The Wright Flyer III, built by the Wright brothers in 1905, is considered to be the first airplane to be used for a practical, rather than merely experimental basis. Less than a decade later the airplane was put to use to kill people, using bombs against targets on the ground and helping to target artillery. In short order pilots and observers were looking for ways to knock down airplanes of the opposing side using pistols, rifles, machine guns, hand grenades, and occasionally chains and grappling hooks. Soon aircraft equipped with pusher props were being armed with forward firing machine guns. French, German, and British companies began working on a method of a pilot firing a machine gun through a tractor propeller.
The French were the first to succeed, using a combination interrupter gear and deflector wedges to fire through a propeller. Roland Garros, for whom the tennis center where the French Open is played is named, succeeded in shooting down three German airplanes before he was forced to land behind German lines and failed to destroy his airplane. The Germans had at the time been working on an interrupter gear to stop the machine gun from firing when the propeller was in the way, and quickly improved the French design. By mid-spring 1915 the Germans were ready to unleash a new form of warfare on the Allies.
Here are the top ten fliers of the First World War, based on the number of confirmed air to air victories they achieved.
Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen. German Empire
The legendary Red Baron of Germany was the eldest of three sons (with one older sister) of an aristocratic Prussian family. He was well educated, an excellent hunter, and athletic. His military training began at the age of 11, and in 1911 he entered a cavalry unit of the Prussian Army. In the early days of First World War the battle lines were dynamic, and cavalry units were often engaged in reconnaissance duties. Richthofen served on the Russian front as well as in the Low Countries and France.
When the war bogged down into trench warfare the cavalry units were no longer able to perform their traditional functions, and Richthofen transferred to the Imperial German Army Air Service in May 1915. Richthofen was at first an observer on the Russian front before transferring to France. After meeting German ace Oswald Boelcke Richthofen applied for flight training, and convinced his younger brother Lothar to join him. When he returned to the front as a pilot he was assigned to two-seaters for a time.
Richthofen’s first confirmed aerial kill occurred on September 17, 1916, an event for which he ordered a silver cup to commemorate. He continued to purchase silver cups for each of his victories until he reached a total of sixty. By that point in the war Germany’s silver shortage was acute, and Richthofen refused to commemorate his victories with another, less valuable metal. The cups were engraved with the type of aircraft destroyed and the date.
In September 1917 Richthofen began his association with the Fokker Triplane, painted blood-red, for which he is most famously remembered. Most German fighter pilots developed distinctive colors or paint schemes for their aircraft. The German High Command recognized the propaganda value of the pilot’s individual records, and Richthofen became known as the Red Fighter Pilot, a term he used as the title for his autobiography, published in 1917. The book had been heavily modified by German censors, and before he died Richthofen repudiated it, saying that he was no longer as arrogant as the book made him appear.
Richthofen was wounded in the head in July 1917, returning to combat later that same month against the orders of his doctors. After an extended leave that fall he again returned, and it was clear that he was not the same man. In the spring of 1918, after he had refused the opportunity to remain in the service at a ground job he was killed in action. Shot through the heart and lungs, he managed to land the airplane as he died. Today it is generally agreed that the fatal shot came from troops on the ground. Richthofen shot down 80 enemy planes.
Rene Fonck. France
Rene Fonck was the leading Allied ace of the war, and the second leading of all fliers, with 75 confirmed kills. Fonck claimed a total of 142 enemy aircraft destroyed by his guns. He was conscripted by the French Army during the general mobilization in August 1914, and assigned to the combat engineers. Not until February 1915 would Fonck be accepted for and sent to flight training. In May he entered combat, flying an observation plane. Late that month his observer was killed by anti-aircraft fire. After claiming a kill and being told it was unconfirmed that summer, he attacked a German aircraft by circling it, avoiding return fire, gradually forcing it to land behind the French lines.
Fonck did not score again until the following March. The next month (which became known as Bloody April due to the high number of Allied aviation casualties) he joined a fighter wing flying the new SPAD VII. His kills total began to rise quickly. Fonck developed the reputation of being a cold-blooded, clinical tactician, obsessed with receiving credit for his victories, even when there was some question of the kill belonging to another flier. Three of Fonck’s victories were for shared kills.
In May 1918 Fonck lost a bet with an American flier over who would shoot down an enemy plane soonest. After the American won, Fonck changed the terms of the bet to be whomever shot down the most planes that day would win. The prize was a bottle of champagne. In two separate flights Fonck shot down six German reconnaissance airplanes, claiming the prize.
On July 19 Fonck shot down three German airplanes, passing the recently killed Georges Guynemer as the leading French ace. Fonck repeated the six aircraft in one day feat at the end of September 1918, three of them Fokker D VII fighters, the best German fighter of the war. Fonck refused to attack observation balloons or dirigibles, concentrating on enemy observation planes and fighters. By the end of the war his own aircraft had been struck by enemy fire only once.
Fonck survived the war and left the service, only to return to rise to the command of French Fighter Aircraft in 1937. He was accused of collaboration during and after the Second World War through the Vichy government, but a post-war investigation exonerated him. Towards the end of the German occupation Fonck was imprisoned at Drancy. He died in Paris 1953.