High-Flying Facts About History's Greatest Fighter Pilots

October 1, 2023 | Carl Wyndham

High-Flying Facts About History's Greatest Fighter Pilots

With the advent of flight in the early 20th century, the world was introduced to a new kind of battle hero. Pioneering pilots brought the fight to the skies, flying reconnaissance missions and engaging in heart-stopping aerial battles. The best of the best were called “Flying Aces". These early aviators were brash, daring, and idolized by the public. Here are 42 high-flying facts about history's greatest fighter pilots.

1. The Flying Ace

The term Flying ace is somewhat flexible, with some countries recognizing different standards for earning the title. Generally, any pilot with five or more air victories has earned the right to call themselves a flying ace.Fighterpilots-Msn

2. The First Ace

The first pilot to be deemed a “flying ace” was Frenchman Adolphe Pégoud. Prior to the conflict, Pégoud had been a flight instructor and aerial showman. The term was struck by French newspapers after Pégoud shot down five German planes, a feat which had been unsurpassed at that point.

Fighter Pilots FactsWikimedia Commons

3. Überkannon

While most of the world adopted the Flying ace terminology, the Germans preferred their own term, überkannon, which translates quite literally to “top gun".

Fighter Pilots FactsWikipedia

4. The Flying Circus

The Germans were widely considered the best pilots of the First World War. And of the Germans, the best of the best were the pilots of Jagdgeschwader 1. Known as the “Flying Circus” for their brightly colored Fokker planes and acrobatic maneuvering, Jagdgeschwader 1 was commanded by the infamous Red Baron.

Fighter Pilots FactsWikipedia

5. The Red Baron

By far the most successful—and most feared—fighter pilot of WWI was Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron, who amassed a whopping 80 victories. The Red Baron was more than just a name—von Richthofen was, in fact, a baron.

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6. That’s Nuts!

The Red Baron became an archetypal villain, and remained such a part of the American consciousness that years after the conflict ended, he turned up in a pop song as the adversary of Snoopy, the dog from Peanuts. “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” became an unexpected novelty hit for the Royal Guardsmen in December 1966.

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7. The Red Baron’s Brother

Lohar von Richthofen, the Red Baron’s brother and fellow member of the Flying Circus, was also awarded the title of flying ace. At 40 victories, however, he was only half as successful as his brother.

Fighter Pilots FactsFlickr

8. Oswald Boelcke

The Red Baron was taught to fly by Oswald Boelcke and, despite his own success, the Baron considered Boelcke the better pilot. Boelcke recorded 40 victories, aided by the Fokker E.I, a revolutionary plane with a front-firing gun.

Fighter Pilots FactsFlickr

9. Respectful Rivals

Boelcke perished in 1916, while he and von Richthofen were flying a mission together. Boelcke’s plane collided with a that of a British pilot. The RAF laid a wreath in his honor, calling him “a brave and chivalrous foe".

Fighter Pilots FactsWikimedia Commons

10. The Immelmann Turn

Boelcke had a friendly rivalry with his comrade Max Immelmann—they matched each other kill for kill and were awarded Germany’s highest medal the same day. Immelmann claimed not to rely on fancy tricks but was nevertheless an acrobatic pilot. His patented half-turn was widely adopted by fighter pilots and is known today as “the Immelmann Turn".

Fighter Pilots FactsWikimedia Commons

11. Ace in a Day

On August 22, 1916, Austro-Hungarian pilot Julius Arigi and his gunner, Johann Lasi, made history when they downed five Italian planes in a single day. The “Ace of the Day” feat has been achieved by dozens of pilots since then, but they were the first.

Fighter Pilots FactsWikipedia

12. Avion Magique

French Ace George Guynemer, a trained mechanic, flew into battle with a customized Spad XII which he called “Avion Magique,” or magic plane. It was fitted with a cannon so strong that he risked crashing every time it was fired.

Fighter Pilots FactsWikipedia

13. Nine Lives, Almost

Guynemer was used to crashing, however. He was shot down seven different times before his eighth and final crash. He passed on with 54 confirmed kills, second only to René Fonck among French pilots.

Fighter Pilots FactsWikimedia Commons

14. Bad Luck

While it was not uncommon for pilots to die after being shot down, the demise of Erich Löwenhardt is particularly unfortunate. Having survived another air battle, his plane collided with that of another pilot. He and his gunner leapt from the plane, but Löwenhardt’s parachute failed. He perished at 21, the youngest of the top ten Aces of WWI.

