Rules of Engagement – Eight Air Combat Maxims the Red Baron Followed to Conquer the Skies

Thijs Postma's famous painting of the Red Baron's best-known aircraft. The Fokker Dr.I.  For more of Postma's work, visit

Thijs Postma’s famous painting of the Red Baron’s best-known aircraft — the Fokker Dr.I tri-plane. For more aviation art, visit

GERMANY’S RED BARON, also known as Manfred Von Richthofen, wasn’t a very good pilot — his flying instructors thought him a mediocre aviator at best. Nor was the 25-year-old native of Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland) the fiercest warrior in the air — he often avoided taking risks preferring to prey on slower-flying observation planes.

Von Richthofen scored 80 victories. He was 25 years old when he died.

Von Richthofen scored 80 victories. He was 25 years old when he died.

Yet the Prussian aristocrat and one-time cavalry officer chalked up an astounding 80 air-to-air victories in two-and-a-half years – more than any other flaying ace of the First World War. In fact, Von Richthofen would become the greatest war hero of Germany and the most celebrated combat pilot in history.

The Baron himself credited his enviable success not just to his gifted marksmanship, but rather to a near slavish devotion to a set of simple dogfighting maxims handed down to him by his own hero and mentor, Oswald Boelcke.

Often called the “Father of Air Combat” [1], the influential captain tutored the junior Von Richthofen while the pair served together in Jasta 2 in 1916 along with air legends Werner Voss and Paul Bäumer, aka “The Iron Eagle”. Boelcke established his famous Dicta while racking up a then unheard of 40 kills.

At the time, dogfighting was still in its infancy — virtually no recognized tactics existed for air combat. Yet throughout 1915 and 1916, early flying aces made ad hoc efforts to codify the life and death lessons they were learning in the cockpit each day.

Boelcke’s teachings, which he eventually wrote down, made an impression on young Manfred. He would apply them with ruthless efficiency until his own death in April 1918.

Here is the Dicta Boelcke:

Oswald Boelcke taught young Von Richthofen all about air combat.

Oswald Boelcke taught young Von Richthofen all about air combat.

1. Use surprise to get the upper hand.

Strike from above while keeping the sun at your back, Boelcke said.

2. Once engaged, remain committed to the battle.

Never flee, he maintained. Always, hang in there and let the other guy retreat. Running from a fight only leaves a pilot at the mercy of pursuers.

3. Get close to the enemy before pulling the trigger.

Blazing away at a distant target is just a waste of ammo. Boelcke recommended his pilots to close to within at least 100 m or closer before opening fire.

4. Keep your eye on the enemy at all times, even if you think he’s going down.

Too often, outmatched pilots looking to escape from a losing fight would feign a fatal hit and nose their machines over into bogus death spirals. Don’t be fooled, the German squadron leader advised. Follow a defeated opponent’s kite down to the ground to make sure he’s finished.

5. Always get in behind your enemy.

Head on passes are risky and trying to hit a plane that’s travelling across your flight path is near impossible, Boelcke warned. Stay on the enemy’s tail and you’ll eventually prevail, he said.

6. Point your plane at danger.

When surprised by an enemy, don’t run, Boelcke said. Always attack! Turn your guns onto the threat, even if the enemy is diving on you. Steal the initiative, put him on the defensive and then look for the chance to get on his tail.

7. Use caution, especially when over enemy lines.

While retreat is rarely a safe option in any dogfight, Boelcke maintained, when mixing it up over hostile territory, keep an eye on the compass and always have an escape route back to friendly lines open just in case.

(Originally published on, Dec. 13, 2013.)

Manfred Von Richthofen and the fliers of his Jasta 11. The famous "Red Baron" appears in the cockpit.

Manfred Von Richthofen and the fliers of his Jasta 11. The famous “Red Baron” appears in the cockpit.

5 comments for “Rules of Engagement – Eight Air Combat Maxims the Red Baron Followed to Conquer the Skies

  1. JetNoob
    18 February, 2016 at 5:43 pm

    I regularly dogfight/fly combat sorties in Battlefield 3(an online computer FPS)which admittedly does not have fuel considerations, ammo considerations or realistic distances-but I’ve broken every single one of these rules in one engagement or another to win. For example: a lot of pilots like to fly high and use the sun for cover, so the first thing I do is search the skyline near/around the sun and spot them while using terrain for cover. Then close in using afterburners/chaff to avoid radar about 5-10 ft off ground, pull straight up into them and gun them down as they’re making their bombing/strafing run. Just gotta run enough simulations-I’ve even outflown AA missiles with no countermeasures by turning into the direction of the missiles and outspeeding their ability to hit me(doesn’t work every time of course). Every rule is made to be broken because every situation is UNIQUE and dynamic.

  2. JetNoob
    18 February, 2016 at 5:44 pm

    I also regularly run from dogfights to friendly Anti Aircraft positions :3

  3. JetNoob
    18 February, 2016 at 6:23 pm

    Annnd theres certain pilots you can’t surprise because of their excellent spatial awareness-these pilots you have to make a show of force and willingness to engage in a drawn out dogfight where you both get shot down by your respective anti-aircraft mobile batteries, stinger missiles or the enemy’s wingman. It becomes a question of a split second and 2-3 knot speed difference in turn radius to pull your line advantageously in that 360 degree bubble. I’ve also learnt that the Fulcrum can twist faster than a Hornet, but not outturn it. 😛

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