Flying ace

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The "first French ace", Frenchman Adolphe Pégoud being awarded the Croix de guerre

A flying 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 aviators have historically accounted for the majority of air-to-air victories in military history.[1] Erich Hartmann is the ace of aces, the highest scoring ace of all time with a total of 352 confirmed victories.


World War I

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

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.[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 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, Prussia’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.[2] As the war progressed, the qualifications for Pour le Mérite were raised,[2] 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.

Allied fighter pilots fought mostly in German-held airspace[3][4] 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.[5]

Eddie Rickenbacker was an American fighter ace in World War I and Medal of Honor recipient, with 26 aerial victories

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,[2] 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".[6] 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 Lee considered a higher figure than five kills to be necessary for "ace" status. Aviation historians credit him as an ace with two enemy aircraft destroyed and five driven down out of control, for a total of seven victories.[7]

Albert Ball, Britain's first famous flying ace. He was killed in 1917, aged 20.

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 destruction of an aircraft, making confirmation of victories scored in enemy territory very difficult.[8] The Belgian crediting system sometimes included "out of control" to be counted as a victory.[9]

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.[8] 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. The most notable example of a non-pilot ace in World War I is Charles George Gass with 39 accredited aerial victories.[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.

The Spanish ace Joaquín García Morato scored 40 victories for the Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War. Part of the outside intervention in the 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 December 2, 1937, resulting in 28 Soviet aces.[12] 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 December 20, 1941.

World War II

File:Erich Hartmann.jpg
German Erich Hartmann is the top ace of all time with 352 kills.

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.[citation needed]

Russian Lydia Litvyak of the Soviet Air Force, one of only two female flying aces in history.

The Soviet Air Forces claimed the only female aces of the war: Lydia Litvyak scored 12 victories and Yekaterina Budanova achieved 11.[13] It also has the first Allied pilot in terms of aerial victories, Ivan Kozhedub credited with 66 victories. Fighting on different sides, the French pilot Pierre Le Gloan had the unusual distinction of shooting down four German, seven Italian and seven British aircraft, the latter while he was flying for Vichy France in Syria.[citation needed]

The Luftwaffe continued the tradition of "one pilot, one kill", and now referred to top scorers as Experten.[N 1] During the war, and for some years after, the very high victory totals of some Experten were considered by historians to be coloured by grandiose Nazi propaganda. In spite of this, there are 107 German pilots with more than 100 kills.

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 victories were over obsolescent aircraft and either poorly trained or inexperienced Allied pilots.[15] In addition, Luftwaffe pilots generally flew many more individual sorties (sometimes well over 1000) than their Allied counterparts, a witness of their expert survival capabilities. Moreover, they often kept flying combat missions 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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

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.

Indo-Pakistani Wars

Air Commodore Muhammad Mahmood Alam "Little Dragon". Ace in a Day of the Pakistan Air Force

Squadron Leader Muhammad Mahmood Alam of the Pakistan Air Force emerged from 1965 War as a top scoring fighter Ace and only ace during the war. During the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965, Muhammad Mahmood Alam was credited with nine aerial victories and two probable victories.[16][17]

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 obsolescent aircraft. This allowed many North Vietnamese pilots to claim "ace" status.[citation needed] American air-to-air combat during the Vietnam War generally matched intruding United States fighter-bombers against radar-directed integrated North Vietnamese air defense systems. American McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, Vought F-8 Crusader and Republic F-105 Thunderchief fighter crews usually had to contend with surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft artillery, and machine gun fire before opposing fighters attacked them.[citation needed] The long-running conflict produced 22 aces: 17 North Vietnamese pilots, two American pilots, three American Weapons Systems Officers or WSOs.[18]

The Middle East conflicts

Colonel Giora "Hawkeye" Epstein, Israeli Air Force (IAF) fighter ace credited with 17 kills, "ace of aces" of modern, supersonic fighter jets.
Brig. General Jalil Zandi, an ace fighter pilot in the Iranian Air Force. The most successful F-14 Tomcat pilot ever with eight confirmed and three probable kills during the Iran-Iraq war.

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.[citation needed]

Iran–Iraq war

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 eight confirmed and three probable victories against Iraqi combat aircraft qualifies him as an ace and the most successful pilot of that conflict and the most successful Grumman F-14 Tomcat pilot worldwide.[19][20]

Brig. General Shahram Rostami was another Iranian ace. He was an F-14 pilot. He had six confirmed kills. His victories include: one MiG-21, two MiG-25s and three Mirage F1s.

