World War I

At the outbreak of World War I in July of 1914, airplanes (or known then as "aeroplanes") were still in their infancy. Invented barely 10 years previously, they were made by hand from cloth, wire, and wood. The engines fitted to them were less powerful and less reliable than those in modern automobiles. They were painfully slow and all too prone to accidents. Yet it didn't take long for military commanders to find potential applications and discover the effectiveness of these radical new machines.

Manned balloons and dirigibles had been around since the 18th and 19th centuries, respectively, making manned flight almost a common occurrence by 1900. Just by the virtue of being high above the ground, any flying (or floating) machine was automatically useful for observation, photography, and cartography. Later, even the primitive biplanes of the 1910s were faster than dirigibles, giving them a unique capability of moving from point A to point B. This gave the user the crucial advantage of being able to snoop around behind enemy lines, locating strongholds and weak spots.

Even before World War I, airplanes had seen limited front-line use. France, Italy, the United States, Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia, Romania, and Mexico had all used military aircraft from 1911-1913 for short-range observation and long-range reconnaissance missions. Later, these roles were expanded to include bombing ground targets. History's first bombing attacks caused few, if any casualties, but the psychological effect of being raided from the air was (and still is) terrifying to no end. Airplanes gradually started to carry more sizeable bomb loads, and strategic bombing had become a reality by the end of the decade.

With the outbreak of World War I, and with observation and bomber aircraft becoming increasingly common, the belligerents inevitably started looking for a way to gain "air superiority," or control of the airspace around their positions. To begin with, pilots on opposing sides were fairly civilized towards one another, even exchanging friendly smiles and waves, although obscene gestures and armed combat were quick to follow. Early air-to-air weapons were crude, sometimes consisting of bricks, grappling hooks, and even the airplane itself, though a ramming assault would normally be suicidal for the attacking pilot. Like the cavalrymen they were destined to replace, airmen would soon be issued pistols and carbines.

Although somewhat effective, pistols did not have the required range or power to bring down an airplane, and box-magazine-fed bolt-action carbines were unlikely to hit a moving target. Both the Allies and Central Powers (primarily Germany and Austria-Hungary) attempted to mount machine guns on airplanes, recognizing the advantages of the "spray and pray" approach to accuracy. The guns were nearly always fixed to fire directly ahead in order to reduce pilot workload. This only required him to point the airplane in order to aim the guns, allowing him to maintain line-of-sight accuracy. Early attempts to fire through the propeller arc ended in disaster, with numerous pilots destroying their own propeller and effectively shooting themselves down. Such weapons would remain impractical in the air until the German Fokker E.III introduced a successful synchronization system.

Until the Allies figured out the synchronization problem, a workable, if imperfect, solution was to mount the machine gun on the top wing. This allowed the bullets to fire over the propeller, and special mounts were eventually devised to bring the breech backward and downward, closer to the pilot for easy reloading and unjamming. More importantly, these devices allowed the pilot to shoot upwards, which proved to be an excellent way of sneaking up on an unsuspecting reconnaissance or bomber pilot and attacking from his ventral blind spot. However, this mechanism did have some considerable flaws, most notably the vibration on the fragile structure of the top wing, resulting in poor accuracy and even catastrophic wing failure. These problems were rectified by the independent development of a reliable timing system, although the upward-firing mounts were still frequently included along with synchronized guns on late-war fighters like the Sopwith Dolphin.

Though it was commonly fighter pilots who became aces, it was not unheard of for an observer or bomber gunner to claim the title, and aviators flying in other roles were no less brave, skilled, or vital to the war effort. Though they never scored as many air-to-air victories as front line fighter pilots did, airmen in ground attack, heavy bomber, battlefield observation, maritime patrol, long-range reconnaissance, anti-submarine, trainer, utility, and experimental aircraft all filled a special niche in the combatant's war machines that would be impossible to fulfill in types designed for a different purpose.