Fighter Pilots FactsWikimedia Commons

15. A Comic Follow-Up

Eddie Rickenbacker was America’s most successful and famous fighter pilot during WWI, with 26 victories. After the conflict, he relayed his experiences as an all-American Flying ace into a career writing the comic strip Ace Drummond.

Fighter Pilots FactsNational Museum of the USAF

16. The Daredevil

It should come as no surprise that Rickenbacker became a flying ace. He had spent his entire life as a daredevil and adrenaline junkie. He had raced in the very first Indy 500 and even owned the track for a time.

Fighter Pilots Facts National Museum of the USAF

17. Castaway

Rickenbacker’s life of adventure didn’t end after the conflict. In 1941, a passenger flight Rickenbacker was on crashed in Georgia. His plane crashed again the following year, this time on a combat mission over the Pacific Ocean. He and his crew were adrift for 24 days, surviving on fish and rainwater.

Fighter Pilots FactsShutterstock

18. A Busy Year

South Africa’s top flying ace, Andrew Beauchamp-Proctor, recorded 54 victories. Beauchamp Proctor’s accomplishment is all the more impressive when you consider that all 54 came in a single year.

Fighter Pilots FactsWikimedia Commons

19. Number 84

Beauchamp-Proctor was a member of the RAF’s No. 84 Squadron, which boasted no fewer than 25 flying aces among its ranks. In addition to Beauchamp-Proctor, No. 84 included Air Marshall George Owen Johnson and John McCudden.

Fighter Pilots FactsWikimedia Commons

20. An Explosive Talent

Charles George Gass was declared a flying ace without having ever piloted a plane. His 39 victories as a crew bomber were considered impressive enough to earn him the title.

Fighter Pilots FactsWikimedia Commons

21. Out of Africa

When WWI began, Leonard Allen Payne eagerly joined up with the RAF. The only thing was, Payne wasn’t from Great Britain. Payne was born and raised in the tiny African nation of Swaziland. His eleven confirmed kills rank him as the most successful flying ace to ever come from that country.

Fighter Pilots FactsWikimedia Commons

22. The Flying Canucks

The only country to rival Germany’s aerial supremacy was, surprisingly, Canada. Like Germany, three of the top ten flying aces during WWI came from the Great White North. The most successful of them was Billy Bishop, whose 72 victories, including a daring attack on a German aerodrome, earned him the Victoria Cross. Today, an airport in downtown Toronto bears his name.

Fighter Pilots FactsFlickr

23. But My Friends Call Me…

While his comrades called Billy Bishop “the Lone Hawk” for his preference of flying solo missions, his German adversaries had a less-flattering, but still super-cool nickname for him: “Hell’s Handmaiden".

Fighter Pilots FactsFlickr

24. Three for Three

In 1918, William Barker took on fifteen German pilots singlehandedly. Barker managed to shoot down three Germans, despite being wounded three times. After the conflict, he began a short-lived airline with Billy Bishop, and then became president of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Fighter Pilots FactsFlickr

25. The Man Who Shot Down the Red Baron

Another of those Canadian flying aces was Roy Brown. With ten victories to his name, Brown is credited with finally taking down the elusive Red Baron. Though Australian forces claimed their ground troopers shot down the Baron, the RAF recognizes Brown as the man to bring the Red Baron’s reign of terror to an end.

Fighter Pilots FactsFlickr


26. The Baron’s Throne

In 1918, Brown was given the seat from the Red Baron’s famous Fokker triplane, the plane he was flying when Brown shot him down earlier that year. Brown donated it to the Royal Canadian Military Institute.

Fighter Pilots FactsFlickr

27. Watch Your Head

While Roy Brown is credited with slaying the Red Baron, he wasn’t the first to shoot him down. On July 6, 1917, Donald Cunnell not only shot down the Red Baron’s plane, he actually shot the Red Baron. The Baron suffered a grievous head wound which required immediate surgery, but he lived to fly again.

Fighter Pilots FactsWikipedia

28. Getting Schooled

Why were the Canadians so good? Probably because of the British Commonwealth Air Training Program. Under the program, pilots from all over the British Commonwealth trained in Canada, a system which continued until the end of the Second World War. At its height, the BCATP relied on 231 training locations and over 100,000 administrative workers in Canada.