The Iran-Iraq conflict also saw the only known helicopter dogfights in history.[citation needed]

Afghanistan invasion, Global War on Terrorism (2001–present)

There are no known aces (in terms of air-air combat fight with at least five downed foe (aircraft/airships) of the Afghanistan war and the ongoing 21st century conflicts. It is actually more likely that flying aces will not 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 place in contemporary air combat.[citation needed]


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.[N 2]

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.[22][23] 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."[24] Adolf Galland stated: "Hermann Göring 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."[21]

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 aircraft credited to Manfred von Richthofen can be tied to known British losses[25]—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.[26] 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 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, observers/gunners in two-seater fighters such as the early Bristol F.2b, and airborne weapons officers in aircraft like the F-4 Phantom. Because pilots often teamed with different air crew members, an observer or gunner might be an ace while his pilot is 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.[27]

In World War II, United States Army Air Forces B-17 tail gunner S/Sgt. Michael Arooth (379th Bomb Group) was credited with 17 victories.[28][29] The Royal Air Force's leading bomber gunner, Wallace McIntosh, was credited with eight kills, including three on one mission. Flight Sergeant F. J. Barker scored 13 victories while flying as a gunner in a Boulton Paul Defiant turret fighter, piloted by Flight Sergeant E. R. Thorne.[30][31]

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.[32] Close behind with five were fellow WSO Jeffrey Feinstein[33] and Radar Intercept Officer William P. Driscoll.[34]

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 August 22, 1916, when they downed five Italian aircraft.[35] The feat was repeated five more times during World War I.[36][37][38]

Becoming an ace in a day became relatively common during World War II. A total of 68 U.S. pilots: 43 Army Air Forces, 18 Navy, and seven Marine Corps pilots were credited with the feat.[citation needed]

In the Soviet offensive of 1944 in the Karelian Isthmus, Finnish pilot Hans Wind shot down 30 enemy aircraft in 12 days. In doing so, he obtained "ace in a day" status three times.[39]

On September 6, 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.[40] He observed: "Before we had completed more than of about 270 degrees of the turn, at around 12 degrees per second, all four Hunters had been shot down."[41]

See also



  1. 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.[14]
  2. 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.[21]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Dunnigan 2003, p. 149.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Payne, Dr. David. "Major 'Mick' Mannock, VC: Top Scoring British Flying Ace in the Great War." Western Front Association, May 21, 2008.
  3. Shores et al. 1990, p. 6.
  4. Guttman 2009, p. 39.
  5. Shores, Franks and Guest, 1990, p. 8.
  6. Lee 1968, p. 208.
  7. Shores et al. 1990, pp. 236–237.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Franks and Bailey 1992, p. 6.
  9. Pieters 1998, pp. 34, 85.
  10. Farr 1979, p. 55.
  11. Franks et al. 1997, pp. 18–19.
  12. "Allied aces of War in China and Mongol-Manchurian border" Retrieved: October 10, 2014.
  13. Bergström 2007, p. 83.
  14. Johnson 1967, p. 264.
  15. Shores 1983, pp. 94–95.
  16. "M.M. Alam's F-86." Pakistan Air Force. Retrieved: October 10, 2014.
  17. Werrell, Kenneth (2013). Sabres Over MiG Alley: The F-86 and the Battle for Air Superiority in Korea. Naval Institute Press. p. 188. ISBN 978-1-61251344-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. "Aces." Safari Kovi. Retrieved October 10, 2014.
  19. "Imperial Iranian Air Force: Samurai in the skies." IIAF, August 22, 1980. Retrieved October 10, 2014.
  20. Cooper, Tom and Farzad Bishop. "Fire in the Hills: Iranian and Iraqi Battles of Autumn 1982." ACIG, September 9, 2003. Retrieved October 10, 2014.
  21. 21.0 21.1 Galland 1956, p. 279.
  22. "Korean Air War: Korean air war statistics from sources of USA and USSR." Wio (RU). Retrieved: October 10, 2014.
  23. Shores 1983, pp. 161–167.
  24. Shores, Christopher. "Re: Flying Tigers VS Christopher Shores?" 12 O'clock high, 2007.
  25. Robinson 1958, pp. 150–155.
  26. Lake 2000, p. 122.
  27. Franks et al. 1997, p. 18.
  28. "Hall of Valor: Michael Arooth." Military Times. Retrieved: October 10, 2014.
  29. Phaneuf, Wayne. "Springfield's 375th: City monuments honor those who answered the call of duty." The Republican , May 29, 2011.
  30. "The Airmen's Stories: Sgt. F J Barker." Battle of Britain London Monument. Retrieved: April 17, 2014.
  31. Thomas 2012, p. 55.
  32. "Col. Charles DeBellevue." U.S. Air Force official web site. Retrieved: May 22, 2010.
  33. "USAF Southeast Asia War Aces." National Museum of the United States Air Force, March 30, 2011. Retrieved: June 29, 2012.
  34. "USS Constellation (CV 64)." United States Navy. Retrieved: June 29, 2012.
  35. O'Connor 1986, pp. 190–91, 272, 324.
  36. Franks et al. 1993, p. 70.
  37. Shores et al. 1990, pp. 368, 390.
  38. Franks and Bailey 1992, p. 161.
  39. Juntunen,Ossi. "Hans 'Hasse' Wind: René Fonck of WW2." WWII Ace Stories. Retrieved October 10, 2014.
  40. Tufail, Air Cdre M Kaiser. "Alam’s Speed-shooting Classic." Defence journal. Retrieved October 19, 2014.
  41. Fricker 1979, p. 99.


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External links