History of the American Fighter Ace: World War I
By Bill Hess with expanded text by Bill Martin
During the First World War, the airplane became a primary weapon system. True, the earliest flights were strictly observation missions, but it was inevitable that English and French aircrews would sight German aircraft. Eventually they flew close enough to exchange a friendly wave. The Knights of medieval days had progressed to become nights of the air. However, just as in hockey baseball or football, the gentle thoughts of the adversaries took a violent turn and means were rapidly devised to crush the enemy finally, at one historic meeting the pistol was drawn and shots actually fired. The race was on, and some 80–plus years later the limits still have not been reached. The French were the first to recognize the most successful pilots aerial combat in world war one. They the “Ace” designation upon their pilots when a tenth aerial victory was accomplished. It was in the form of a “knighthood” and was considered perhaps the most glamorous distinction a man could achieve.
The British, too, informally recognized 10 aerial victories as qualifying for “Acedom”, although nothing official ever developed. It was not until the Americans joined the combat that the greatest impetus was exhibited in the AEF arbitrarily established five aerial victories as qualifying one as an ace. The Germans were seriously engaged in war at this time and gave little thought toward establishing such a term as “Ace”, but they did bestow a form of knighthood upon their more successful pilots with the award of the “Pour Le Merite.”
Before the arrival of American units in action, however, there were quite a number of eager young man who had left their homes in the United States to cast their lot with the Allied cause in World War I. Some journey to Canada and England to join the Royal flying Corps while others went to France and join the French foreign Legion as a means of getting into flight training.
The first American to shoot down five enemy aircraft was a Colorado cowboy, Frederick Libby. Libby had seen service in the trenches with the Canadian Army before he was trained as an observer. In the capacity of gutter/observer he was credited with founding 10 enemy aircraft. Libby went on to complete pilot training and gained four more as a pilot. However, his role with Barry, who first flew with the French Lafayette Escadrille. This international adventurer was not only a fine pilot, but an excellent tactician of the day. To combat the “Flying Circus” tactics of the Germans he devised the “Lufbery Circle” as a defensive maneuver. May have waned, his maneuver survived well into the jet age.
Lufbery scored his first aerial victory on July 30, 1916, and became an ace on 12 October when he downed a Roland C II over Obendorf. And sent to command the 94th Aero squadron. Unfortunately, he was killed in aerial combat before he could increase his score of 17 achieved while flying with the French.
The first US air service victory did not come until March 11th, 1918, when Paul F. Baer of the 103rd Aerial Squadron shot down an Albatros near Cerney-les Reims. He was credited with his fifth victory on April 23rd making him the AEF’s first Ace. Of America’s 2 most celebrated aces of world war one were Edward V. Rickenbacker and Frank Luke, the antithesis of one another. Rickenbacker, who had been told that he was too old to be a pilot, went on to become America’s “Ace of Aces” with 26 confirmed victories. “Captain Eddie” was a mature, cool and calculating pilot.
He was aggressive, but not foolish, and his capability as a pilot and marksman are indicated by his success.
Frank Luke, the “Arizona Balloon Buster” was young, reckless and place little value on his own life. He was a lone wolf who chose to stalk his prey, usually a balloon, without thoughts as to the plausibility of the attack or the chances of survival. Luke’s mediocrity rise to fame was brief, however. He was killed on September 29, 1918, following an attack in which he downed three balloons. He was forced to crash land behind enemy lines and died of his own wounds shortly thereafter. His final three balloons gave him a total of 13 balloons and four enemy aircraft destroyed.
At the end of World War I there were 118 Americans who qualified for the title of Fighter Ace. These included 36 who had flown solely with the British and five with the French to achieve acedom. A distinctive Ace of that conflict, David S. Ingalls, USNR, was the only U.S. Navy Ace. Ingalls was trained by the French and the British before being posted to Dunkirk with a U.S. Navy unit. To relieve the boredom of his patrol flights, he joined in the combat missions of a RAF unit. Flying Sopwith Camels with the RAF’s No.213 Squadron, he became the Navy’s 1st and only Ace of World War I.