aviation at the start
Great War timeline
Aerial Reconnaissance
observation balloons
aerial combat
machine guns
forward firing machine gun
allied AAA guns of WW1
aircraft camouflage
death of an Air Ace
the Fokker scourge
the Red Baron
von Richthofen journal
Zeppelin airships
nocturnal air defence
Lafayette Escadrille
Belgium during the Great War
the Eastern Front
the Russian Front
the Italian Front
Air Effort over Gallipoli
the bombers
the American air effort
the German 1918 spring offensive
America at War
the end of Germany's air effort
aircraft statistics
Aircraft of WW1
WW1 air aces
aircraft designers
WW1 aircraft engines

America Enters the War

America finally declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917. American soldiers did not see any combat action at the front lines until October of that year and American- made armaments, and especially air materials, did not reach the front lines until well into 1918, just a few months before the war ended. The Germans, who sued for a separate peace with Russia so they could eliminate one front, stepped up their industrial program and struck out with bold last-ditch military offences, hoping to redraw the map of Europe before the Americans even arrived. America added just enough weight to tip the balance in favour of the Allies. This was no less true in the air war than on the ground.

The Americans barely had enough time to have a few flying aces, but like the aces of an earlier time, they were cut from a different cloth and they were worshipped as heroes. Five Allied aces closed out the era of the World War I aviator, and while they were brave and gifted fliers, they operated largely in an arena that was not nearly as challenging or dangerous as that of their predecessors. With the German air force in shambles and the German army in retreat, many of the final victories were against little or no resistance.


Canadian William Avety Bishop (ABOVE LEFT, in front of his Nieuport 17), who once shot down twelve enemy aircraft in three days; French sharpshooter René Paul Fonck (ABOVE RIGHT), one of the very few fliers who could shoot enemy pilots out of their cockpits with a sidearm, was credited with seventy-five kills, but may have wounded or neutralized many more pilots

American Eddie Rickenbacker with his SPAD, who devised the strategy that many able pilots used against the Fokkers.

France’s last great ace, and on paper its greatest, was René Paul Fonck, a flier and marksman of incomparable skill, but a man of such annoying social qualities that he became something of an embarrassment to the French. He is credited with seventy-five confirmed victories, many using a hand-held rifle with which he was a deadly marksman. He may have had as many as twenty-five more victories that were unconfirmed, because he also had a knack for flying damaged planes back to base after solitary encounters with lone, renegade enemy planes. (Before 1918, the Germans did not allow isolated plane- to-plane engagements.)

He may well have been the best technical pilot-marksman to fly in World War I. The problem was that Fonck was the loudest at trumpeting his own accomplishments, which was considered bad form in the  fighter ace fraternity. Fonck died peacefully in 1953 at the age of fifty-nine in his Paris home, having been honoured by France and the world of aviation (if perhaps not to the degree that Fonck thought he deserved). The British produced two aces: the Canadian William Avery Bishop and the Irishman Edward Mannock. Billy Bishop (as he was known) had lightning-quick reflexes that gave him the ability to shoot down planes as they were getting into position to engage him (and even as they were taking off!). Bishop’s total was the second- highest number of British air victories at seventy-two, which is amazing when one considers that he flew for little more than a year, from March 1917 to June 1918. (After the war, Bishop became a promoter of Canadian aviation; he died in Florida in 1956.)

Britain’s most successful ace, at seventy-three confirmed kills, was not lionized until years after the war, mainly because his reputation rested more on his leadership and tactics than on his individual exploits. Edward “Mick” Mannock was born in Belfast, Ireland, but was working on the Turkish telegraph system in Constantinople when war broke out. He was arrested and treated so badly in prison that he was repatriated in 1915 because of his poor health.

Mannock was consumed with a bitter hatred for the Central Powers, which inspired him to lead violent and reckless sorties against German aircraft, showing neither fear nor mercy for enemy fliers. At first, he flew Nieuports, but eventually Mannock commanded a squadron of the advanced S.E. 5a planes known as the “Tiger Squadron.” From January to July 26, 1918, this squadron grew to have the same mastery of the skies that the Flying Circus of Baron von Richthofen had enjoyed a year earlier.