Though flying was seen by many to be the escape from the slaughter on the ground, air combat was often just as stalemated as in the trenches below and perhaps even more dangerous than to the pilots of today. Anti-aircraft artillery and machine guns became ever more accurate; bombers packed their own defensive armament; interceptors were ready to defend ground targets at a moment's notice; and escort fighters swarmed around otherwise vulnerable observation balloons and dirigibles. Pilots were almost never equipped with parachutes, both to save precious weight and discourage cowardice. Instead, aviators were sometimes given a pistol as the "coward's way out" of a burning aircraft. Indeed, a number of pilots would end up perishing by their own hand instead of suffering an unimaginably awful flame-filled death. As a result of this inherent peril, high-scoring fighter pilots would earn fame from their countrymen and infamy from their enemies, and were often the subject of extensive propaganda campaigns on the home front.

Credited with 80 kills, Manfred von Richthofen, also known as the infamous Red Baron, was the highest- scoring ace in Germany, the Central Powers, and ultimately the entire war. Serving in the Luftstreitkrafte, his mounts of choice included various Albatros, Fokker, and Halberstadt aircraft. Unexpectedly, it was not an Allied pilot who finally shot him down but more likely an Australian anti- aircraft machine gunner. To this day, nobody knows the true identity of the man who fatally wounded him, but several people have been identified as his possible killer. Though downed behind Allied lines, his foes buried him with full military honors which was a striking display of respect and admiration for an otherwise hated enemy. Though dead for more than 90 years, his tale lives on to the present day and continues to inspire anyone who climbs into the cockpit of a fighter jet and looks toward the sky.

Rene Fonck was both the leading French ace and the top-scoring Allied pilot, eventually being credited with 75 kills. Though never adored by the French press the way some other, more humble Aeronautique Militaire pilots were, he still made a vital contribution to Allied air supremacy and eventual victory. His ruthlessly practical style of fighting made him a force to be feared in the German ranks. Among Fonck's talents were his incredibly efficient use of ammunition, uncanny eyesight, and endless patience. He almost never took unnecessary risks, and thus never shot down a single observation balloon or German Zeppelin. In his entire career, he was never wounded, and only a single German bullet struck his aircraft. He usually flew in numerous models of SPAD airplanes for most of his career. After the war, he settled down to civilian life and wrote memoirs about his experiences fighting in the sky.

Billy Bishop was the top-scoring Canadian ace of World War I. From the very start of British involvement in the war, Canadian troops made their presence felt on the battlefield, and Bishop's service within the Royal Flying Corps was no exception. Officially credited with 72 victories in Royal Aircraft Factory and Nieuport types, Bishop was a force to be reckoned with, especially after surviving an encounter with none other than Richthofen himself. At first, Bishop tended to lead his squadron from the front of the formation. Later, he gradually started to attack by surprise in order to minimize the chance of being shot down. Despite this, he never let up on his aggressive style once he engaged his enemy. The Germans came to call him "Hell's Handmaiden," and one German Jagdstaffeln (hunting squadron) placed a sizeable bounty for his capture or killing. Bishop survived the war and became Air Marshal of the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II. By 1950, his health was deteriorating, and was politely rejected for desk service during the Korean War. He died in 1956 and remains a Canadian national hero.

Edward "Mick" Mannock was the top-scoring British ace of the war. Credited with 61 kills in Nieuport and Royal Aircraft Factory fighters, it was his mental inability to handle his success that eventually proved to be his undoing. Known by his comrades for ruthlessness, bloodlust, and deep hatred for the Germans, Mannock fought in a cold, calculating, and rage-filled manner that made him a deadly opponent for any German unfortunate enough to be caught in his gunsights. In contrast to others' more sparing use of ammo, Mannock often blasted his victims with as many bullets as he could. He also is credited with bringing down an observation balloon, which frequently meant certain death for a less experienced pilot. The fireball was usually enough to attract the attention of every anti-aircraft gunner and fighter pilot in sight, necessitating a mad dash to friendly airspace. Late in his career, Mannock started displaying obsessive-compulsive and phobic behaviors, leading him to carry a revolver as his way out of a burning wreck. Eventually downed and killed behind German lines, his remains were never recovered.

