10 Of The Greatest Air Aces Of The First World War

10 Of The Greatest Air Aces Of The First World War

Stephanie Schoppert - July 8, 2016

The word “ace” or “air ace” was first used by French newspapers during the First World War. It was bestowed on military aviators and weapon systems officers who had shot down several enemy aircraft during aerial combat. After downing several German aircraft, the French newspapers christened Adolphe Pégoud as the first French fighter ace during the First World War. Since then, shooting down a minimum of five aircraft became the standard proviso. The title was only awarded to fighter pilots, bombers or reconnaissance crew.

Although the records do not have a count of all the air aces, a fairly decent list has been recovered over time through reconstruction of what little information was available post-World War. The restoration and verification of these air aces involved enumerating the date of battles, location of combat and number of enemy aircraft destroyed by the pilots.

Here is an unbiased list of ten famous combat fighter pilots whose exemplary achievements still shine on the pages of history. They valiantly forced down enemy aircraft during the war which, in turn, earned them the recognition of Celebrity Air Aces of the First World War.

This list is far from complete as there as numerous other air aces to be acknowledged. However, we believe this list has included some of the famous aviators during World War 1.

10. Manfred Albrecht Freiherr Von Richthofen

10 Of The Greatest Air Aces Of The First World War


Manfred Albrecht Freiherr Von Richthofen was popularly known as the “Red Baron” and was perhaps the most famous air ace of his time. He had his allegiance with the Germans and served the army for seven years, from 1911 to 1918. Fittingly called as the “ace-of-aces,” Richthofen has eighty air victories credited to his name, the highest by any fighter pilot during the First World War. He was a National hero and was even admired by his enemies.

At the beginning of the War, Richthofen served as a cavalryman but later left to participate thoroughly in the war. After serving the army till 1915, he joined the Imperial Germany Army Air Service in May. Being a poor pilot initially, he crashed his first flight due to mishandling of controls, but he worked hard and gradually improved on his skills. On November 23, 1916, he downed the famous British ace, Major Lanoe Hawker, who had seven victories to his name. He changed planes several times as he needed agility more than speed. In 1917, he received the “Blue Max” which was the highest military honor of that era.

Following his overwhelming success in the air, he assumed the command of the elite fighter squadron Jasta 11. He then became the leader of the “Flying Circus,” a fighter-wing formation of four Jastas.

While his death is still a mystery, it is popularly believed that on April 21, 1918, Richthofen was fatally wounded by a bullet from a Canadian pilot in Northern France. He died in his seat after managing to make a rough landing on a nearby field, just next to a sector controlled by the Australian Imperial Force.

9. William Avery Bishop

10 Of The Greatest Air Aces Of The First World War

William Avery Bishop served the British Empire but also had allegiance with the Dominion of Canada. Following Richthofen, William Bishop has the second highest number of aerial victories during the First World War. Bishop is credited with a total of 72 kills which earned him the Victorian cross.

He was introduced to the art of aviation at the age of 15 and had an enthusiasm for guns. His eyesight in aviation had often been compared to that of an eagle as he was able to shoot targets at distances which the others couldn’t see or perceive.

Bishop was born a leader, and this quality helped him to lead his pack superbly through hostile territories without sustaining any hits. His success as a fighter pilot spread throughout the world in no time and when it came to the notice of the German Government, they named him “Hell’s Handmaiden”. In 1936, William Bishop was appointed the first Canadian Vice-Air Marshal. Then, shortly after the war, he was promoted to the honorary degree of Air Marshal.

There have been several controversies regarding the validity of his records since the number of witnesses were limited and in some cases, there wasn’t one. However, people still acknowledge him as one of the greatest air aces of the First World War and several tributes have been made over the years to honor his heroic deeds.

Because of his failing health, William Avery Bishop was politely refused by the RCAF during the outbreak of the Korean War. He died in his sleep on 11 September 1956, while wintering in Palm Beach, Florida.

8. Ernst Udet

10 Of The Greatest Air Aces Of The First World War

Ernst Udet fought on the German side during World War I, and he was one of the finest and youngest flying aces to survive it. He was always fascinated with flying and when he was too short to join the German army, he decided to try and become a pilot. He paid the $2,000 for flying lessons and then signed up as a pilot during the war in 1915. His skill and aggressive style allowed him to rise through the ranks and make a name for himself.

He had 62 victories to his account under the command of Manfred Richthofen. After the war, he spent the 1920s and 1930s as a stunt pilot, barnstormer, and a great ladies’ man. Later in 1933, he joined the Nazi Party and soon became the Director-General of Equipment for the Luftwaffe in 1939 due to his efficient skills in networking. However, he became increasingly dependent on alcohol, largely due to the stress of the position and his distaste for administrative duties.

