A flying ace or fighter ace is a military aviator credited with shooting down several enemy aircraft during aerial combat. The actual number of air victories required to officially qualify as an "ace" has varied, but is usually considered to be five or more.
World War I
Use of the term ace in military aviation circles began in World War I (1914–18), when French newspapers described Adolphe Pegoud, as l'as (French for "ace") after he became the first pilot to down five German aircraft. The term had been popularized in prewar French newspapers when referring to sports stars such as football (soccer) players and bicyclists. This is the reason why "ace" is also used to refer to non-aviators who have distinguished themselves by sinking ships and destroying tanks.
The German Empire instituted the practice of awarding the Pour le Mérite ("Der blaue Max"/"The blue Max"), its highest award for gallantry, initially to aviators who had destroyed eight Allied aircraft.
In 1914–16, the British Empire did not have a centralised system of recording aerial victories, in fact this was done at squadron level throughout the war. Nor did they publish official statistics on the successes of individuals, although some pilots did become famous through press coverage. However, after 1916, a (more or less) automatic award of a Military Cross was made to a pilot with five air combats endorsed as "decisive" by the commanding officer of his squadron, although the term "ace" was never used officially by the British.
In 1914–18, different air services also had different methods of assigning credit for kills. The German Luftstreitkräfte credited "confirmed" victories only for enemy planes assessed as destroyed or captured after either examining the enemy aircraft (or what was left of it) on the ground, or the capture or confirmed death of enemy aircrew. For instance the shooting down of Albert Ball was credited to Lothar von Richthofen after his death was confirmed by the British, although the wreckage of Ball's S.E.5 was in fact never identified, and Richthofen's claim was actually for a Sopwith Triplane. Most aerial fighting was on the German side of the lines so this quite rigorous system worked reasonably well for the Germans themselves, but would have been totally impractical for the Allied air forces, especially the British, who fought mostly in "enemy" airspace.
Another feature of the German system was that where several pilots attacked and destroyed a single enemy, only one pilot (often the formation leader) was credited with the kill. Most other nations adopted the French Armee de l'Air system of granting full credit to every pilot or aerial gunner participating in a victory, which could sometimes be six or seven individuals. The British were inconsistent in this regard - sometimes a "kill" would be credited to the pilot who got in the closest shot, approximating the German system - more often shared claims were credited to everyone responsible, but apparently sometimes as "shares" rather than "whole" victories. There is at least one recorded instance of an RFC pilot reporting his own score (in a letter to his wife) as "Eleven, five by me solo - the rest shared". It would be interesting to know what Lee's official score was: 5, 11, or (say) 6 or 7. In any case it is clear that at least in his unit "shared" and "solo" victories were counted separately. Incidentally, he went on "so I am miles from being an ace" - although by the generally accepted criteria he almost certainly was.
In the RFC, RNAS or RAF, pilots were required to write 'Combat Reports' for each engagement with the enemy, and after review by their squadron commander these were sent to Wing Headquarters. The Wing Commander allowed or disallowed each claim made in these reports, but then passed them on to Brigade (Group) HQ, who also reviewed the reports. By 1918 it was clear Wing HQ did take considerable care to reduce duplication and inaccuracies within these reports. The main weakness however was the lack of a central verification and review process.
British or Commonwealth pilots on offensive patrol many 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 classified as "driven down", "forced to land", or "out of control" - i.e. 'probables' in later terminology. They were however usually included in a pilot's official totals in (for instance) citations for decorations. The United States Army Air Service followed a similar practice. For example, Eddie Rickenbacker's 26 official victories included ten planes "out of control" and several "dived east". Even allowing for possible modest understatement these would (at best) have been credited as "probables" in later wars.
While "ace" status was generally won only by fighter pilots; several bomber and reconnaissance crews, on both sides, also destroyed several enemy aircraft, typically in defending themselves from fighter attack. An example was an action on August 23, 1918, in which the Bermudian pilot, Lt Arthur Spurling claimed the destruction of three D.VIIs with his DH-9's fixed, forward-firing machine gun, while his gunner Sgt Frank Bell claimed two more with his rear gun. Spurling was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross on the strength of this action.
