipedia.org. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jalil_Zandi. Retrieved 2013-06-16.
- "Imperial Iranian Air Force: Samurai in the skies". Iiaf.net. 1980-09-22. http://www.iiaf.net/iiafmisc/announcements/announcements.html. Retrieved 2013-06-16.
- "Fire in the Hills: Iranian and Iraqi Battles of Autumn 1982, by Tom Cooper & Farzad Bishop, Sept. 9, 2003". Acig.org. http://www.acig.org/artman/publish/article_214.shtml. Retrieved 2013-06-16.
- 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)
- "Korean Air War". RU: Wio. http://wio.ru/korea/korea-a.htm. Retrieved 2011-11-15.
- Shores pp. 161–67.
- Shores, Christopher (2007). "12 O’clock high" (forum). p. 4. http://forum.12oclockhigh.net/showthread.php?t=8833&page=4.
- 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.
- Robinson 1958, pp. 150–155
- Lake P 122
- Above the Fronts, p. 18.
- "Hall of Valor: Michael Arooth". Military Times. http://militarytimes.com/citations-medals-awards/recipient.php?recipientid=22831. Retrieved June 26, 2012.
- Wayne Phaneuf (May 29, 2011). "Springfield's 375th: City monuments honor those who answered the call of duty". http://www.masslive.com/history/index.ssf/2011/05/springfields_375th_city_monuments_honor_those_who_answered_the_call.html.
- Thomas, Andrew (2012). Defiant, Blenheim and Havoc Aces. Osprey Publishing. p. 55. ISBN 1849086664.
- "Col. Charles DeBellevue". U.S. Air Force official web site. Archived from the original on July 18, 2012. http://archive.is/ic9S. Retrieved May 22, 2010.
- "USAF Southeast Asia War Aces". National Museum of the United States Air Force. March 30, 2011. http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/factsheets/factsheet.asp?fsID=18114. Retrieved June 29, 2012.
- "USS Constellation (CV 64)". United States Navy. http://www.navy.mil/navydata/nav_legacy.asp?id=69. Retrieved June 29, 2012.
- Air Aces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire 1914 - 1918, pp. 190-191, 272, 324.
- Above the Lines: The Aces and Fighter Units of the German Air Service, Naval Air Service and Flanders Marine Corps, 1914-1918, p. 70.
- Above the Trenches: A Complete Record of the Fighter Aces and Units of the British Empire Air Forces 1915-1920, pp. 368, 390.
- Over the Front: A Complete Record of the Fighter Aces and Units of the United States and French Air Services, 1914-1918, p. 161.
- Air Cdre M Kaiser Tufail. "Alam’s Speed-shooting Classic". Defencejournal.com. http://www.defencejournal.com/2001/september/alam.htm. Retrieved 2011-11-15.
- Fricker, John. Battle for Pakistan: the air war of 1965. http://books.google.com/books?id=RPttAAAAMAAJ. "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 0-06-009012-X, 9780060090128.
- Farr, Finis. Rickenbacker's Luck: An American Life. Houghton Mifflin, 1979. ISBN 0-395-27102-9, ISBN 978-0-395-27102-5.
- Fricker, John. Battle for Pakistan: The Air War of 1965. I Allan, 1979. ISBN 0-7110-0929-5, ISBN 978-0-7110-0929-5.
- Hobson, Chris. Vietnam Air Losses, USAF, USN, USMC, Fixed-Wing Aircraft Losses in Southeast Asia 1961–1973. North Branch, Minnesota: Specialty Press, 2001. ISBN 1-85780-115-6.
- 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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