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They fought in canvas and wood biplanes that could barely fly 100 MPH. Men like von Richthofen, Rickenbacker, Bishop, Guynemer, Mannock, Ball, who flew airplanes with names like Spad, Fokker, Albatros, Nieuport, and Sopwith Camel.
In this era, the top speeds were about 100 MPH. When the pilots ventured ten miles over the enemy lines, that was a notable event. The pilots carried no parachutes. The airplanes were made of wood and canvas; when they caught on fire, it spread quickly, and spelled certain death for the occupants.
The press and public, desperate for heroes amongst the waste and destruction of the trenches, idolized the young heroes.
GermanOswald Boelcke - 40 victories
Herman Göring - 22
Max Immelmann - early German ace, 15
Manfred von Richthofen - The Red Baron, 80
Ernst Udet - 2nd highest German ace, 62
AmericanJames Norman Hall - flier and novelist
Raoul Lufbery - American volunteer, 17
Frank Luke - The Balloon Buster, 18
Billy Mitchell - airpower advocate
Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker - America's top ace, 26
Americans with British R.F.C.
British EmpireAlbert Ball - Britain's first great ace, 44 kills
Billy Barker - Canadian, Sopwith Camel pilot, VC; 50
Billy Bishop - Canada's leading ace, 72
Ray Collishaw - Canadian, RNAS Triplane pilot, 62
Lanoe Hawker - "the British Boelcke," winner of Victoria Cross
Edward "Mick" Mannock - Britain's highest-scoring ace, 61
James McCudden - 57, Victoria Cross
FrenchRené Fonck - Top Allied ace, 75
Roland Garros - first French ace
Georges Guynemer - 53 victories
Charles Nungesser - 43
OtherAnthony Fokker - Dutch aircraft designer
This is not a complete list. See The Aerodrome for a comprehensive list of WWI aces.
GermanAlbatros D.II/D.III - late 1916
Fokker Dr.I Triplane - 1917, the Red Baron's famous aircraft
Fokker D.VII - 1918, one of the best
Fokker D.VIII - late 1918, high-wing monoplane
Fokker E.III - mid 1915, synchronized machine gun
BritishD.H. 2 - early 1916, pusher biplane
F.E. 2b - early 1916, pusher biplane
S.E.5a - mid 1917, one of the best
Sopwith Camel - mid 1917
Bristol F.2B Fighter "Brisfit" - excellent two-seat fighter
FrenchMoraine-Saulnier L - April, 1915, the first fighter
Nieuport 11 - early 1916, small scout, wing-mounted Lewis gun
Spad S.XIII - mid 1917, one of the best
Of course, the pilots themselves usually felt that their official credits under-stated their actual kills. The leading French ace, Rene Fonck, credited with 75 kills, personally claimed 126. In other cases, official recognition was withheld from NCO's; only commissioned officers were so credited. Frederick Libby, an American who flew with the British, claimed ten as an NCO observer/gunner, but these were not officially added to the fourteen he scored as an officer and pilot. And so it goes; in all likelihood, the claims will never be resolved, especially now we are the better part of a century removed from that time.
All the credits for aerial victories noted here are the "official" numbers, as reported in various secondary sources. (Even some of those vary and I usually opted for the lower figure.) Perhaps a better term than "official" would be "traditional." Whether Manfred von Richthofen shot down precisely 80 airplanes, Guynemer 53 (or 54?), Billy Bishop 73, Mick Mannock 61, and Frank Luke 21 (or 19?), does not matter too much any more. They were great fliers in an almost legendary era. Their heroism and their achievements go beyond precise enumeration of aircraft destroyed.
This fundamental aspect of WWI's air war meant that German fighter pilots usually flew over their own terrain, which required less fuel, less flying time, and also easier confirmation of downed aircraft. An added bonus for the German jagdflieger was the prevailing west wind. Any crippled German plane gliding for home had the wind at its back; while any damaged Allied plane faced head winds. Not a small consideration for the light craft of those years. Thus while the Allies' greater numbers gave them the edge in the air war, many German aces were able to rack up impressive scores of downed British and French planes.
Then Tony Fokker, a Dutch airplane builder and entrepeneur working for the Germans, installed interrupter gear, permitting a machine gun to fire through the prop with much more reliability. For a time, the Fokkers gave the Germans an edge.
Over the course of the war, the quality of Allied fighters, or "scouts," generally matched the Germans. The quality advantage swung back and forth somewhat, but even the mid-1915 "Fokker Scourge" has been overstated; the Germans just never had very many Fokker Eindeckers. And the British pusher biplanes and the French Nieuport 11 were very effective opponents. With the introduction of the Albatros in 1917, again the Germans had a brief qualitative edge, but the Spads, S.E.5s, and Sopwith Camels held their own. By 1918, when Fokker introduced the D.VII and D.VIII, the overwhelming Allied numbers mooted the question of whether they were better than the best Allied scouts.
Reading List: - Memoirs and Original Sources
The Osprey Aircraft of the Aces series has recently expanded to include World War One topics. Each volume features 40+ colorful profile plates. Wonderful original period photos. The books cover many aces with fewer than 15 kills, so they go beyond famous aces like Richthofen, Fonck, and Rickenbacker.
Buy 'Nieuport Aces of World War I' at Amazon.com
Buy 'Fokker Dr I Aces of World War 1' at Amazon.com
Buy 'Albatros Aces of World War I' at Amazon.com
Read about Ed O'Hare
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