Andrew Beauchamp-Proctor was the leading South African ace of World War I. Despite being credited with 54 aerial victories in Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5s, he was not a particularly gifted pilot. In fact, he suffered three landing accidents before claiming even one kill. Despite this, he continued in front-line service nearly until end of the war. Beauchamp preferred to blind his enemy, alternating dangerous direct assaults on observation balloons with minimum-risk attacks on reconnaissance planes. He would also engage fighter aircraft when given the opportunity, but these were often not his main priority. He was wounded by ground fire in October 1918, ending his combat service just over a month before the Armistice. Beauchamp continued to fly with the Royal Air Force after the war, but was killed in 1921 when his Sopwith Snipe crashed in a training accident. After being laid to rest in Europe, his remains were sent to South Africa and reburied.
Robert A. Little was the top-scoring Australian pilot in World War I. Because of Australia's close ties with Britain, Little joined the Royal Naval Air Service and served on the Western Front. During his two deployments, he racked up 47 kills in Sopwith Pups, Triplanes, and Camels. Like some other leading aces, he was first and foremost an outstanding marksman. Known to be a ferocious enemy in the air, he was never afraid to singlehandedly take on an entire enemy fighter squadron and get as close to his prey as possible before firing his machine guns. Despite his fearsome reputation among the German squadrons, his comrades and family described him as a likeable and humorous person on the ground. Little's career ended all too soon when he was mortally wounded intercepting a squadron of German "Gotha" bombers. It's uncertain whether the fatal shot came from the ground or from one of the bombers, but it cost Australia and the British Empire one of their finest aviators. Although buried in France alongside millions of both comrades and enemies, he remains a prominent symbol of the Australian military.

Willy Coppens was the leading Belgian pilot of the war. Serving in the Compagnie des Aviateurs, he and his countrymen put up a heroic resistance to the German ransacking of their homeland. By the time of the Armistice, Coppens would eventually score 37 victories, all in the Hanriot HD.1 fighter. Unusually for such a high-scoring ace, most of his victims were observation balloons, which were very heavily guarded by fighters and anti-aircraft batteries. His specialty was considered a suicide mission by less capable pilots, and prohibitively difficult for all but the most experienced airmen. As a result of his bravery, he was decorated by none other than the Belgian King Albert I himself. Eventually wounded in combat, necessitating the amputation of his left leg, he retired from combat duties but organized Belgian resistance movements from Switzerland during World War II. He died in 1986 in his native Belgium, at the age of 96.

Godwin von Bromowski was the most successful pilot to fight for Austria-Hungary. Serving in the Luftfahrtruppen, he claimed 35 confirmed kills between his service on the Russian and Italian fronts. This is even more impressive considering that he became an ace while flying in two-seaters that were generally seen as more useful for ground attack than air-to-air battles. Later, he would switch to single- seat fighters manufactured by Hansa-Brandenburg, Aviatik, and Albatros. Late in his combat service, Bromowski became a rare survivor of an in-flight fire, after pulling off an incredible soft landing with some of the fabric skin scorched off the wings of his plane. In October 1918, he was given command of all the fighter squadrons on the Italian front, but the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the end of the war a month later would cut short his military career. The dissolution of the Empire devastated him, and Bromowski faded into obscurity. He later became a flight instructor, but was killed in a crash in 1936.Francesco Baracca was the top Italian ace of World War I. Credited with 34 victories in different Corpo Aeronautico Militare Nieuport and SPAD fighters by the time of his death, he was both respected by his friends and feared by his foes. A favorite tactic of his was to sneak up from behind and below a reconnaissance plane, then pull the nose up and fire his machine gun from pistol range. His personal marking, a black prancing horse, was much feared by the Luftfahrtruppen and later became part of the Ferrari logo. Baracca was downed and killed behind Austro-Hungarian lines, but the Italians recovered the remains of both his body and wrecked SPAD VII when they were able to force a retreat. He appeared to have taken the "coward's way out," rather than die in the crash or a POW camp. Several airports in Italy bear his name to this day, a testament to the longevity of his legacy.