It was said that Mannock’s sorties were so well planned that his Tiger Squadron was never surprised, but this may also be testimony to the enfeebled state of the German air defences in the last months of the war. Mick Mannock was killed when a stray bullet, shot up from the trenches, hit his fuel tank and his plane exploded. The two most celebrated American aces in the latter stages of the war (besides Lufbery, who was considered French) were anything but typical of the Americans who flew in the Lafayette Escadrille and in the America Corps. Eddie Rickenbacker was considered old at twenty-seven when he entered flight training, and he and Frank Luke were coarse young men from common backgrounds and with little formal education.

Edward Vernon Rickenbacker was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1890, and was intensely interested in motors and car racing since childhood. Between 1910 and 1917, Rickenbacker gained a reputation as an outstanding race car driver. He had retained the old German spelling of his name— Rickenbacher—and raced in England under the title of  the “Wild Teuton.” He was detained several times on suspicion of being a spy, causing him to change the spelling to “Rickenbacker,” which he thought sounded less Germanic. When America entered the war, he returned to the States and went to Washington to lobby for a squadron composed of race car drivers, arguing that such men would be mechanically adept and accustomed to high speeds. He was turned down, but allowed to enlist. For many years, the story had it that he was General Pershing’s chauffeur and that Pershing pulled strings to get Eddie into flight school.

Rickenbacker never denied the story even though it wasn’t quite true: it was Colonel Billy Mitchell for whom he drove and who arranged his flight training at Tours. Rickenbacker did not fit in at all with the Ivy Leaguers at flight school. He was tough and given to the profane language of the racetrack, and he would not spend time cavorting with the fellows in the local towns. He spent all his time practicing flying Nieuports and studying their mechanisms. He remained a loner throughout the war, focused on the techniques of air combat. Rickenbacker developed a unique fighting style: he would fly high into enemy territory before sunrise and then, when he was about twenty miles (32km) away from the front, turn around as the sun rose and head toward the lines. He used clouds as cover or he would glide some of the way, waiting for German aircraft to take off.

Once in the air the Germans would suddenly find themselves under attack from a plane diving down at them out of the sun or shooting at them from directly behind their tail. This tactic would have been impossible earlier in the war, when his pre-dawn flight would have been challenged near the front. Rickenbacker flew high and selected his targets care- fully, and, with the guidance of Lufbery, commander of the 94th, and flying the latest aircraft, the SPAD XIII, he became the most decorated and most successful ace (twenty-six victories) of the war. He went on to have a distinguished career in aviation, becoming the driving force behind Eastern Airlines.

The second most successful American ace of the war was Frank Luke, Jr., a quiet young loner from Phoenix, Arizona, who had spent his youth working in the copper mines of Arizona and was said to be a first-rate shot with a rifle and a roughneck. Luke gained fame as a crack “balloon buster”—destroyer of observation and spotter balloons—a duty hated by other fliers because of the intense ground fire that protected the blimps. Luke joined Lieutenant Joe Wehner (also a loner) to become a lethal team in clearing the skies of the Zeppelin aircraft. Flying the newest SPAD XIII, Luke would brave the ground fire to get close enough to shoot or to drop a bomb, while Wehner guarded Luke’s plane from rear attack by German fighters.

In September 1918, Wehner went down in combat. Luke was crushed, and on September 29 he set out for what amounted to a suicide mission: to bring down a series of balloons along the front. Knowing Luke was despondent about his friend’s death, his commander grounded him. Luke defied the order and took off in another pilot’s SPAD. The arrest order followed him up the line as he shot down balloons or stopped to refuel or apprise aviators of what he saw in the air. He was finally forced down in Marvaux behind enemy lines and died with pistol in hand defending his plane from German troops. Luke’s final total has never been clear, since he made many kills on unauthorized flights. The official total stands at eighteen. He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour, the only man to receive that medal for actions performed while under house arrest.