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.