Eddie Rickenbacker was the leading American ace of the war. Although he's credited with 26 victories, he may have been able to match Richthofen if not for the United States' late (1917) entry to the war. Although at first enlisted in the US Army Air Service as an engineering officer (mechanic) due to his lack of college education, he learned to fly Nieuports and SPADs in his spare time and earned his wings with the rest of his squadron. Soon after, Rickenbacker gained five kills within two months. A sixth victory was followed by three months without scoring, as well as an acute ear infection that almost knocked him out of the war. After a few weeks of recovery, he was put back into combat and quickly started to prove himself alongside the most experienced and battle-hardened pilots in the world. He would score a string of victories in October 1918 and would continue flying right up to Armistice Day, bringing his total to 26. After the war, he was presented with the Medal of Honor and would advise the American and Soviet governments on military aviation matters during World War II. Rickenbacker would also pioneer commercial air transportation by founding Eastern Air Lines. He died in Switzerland in 1973.

Keith Caldwell, in addition to being the top-scoring New Zealander ace of World War I, also flew alongside top-scoring British ace Mick Mannock as his wingman. Although he was credited with 25 kills by the war's end, he could have downed even more if he were a better shot. Despite obviously being a gifted pilot, always being able to control where his aircraft was pointed, he was a second-rate marksman and tended miss his target and waste ammunition. Despite his low victory-to-engagement ratio, Caldwell was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in December 1918, about a month after Armistice Day. He continued to serve the Royal New Zealand Air Force during World War II as a high-ranking officer. After his 1956 retirement to Auckland, he died of cancer in 1980.

Alexander Kazakov was the most successful Russian ace of the war. Flying a mix of Morane-Saulnier, SPAD, and Nieuport types, he gained an official tally of 20 air-to-air victories before the Russian Civil War forced him to withdraw from the Eastern Front in January 1918. He had earlier gained attention for surviving a successful ramming attack on an Austrian reconnaissance plane. At this stage of the war, gun-equipped fighters were still yet to become commonplace and most aircraft were unarmed. Kazakov's subsequent mounts would all include machine guns, but even his outstanding contributions to the Allied war effort would not be enough for the Russian people, especially the Bolsheviks. Upon leaving the battlefield, he defected to the White (anti-Marxist) Russian cause and continued to educate about the importance of air power on the battlefield. He was killed in a crash in August 1919, which some eyewitness accounts describe to be a deliberate suicide. Though largely ignored and erased from memory by the Soviet Bolsheviks, Kazakov was widely recognized in his time by the Western Allies as a tragic war hero.

In both of the World Wars, Indian troops provided valuable service to the British Empire, often distinguishing themselves through uncommon bravery and skill. Indra Lal Roy was the most successful Indian fighter pilot in history, and as of this writing is the only flying ace to emerge from that country. Because of his youth, he joined late, scoring his only kills in the last months of the war. His record stands at 10 enemy aircraft downed between the 6th and 19th of July. On the 22nd of the same month, he was shot down and killed over Carvin, France.

Aristeidis Moraitinis, aside from conducting history's first naval aviation missions during the Balkan Wars, is the only Greek pilot to become an ace, both in World War I and ultimately in the history of Greece. Credited with a grand total of 9 official victories, he was the lowest-scoring out of the highest- scoring aces from each country. Greece joined the Allies in 1917, having nearly no local aircraft industry, with close to all machines and instructors being imported. These handicaps combined to give a large degree of admirability to what would elsewhere be considered a lackluster combat performance. Moraitinis became commander of the Greek Naval Air Service, but only retained this title for a short time before his death in December 1918. Like so many other pilots of his time, he fell victim to foul weather, crashing his airplane on Mount Olympus.

Although it's impossible to choose the one most significant person to serve in the "War to End All Wars", one person in particular stands out. Born on February 19th, 1901, Florence Green was the last surviving veteran of World War I. She served in the Women's Royal Air Force as an officers' mess steward (waitress) between 1918 and 1919, at age 17. Though being both female and underage disqualified her for combat, her small claim to fame is one of the most notable. Her death on February 4th, 2012, aged 110 years, 11 months, 21 days, marked the war's transition from the fleeting time period of living memory to the vastly larger realm of recorded history.

As for the planes that the pilots flew, any surviving flying originals are almost unfathomably old, to the point that they have long outlived the men who flew them. Nearly all examples of Central Powers aircraft found in museums are replicas, reproductions, or models, since the peace treaties that brought the formal end of the war forced the defeated parties to destroy their air forces. In contrast, a number of Allied aircraft survive to the present, though mostly as static displays in museums and air shows.

San Diego Air & Space Museum

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