Fighter Pilots FactsFlickr

29. The Need for Speed

Prior to WWII, airplane design shifted from biplanes to monoplanes. This effected the whole philosophy of dogfighting. In WWI, pilots flew Sopwith Camels and Fokker EIs—biplanes prized for their manoeuverability. The Messerchmidts and Spitfires used in WWII weren’t as acrobatic as their predecessors, but they were much, much faster.

Fighter Pilots FactsWikimedia Commons

30. Diving Out of Harm’s Way

For some Soviet fighters, ramming an opponent proved as useful a method as firing on them. Alexander Pokryshkin devised several of the Soviet tactics and taught them to his comrades. This outraged his officers, who had him grounded and tried to have him court-martialed. When they saw how effective the methods were, Pokryshkin was promoted instead.

Fighter Pilots FactsWikimedia Commons

31. Outgunning the Americans

Pokryshkin finished the conflict with 65 victories. He scored most of them in a Bell P-39, making him the most successful pilot in an American-made plane—and that includes all American pilots.

Fighter Pilots FactsWikipedia

32. A Fraction of an Ace

Going into the Second World War, it became easier to become a flying ace. Some German pilots amassed more than 100 kills. Technology was a factor of course, but most countries also began to recognize shared and group kills. It became possible, under this fractional system, to achieve 4.99 victories, agonizingly close to becoming an ace.

Fighter Pilots FactsWikipedia

33. Wait A Minute…

During WWII, French fighter pilot Pierre LeGloan was credited with taking down eighteen enemy planes: four Italian, seven German, and seven British. Yes, you read that right. LeGloan continued to fly for France after the Nazi-endorsed Vichy regime came to power.

Fighter Pilots FactsWikipedia

34. Happy Birthday, Adolf!

Marmaduke “Pat” Pattle, a South African who flew in the RAF, had more kills than any other British Commonwealth pilot during WWII. Pattle once shot down six planes during one mission over Greece. The day of Pattle’s big accomplishment happened to be April 20, 1941—Adolf H's 52nd birthday.

Fighter Pilots FactsWikimedia Commons

35. Blaze of Glory

Pattle’s accomplishment is all the more impressive if you consider that he was suffering a terrible fever at the time. Perhaps if he were feeling better, he might have been able to outmaneuver the enemy pilot who shot him down. Pattle’s plane was shot down and crashed in the Mediterranean that same day.

Fighter Pilots FactsWikimedia Commons

36. Red Tails

The Tuskegee Airmen were a bomber squadron of black pilots who trained in Tuskegee, Alabama. Called “the Red Tails” for the distinctive red paint jobs on their P-51 Mustangs, the Tuskegee Airmen were some of the most decorated aviators of WWII, and instrumental in desegregating the US army. Lt. Col. Lee Archer is the sole Tuskegee Airman to win the honor of flying ace.

Fighter Pilots FactsWikimedia Commons

37. Baa Baa Black Sheep

American ace “Pappy” Boyington was the hard-drinking commanding officer of the Marine Corps’ “Black Sheep” Squadron. After the conflict, he wrote his memoirs, Baa Baa Black Sheep, which were turned into a television series. His former crew hated the series because it glamorized Boyington, often at their expense; in his defense, Boyington admitted the show was “hogwash and Hollywood hokum".

Fighter Pilots FactsWikimedia Commons

38. The White Lily of Stalingrad

Only two women have ever earned the title of flying ace. Lydia Litvyak won twelve victories during WWII before being shot down during the Battle of Kursk. Soviet papers referred to her as the White Lily of Stalingrad.

Fighter Pilots FactsWikipedia

39. The Theatre

In 1985, Litvyak’s story was turned into a stage play, White Rose, by Scottish playwright Peter Arnott. Litvyak was played by a then-unknown young actress named Tilda Swinton.

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40. Yekaterina Budanova

The other female flying ace was Yekaterina Budanova. Her eleven victories earned her the Order of the Red Star.

Fighter Pilots FactsShutterstock

41. She Would Not Be Denied

While Budanova and Litvyak were the only women pilots to be named flying aces, they were not the only women pilots. One notable example is Margot Duhalde. In 1941, she traveled from her native Chile to France, only to be told the French air force did not except women. Undeterred, she joined the Royal Air Force, where she served as a transport pilot.

Fighter Pilots FactsWikipedia

42. Triple Ace

Arigi and Lasi made history in WWI when they both became aces in a single day. In the Second World War, however, four different German pilots became triple aces in a day, when they all managed to score fifteen decisive victories in a single 24-hour period.

Fighter Pilots FactsShutterstock

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30

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