Being a fighter pilot is one career that needs absolutely no advertising or PR management; the job is intrinsically cool. There are no recruiters hanging out at job fairs trying to convince people that getting into the cockpit of a jet and flying around the world is a satisfying experience. We know it is. True, the average person probably wants nothing to do with it. The risk of a fiery death tends to put off the majority of people. Still, it’s testament to the various forms of the human experience that we as a species do have members who want in. Bold, adrenaline-junkie men and women who find the idea of living life as close to the edge as possible to be the only way to exist. This isn’t ‘Top Gun’, there’s a very real chance that when you step in the cockpit you won’t come back – but maybe that’s part of the appeal.
If the idea of flying a modern fighter jet is unappealing, then the thought of setting foot in a fighter plane built pre-1945 is probably horrifying. These rickety, propeller-driven wooden planes were built with virtually no equipment compared to the modern flying experience, and the pilots lived or died based on the all too human qualities of intuition and reflexes. Many men were terrified to go up in the air and come face-to-face with enemy planes and artillery, but they did it anyway. The casualty rate for WWI and WWII fighter pilots was insanely high, which is really not that surprising when you stop and consider what they were doing with the equipment they had. Inexplicably, while some men wilted in the air, others bloomed. Legends were carved out in the skies as distinguished pilots made names for themselves by taking off into suicide missions and coming back alive, over and over again. These are some of those men, the ace pilots of early military aviation.
#10 Adolphe Pégoud
We open the list with the man who has the distinction of being the first official ‘flying ace’ in the then-nascent history of aviation. Adolphe Pégoud was born in Montferrat in southeastern France in 1889, joining the French army in 1907. He was widely regarded as the first pilot to perform the ‘loop’, the act of flying the plane upwards and over in a looping motion and then straightening out while being completely upside down before rotating back into a normal position. Keep in mind that this was 100 years ago, in planes with no roof on the cockpit. Pégoud became the first flying ace during WWI, shooting down 6 enemy planes over the course of a few skirmishes. He was a well-respected aviation instructor throughout Europe before the war, and the German man who shot him down was actually one of his former students. He died in 1915 at age 26.
#9 James Doolittle
James Doolittle is an American Medal of Honor recipient mostly known for his success in what was later named the ‘Doolittle Raid’. He was born in California in 1896 and enlisted in the military in 1917. He served in WWI as a pilot instructor and later moved up the ranks in between the first and second World Wars. The Doolittle Raid took place on April 18th, 1942, and was a bombing raid on the Japanese capital Tokyo. It was the first air strike to ever hit the islands of Japan. Doolittle planned and personally executed the raid, and many of his men and planes were lost. The survivors parachuted into China where the Chinese helped them to reach safety. Doolittle initially thought the raid would be considered a failure, but it damaged the Japanese morale significantly and therefore he was greeted enthusiastically upon his return to the allied forces. He was immediately promoted to Brigadier General and fought the rest of the war as a high-ranking officer. Unlike most pilots, he eventually retired and lived a long life, dying at age 96 in 1993.
#8 Edward Mannock
WWI ace pilot Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock was born in Ireland in 1887, to English and Scottish parents. He joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1915, and began a 3-year military career as a pilot culminating in reaching Major. Mannock’s hatred for the Germans was legendary, and he allegedly took great pleasure in shooting down the enemy planes. Pilots in the first and second World War kept score of their kills meticulously, but Mannock wasn’t known to particularly care for the number of his kills or comparing them to any fellow allied or German pilots. Still, with a confirmed 61 aerial victories, and reports of many unconfirmed kills, he was one of the most efficient and feared pilots in the war. He died in 1918, when he was shot down close to the end of the war after flying too low and being exposed to enemy ground fire.
#7 Albert Ball
Albert Ball achieved more in his 20 years on the planet than most people will do in 80. Born in England in 1896 to a wealthy and respected family, he joined the RAF at the outbreak of WWI in 1914. Ball soon rose through the ranks to become one of the most well respected and feared English pilots, developing a reputation amongst both the allied forces and the German ones. A loner, Ball would often choose tending to his garden or practicing violin over socializing with his fellow pilots. His demeanor was reflected in his combat style, in which he would often stray from friendly planes to seek out enemy targets alone. At the time of Ball’s last flight in 1917, he was the top ace in the Allied forces with 44 aerial victories. He was last seen pursuing Lothar Von Richthofen, the younger brother of the ‘Red Baron’, into a dark cloud with no support, and at some point during the confrontation he was shot down and killed.
