“To this day, von Richthofen’s credentials as the ‘greatest combat pilot of all time’ are firmly established… while, other great military aviators have been all but relegated to the margins of history.”
MANFRED VON RICHTHOFEN WASN’T THAT DARING A FIGHTER PILOT, particularly when compared to other First World War fliers.
The aristocrat turned aviator attained his enviable 80-kill record largely by playing it safe. Rather than boldly charging into dogfights against equally matched fighter planes, the so-called Red Baron preferred to prey on much slower and lightly armed reconnaissance aircraft. In fact, his reputation as a fearsome warrior was just as much a by-product of German wartime propaganda as it was attributable to his uncanny airborne marksmanship.
Yet to this day, von Richthofen’s credentials as the ‘greatest combat pilot of all time’ are firmly established. His exploits have been the subject of feature films, computer games and hit songs. Even a pizza maker and a bicycle manufacturer have appropriated his legendary nickname. And all the while, other great (and superior) military aviators have been all but relegated to the margins of history. Consider these often overlooked flying aces and their astounding areal feats.
The First Top Guns
The Red Baron may have been the highest scoring pilot of the First World War, but the one-time cavalry officer was actually a relative latecomer to the air war over the Western Front. Von Richthofen didn’t even score his fifth confirmed victory (the requirement for “ace” designation) until late 1916. In fact, dozens of other pilots were breaking the five-kill barrier well before the famous Fokker-jock was even in flight school.
In July 1915, a 26-year-old French aviator by the name of Adolphe Pégoud downed his fifth German aircraft. Eager for war heroes, the press christened the new champion an “ace”, thus coining the now-ubiquitous term. Interestingly enough, the former flight instructor was killed just a few weeks later by one of his own pre-war students: A German aviator by the name of Walter Kandulski.
In August of 1915, Lanoe Hawker became the Royal Flying Corps’ first ace — although at the time the British used the term “star-turn” to describe their country’s five-time killers.
While a number of First World War aviators came close to topping the Red Baron’s 80 kills, it took more than 20 years for other fighter pilots to shatter the 1918 record. But shatter it they did – and spectacularly too.
Nazi Germany’s Werner Mölders broke the then-unheard-of 100-kill barrier on the Russian Front before being promoted to colonel and transferred out of combat in July of 1941. Despite his new duties on the ground, the Battle of Britain vet secretly took to the skies where he claimed 30 additional kills that weren’t officially added to his tally. He died following a plane crash in late 1941.
The Luftwaffe’s Gordon Gollob was far luckier. The Austrian-born aviator downed more than 150 Allied planes, survived the war and lived to the ripe old age of 75.
But none topped Erich Hartman. Dubbed “The Black Devil” by Soviet fliers, the 23-year-old Württemberg-native claimed a staggering 352 kills making him the highest scoring ace in the history of air warfare. Yet unlike von Richthofen, Hartman’s name hasn’t inspired a brand of beer and not a single cartoon dog has ever cursed his name (as far as we know).
The top American ace of World War Two was Richard Bong of the U.S. Army Air Corps. A veteran of the Pacific War, the Lockheed P-38 pilot bagged a total of 40 Japanese planes. After a successful tour of duty, the 24-year-old Wisconsin-native became a test pilot. He died in a stateside jet crash on the same day of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
Meanwhile, Britain’s James Edgar Johnson, aka Johnnie Johnson, amassed 34 kills making him the United Kingdom’s leading ace of World War Two.
The all-time top Allied fighter pilot of the war was Grigoriy Rechkalov of the Soviet Union. He defeated 56 Axis warplanes before VE Day.
While von Richthofen shot down more planes than any other flier of his day, he never managed to achieve the coveted status of “ace in a day” – that is scoring five air-to-air victories in a single 24-hour period.
The first to accomplish the feat were Austria’s Julius Arigi and Johann Lasi. On Aug. 22, 1916, the pilot/observer duo brought down five Italian planes in a single mission in their two-seat recon bird.
Germany’s Fritz Otto Bernert was the first lone flier to blot out five enemy craft in a single day. He did it in less than 20 minutes on April, 24, 1917.
Then there was John Lightfoot Trollope of the British Royal Flying Corps who downed a whopping seven enemy planes on March 24, 1918 – a record for the First World War. By way of comparison, on the Red Baron’s best day in April of 1917, he downed just four planes.
Amazingly, more than 100 World War Two fliers made ace in a day, including Clive Caldwell of Australia who destroyed five Axis aircraft in as many minutes over North Africa in 1941.
Another Luftwaffe star, Erich Rudorffer, scored a staggering 13 victories in just one sortie over the U.S.S.R. on Oct. 11, 1943.
But the record for the most kills in a single day belongs to Germany’s Emil Lang. He defeated 18 Russian planes over a 24-hour period in November, 1943.
Aces That Didn’t Fly
Only two women in history have achieved ace status – both were Soviet.
Lydia Litvyak was only 20 when the Nazis invaded the U.S.S.R. The young Muscovite was already a pilot when she signed up to drive the enemy from her homeland. By the time of her death in 1943, she’d downed 12 Axis warplanes.
Only Yekaterina Budanova came close to topping Litvyak (who was her squadron-mate). The 26-year-old nanny from Smolensk claimed 11 victories while flying over Stalingrad and Rostov. She died in action on July 19, 1943.
Aces of the Jet Age
Alfred Schreiber scored history’s first ever victory with a jet fighter. He also became the first flying ace of the jet age. The 23-year-old Me-262 pilot downed a RAF Mosquito over southern Europe on July 26, 1944. During the next two months he’d bring down four other warplanes in his Schwalbe jet (three Spitfires and a P-38 Lighting) before perishing in a crash landing.
America’s first jet ace was James Jabara. The North American F-86 pilot splashed six North Korean MiG-15s during a two-month period in the spring of 1951. By the end of the war he’d amassed an impressive tally of 15 kills. Another Korean War Saber pilot, Joseph C. McConnell topped the record with 16 victories.
The only known communist pilot to make ace in Korea was Russia’s Sergei Kramarenko who brought down five American jets. The 29-year-old MiG pilot flew his last combat mission on Jan. 17, 1952. During an intense dogfight over the 38th Parallel, Kramarenko’s plane was riddled with machine gun fire forcing the Russian flier to bail out. He later claimed that the American pilot even opened fire on the dazed aviator as he descended to earth in his parachute.  He survived the ordeal and is still alive to this day.
As the jet age progressed, the soaring cost of frontline interceptors and the advent of long-range air-to-air missiles led to a precipitous decline in dogfights. As a result aces became fewer and further between.
Saiful Azam of Bangladesh won up an impressive five victories in two different wars: First in 1965 when flying against Indian jets for the Pakistani air force and then while taking on Israeli aircraft as a volunteer to the Arab forces during the 1967 Six Day War.
History’s top scoring jet ace is Giora Epsiten of Israel who between 1967 and 1973 downed an unprecedented 17 enemy aircraft.
(Originally published by MilitaryHistoryNow.com on Nov. 5, 2014)