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 IJN stopped crediting individual victories (in favour of squadron tallies) in 1943. The Luftwaffe continued the tradition of "one pilot, one kill", and now referred to top scorers as Experten.
The Soviet Air Force had the world's only female aces. During World War II, Lydia Litvyak scored 12 victories and Katya Budanova achieved 11. Pierre Le Gloan (France) had the unusual distinction of shooting down 4 German, 7 Italian and 7 British planes; the British planes while flying for Vichy France in Algeria.
Many Axis kills were over obsolescent aircraft and against either poorly-trained or inexperienced pilots fielded by the Allies, especially the Soviets. In addition, Luftwaffe pilots generally flew many more sorties (sometimes up to 1000 operations) than their Allied counterparts. Additionally, Axis pilots tended to return to the cockpit over and over again until killed, captured or incapacitated, while successful Allied pilots tended to be either progressively promoted to ranks and positions that involved less combat flying, or routinely rotated back to training bases to equip younger pilots with valuable combat knowledge. At least at some periods of the war the Luftwaffe was very heavily outnumbered, providing ace pilots with more targets.
Having said all this - and in spite of theoretically very stringent criteria for crediting "kills" in the Luftwaffe - it has to be said that some German claims were over-optimistic. (although the same could be said for other air forces - see next section).
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. In fact, very 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 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. In broad statistical terms, a built in "error" of 50 to 100% can be assumed in overall air victory claims, regardless of which air force is involved.
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. During the 1939-45 conflict night fighter claims (where one fighter would usually detect and attempt to shoot down one bomber aircraft at a time) avoided the confusion of the classic day dogfight to a great extent, and proved among the most reliable and verifiable.
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. There are actually a number of legitimate reasons why reported losses may be understated - including poor reporting procedures and loss of records due to enemy action or wartime confusion. On the other hand some regimes have historically had such a sweeping disregard for the truth that they start to believe their own propaganda.
Ace in a day
The term "ace in a day" is used to designate a fighter pilot who has shot down five or more airplanes in a single day. The most notable is Hans-Joachim Marseille of Germany, who was credited with downing 17 Allied fighters in just three sorties over North Africa on September 1, 1942, during World War II. The highest number aerial victories for a single day was claimed by Emil Lang, who claimed 18 Soviet fighters on November 3, 1943. Erich Rudorffer is credited with the destruction of 13 aircraft in a single mission on October 11, 1943. Numerous other Luftwaffe pilots also claimed the title during World War II.
On December 5, 1941, the leading Australian ace of World War II, Clive Caldwell, destroyed five German aircraft in the space of a few minutes, also in North Africa. He received a Distinguished Flying Cross for the feat.
During World War II, 68 U.S. pilots-43 Army Air Forces, 18 Navy, and seven Marine Corps-were credited the feat, including David McCampbell, who claimed seven Japanese planes shot down on June 19, 1944 (during the "Marianas Turkey Shoot"), and nine in a single mission on October 24, 1944. Medal of Honor recipient James E. Swett became an ace on his first combat mission (April 7, 1943).
World War I flying ace Fritz Otto Bernert scored five victories within 20 minutes on April 24, 1917, even though he wore glasses and was effectively one-armed. This earned him the Pour le Merite award.
Others include Chuck Yeager (two without firing a shot, when they collided), Joe Foss, Jerry O'Keefe and Oscar Francis Perdomo (the last U.S. flyer to do it), Antoni Glowacki of Poland, during the Battle of Britain, and Jorma Sarvanto of Finland, during the Winter War.
- List of World War I flying aces
- List of World War II aces by country
- List of Spanish Civil War air aces
- List of Korean War air aces
- List of Vietnam War flying aces
- List of flying aces in Arab-Israeli wars
- 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.
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- 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).