#6 Ernst Udet
Ernst Udet holds the distinction of being the top German ace to actually survive WWI. Born in 1896 in Frankfurt, he grew up interested in motorcycles and planes. When the war broke out in 1914, Udet was able to join the German air force and became one of their top fighter pilots, eventually joining the Red Baron’s legendary unit of ace pilots known as ‘The Flying Circus’. After the war, Udet spent the 20s and the early 30s as a stunt pilot, until he joined the Nazi party in 1933. He helped them build up the Luftwaffe, the Nazi air force, in which he became a high-ranking officer. The stress of being in an administrative position throughout WWII allegedly led to alcoholism, and when the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, Udet discovered he couldn’t handle the stress of waging war on 2 fronts. He committed suicide by gunshot wound to the head in 1941.
#5 Johnnie Johnson
James Edgar Johnson, frequently cited simply as Johnnie Johnson, was a top allied ace pilot during WWII. He was born in 1915, in the turbulence of WWI, and attempted to join the RAF prior to the outbreak of WWII. He was initially rejected, allegedly based on coming from a poor background, as British society was rife with classism at the time. When it seemed clear war was on the horizon, the RAF’s standards were relaxed, but he was rejected again because of a broken collarbone that never healed properly. Determined, he received surgery to fix it and was finally accepted. He is credited with 34 victories throughout WWII and lived long past the war, serving in the Korean war and passing away in 2001 at the age of 85.
#4 Billy Bishop
Billy Bishop was born in 1894 in Owen Sound, Ontario, Canada. After being interested in aviation at a very young age, he received a chance to pursue his dreams when the war broke out in 1914. Initially he was a ground soldier, but convinced his commanders to let him transfer to the RAF. He received his wings in 1916 and never looked back, amassing 72 victories – although some have been contested by historians – becoming Canada’s top ace. He surived the war and served as an Air Marshall throughout the WWII, but didn’t partake in active combat. He died in 1956 at the age of 62.
#3 René Fonck
Edward Mannock may have ended the war as the top English pilot, but the top pilot amongst all the Allied forces was a French ace named René Fonck. Born in 1894, he enlisted at the outbreak of the war like many of his countrymen. Despite being a sensational pilot from the beginning, his somewhat anti-social demeanor overshadowed his accomplishments in the French press. At the end of the war, he had a confirmed 75 aerial victories – 72 of which he achieved while flying alone. He retired after the war, living until 1953 when he died at the age of 59 from a stroke. Upon his death he was still the allied ‘Ace of Aces’, with more confirmed victories of any allied pilots throughout both WWI and WWII.
#2 Manfred Von Richthofen
The ‘Red Baron’ terrorized allied forces throughout WWI, and was the undisputed flying ace from 1914 until his death in 1918. Born to German nobility, Richthofen earned his nickname because of his heritage and his decision to paint his plane a bright red, making it instantly clear to the opposition who he was whenever he met them in the air. He amassed over 80 confirmed victories throughout the war, more than any other pilot on either side. He commanded a unit of pilots known as ‘The Flying Circus’, many of whom he personally trained (including his own brother Lothar) who were by far the most feared German air unit. Richthofen was shot down in April 1918, but his legacy lives on and he is widely considered one of the best fighters of all time, second only to one other.
#1 Erich Hartmann
The Blonde Knight, The Black Devil; Erich Hartmann was a man who inspired many monikers from his enemies. Born in 1922 in Germay, he joined the Luftwaffe in 1940 and earned his pilot’s license in 1942. He became the most successful fighter pilot in aviation history. He’s credited with shooting down 352 allied planes over 1,404 combat missions – by far the most out of any pilot in history. Hartmann escaped WWII with his life, but was later accused of false war crimes. After completing his sentence he lived out his life first in the air force of the new state of West Germany, then as a civilian flight instructor. He died in 1993, at the age of 71.