The Red Baron
A flying ace is defined, in combat terms, as a pilot who has successfully shot down five enemy aircraft in combat. It is almost impossible to imagine the adrenaline rush, not to mention the breathtaking danger of aerial dogfights, and many of us have winced just watching film depictions of such events. There have been too many heroic pilots to count in the course of history, but this is a list of genuine aces – the absolute best of the best.
Image: US Air Force
10. Joseph Christopher McConnell, Jr – US ace pilot
Joseph Christopher McConnell, Jr. was the top US ace during the Korean War, credited with shooting down 16 enemy Mig-15 aircraft. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Silver Star for combat heroism. McConnell is still the top-scoring American jet ace, and probably the most successful jet fighter pilot in history.
9. Air Vice Marshal James Edgar ‘Johnnie’ Johnson – British ace pilot
The top scoring WWII Allied Ace, “Johnnie” Johnson flew with Douglas Bader and later led the 610 Squadron. By the end of WWII Johnson had flown in over 1,000 combat missions, holding the remarkable record of never having been shot down, and on only one occasion was his Spitfire damaged by the enemy. Johnson has been credited with 38 kills – officially the highest total of any RAF pilot. Johnson was awarded the DSO and two bars, the DFC and bar, the Legion d’Honneur, and the Croix de Guerre, making him among the most decorated British pilots of all time. He stayed in the RAF after the war, and served with the US Air Force in the Korean War, where he was awarded the American DFC.
Image: NJR ZA
8. Kurt Welter – WWII German ace pilot
Kurt Welter was the German ace jet pilot of WWII. Germany was the first country to introduce a jet fighter, the Messerschmitt 262, and the Allied forces could not cope with it because it was so much faster than any of their own planes. Welter scored a total of 63 kills in only 93 combat missions. Of these, 56 victories were recorded at night, including those against 33 Mosquito aircraft, and he scored more aerial victories from a jet fighter than anyone else in WWII. To the present day he holds the record for enemy aircraft shot down by a jet fighter.
7. Captain Albert Ball – British ace pilot
Captain Albert Ball was Britain’s highest scoring ace fighter pilot during WWI. Seconded to the Royal Flying Corps in 1916, he quickly established himself as an ace of great daring, shooting down 43 enemy planes and one balloon. One evening in 1917, his and 10 other British aircraft from 56 Squadron encountered German aircraft. Both Ball and Lothar von Richthofen, the bother of the Red Baron, crashed. Ball died, but Lothar survived. The 20-year-old British ace was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.
Image: Deutsches Bundesarchiv
6. Ernst Udet – German WWI ace
Ernst Udet could already fly upon joining the Luftwaffe in September 1915. He shot down his first enemy plane on 18 March, 1916 in a lone attack against 22 French aircraft. By September 1918, when he was wounded in the thigh, he had recorded 62 kills, second only to Baron Von Richthofen, who at one time had been his commander. Udet was the highest scoring German ace to survive WWI, and following the war he traveled the world performing in airshows for the public. He re-joined the Luftwaffe in 1935 but eventually committed suicide in 1941.
Image: William Rider-Rider
5. William Avery “Billy” Bishop – Canadian ace
William Avery Bishop joined the Royal Flying Corps in December 1915 and officially became a pilot in 1917. Credited with 72 kills, he was both the top Canadian and British Empire Ace of WWI. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross after downing 25 enemy planes in just twelve days. His single-handed, June 2nd attack against a German aerodrome in 1917 earned him the Victoria Cross, and he became the first Canadian pilot to receive this honor.
4. René Fonck – French ace pilot
René Paul Fonck was the highest-scoring Allied fighter pilot of WWI. Of 142 claimed kills, 75 were confirmed, though the real total may be closer to 100. In 1915, he began to display real talent for flying, and by April 1917, with 500 hours flight time, was flying fighter aircraft, and soon developed a reputation for being exceptionally gifted in aerial dogfights. Twice he shot down six enemy planes in a single day’s combat. He was an excellent pilot and superb marksman, thoroughly deserving his recognition as an ace.
3. Edward Mannock – British WWI ace pilot
Edward Mannock was a strange character. A passionate political identity leaning towards socialism sat beside a deep and abiding hatred of his German enemies. He once machine-gunned both the pilot and co-pilot a German plane he had shot down, coldly saying, “The swines are better dead – no prisoners.” Mannock was undoubtedly an ace British fighter pilot. With 73 kills to his name, he deservedly earned the Military Cross and bar, as well as the DSO and a further two bars. Incredibly, he was almost blind in his left eye. He was shot from the ground on 26 July 1918, in a similar fashion to his arch-enemy, Von Ricthofen.
Image: Nicola Perscheid
2. Baron Von Richthofen – German WWI ace
The German showman Baron Von Richthofen (pictured top) was perhaps the most famous and most notorious pilot of the 20th century. Born in 1892 in Breslau, this man was a genuine daredevil, keen on hunting and mountain climbing. In 1915, he joined the Luftwaffe as a bombardier, but quickly realized that the real action was elsewhere, and was soon training for fighter combat. By the end of 1916, he was a certified ace, shooting down over 20 enemy planes, including Major Lanoe Hawker, a top British ace. The Red Baron’s mystique grew rapidly, and his kill tally officially reached 80 enemy planes in April 1918. On April 21, over the British trenches in the Somme, he was killed with a single .303 bullet to the chest, probably shot by a British soldier in the trenches below.
Image: H. Hoffmann,
1. Erich Alfred Hartmann – German WWII ace
This image shows the greatest ace pilot of all time, a legend who served in the Luftwaffe on the Eastern front in WWII. Nicknamed “The Black Devil”, Erich Hartmann claimed 352 combat kills – the highest number ever recorded. He was forced to crash-land damaged aircraft 14 times, but he was never injured and was never shot down. Truly a giant among pilots of fighter planes.
It is truly amazing to think today of the trauma these pilots must have lived with every day. These were among the bravest men who ever lived, and they deserve our undying respect.