Ernst used his talent in dive-bombing and performed mock dogfights using surplus aircraft. He was also invited to start the first international airline between Germany and Austria. The Junker JU 87 designed by Ernst, also known as the “Stuka,” was used during the 1936 Summer Olympics for acrobatic shows. But Ernst didn’t have a happy ending and is known to have committed suicide while on an airplane with his girlfriend. The reason behind this act was concluded to be his unhappy relationship with the Nazi party and other associates.

7. Edward Mannock

10 Of The Greatest Air Aces Of The First World War

Edward Mannock, nicknamed as Mick, was Britain’s highest scoring ace during World War I with an aerial victory toll of 73. Mannock belonged to the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Air Force where he had the rank of Major. He managed an incredible 15 victories on his first combat tour which earned him his celebrity ace status.

Because of his implacable hatred of the Germans, he enjoyed burning them to death. However, he became phobic about burning to death himself in midair. His fear of combat initially had him shunned as an ineffective pilot causing him to withdraw from his squadron. As he spent time alone he improved and started getting victories. Edward later became the Officer Commander of Squadron 74. He was very famous for his brutality in the air with which he killed his foes. He would keep shooting at a particular crash to make sure that none was alive. His subordinates also boasted that he never lost a wing man and they all wanted to fly with him.

His combat phobias seemed to be premonitions of his demise as he died in an explosion in 1918. His name was commemorated in the Royal Flying Corps Memorial, and several tributes were made in his honor.

6. Albert Ball

10 Of The Greatest Air Aces Of The First World War


One of the highest scoring and most beloved aces of the United Kingdom, Albert Ball is a legend in the pages of history with 44 aerial victories. Ball had an inborn zeal to fight and had an urge to taste victory that pushed him to fight relentlessly during the war. He was first flying ace to become a British national hero and even the Red Baron spoke of him as the best English flyer.

Ball was transferred to the Royal Flying Corps in 1915 after being enlisted in the army the previous year. At the age of 18, Ball would single-handedly combat and defeat German aircraft from below even if they outnumbered him. He spent time on the home front as an instructional pilot but grew tired of the inaction and became flight commander of the No. 56 Squadron RFC.

Like other air aces, his death also remains a mystery. While some accounts that his death was caused by an injured in an aerial fight which caused him to crash, some believe that he suffered vertigo and crashed. The Germans tried to claim that he was shot down by the Red Baron. He was 20 when he met his demise. His death caused national mourning and the British government awarded him the Victoria Cross, posthumously.

5. Andrew Beauchamp-Proctor

10 Of The Greatest Air Aces Of The First World War

Andrew Beauchamp-Proctor, born in Cape Town, South Africa, is the country’s highest scoring ace with 54 official victories. Beauchamp-Proctor aligned himself with the Duke of Edinburgh and served in the South-West Africa frontier. He was honorably discharged from the army in 1915 and returned to his studies. He re-enlisted in 1917 after completing his third year in college.

Like other legendary aces, Beauchamp-Proctor wasn’t a talented ace and even required customized seating arrangements inside the aircraft, owing to his short height. But Proctor is remembered as one of the greatest war heroes because of his extraordinary accomplishments. He won all 54 aerial combats in a single year, (1918). This was the most achieved in a year by any ace pilot. He was one of the first pilots to ever receive the Distinguished Flying Cross and he was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross as well. He was bestowed the Victoria Cross in 1919.

Proctor was nicknamed “Balloon Buster” for his efficiency in bringing down observational balloons. He holds the record of busting nine observational balloons in a single day. In the dying days of the war, Proctor is known to have attempted a reckless solo attack on 80 enemy aircraft which had almost cost him his life. On June 21, 1921, at the age of 26, Andrew Beauchamp-Proctor met his untimely death during a fight-training accident when the Sopwith Snipe he was flying went into a vicious spin after performing a slow loop.

4. James McCudden

10 Of The Greatest Air Aces Of The First World War

Longest serving and one of the highest scoring fighter pilots of the British Empire during the First World War, James McCudden is a recipient of the honorary Victoria Cross for his remarkable 57 aerial winning streaks. McCudden enlisted himself in the RFC in 1913 as a mechanic and was made an observer pilot in 1914 and promoted to Sergeant. Then in 1916 he trained as a fighter pilot and claimed his first victory in September of that year.

When McCudden joined the aviation wing, he found out that he had a talent for aerial warfare which brought him impeccable success in the air. Before receiving the Victoria Cross in 1918, McCudden was awarded the Military Medal and Military Cross in 1916 and 1917 respectively. McCudden was given the control of his own squadron in 1918 which he led efficiently. He is unique among flying aces because most of his claims occurred over Allied territory which means that two-thirds of his claims can be identified by name.

He achieved more award for gallantry than any other British airman and he became one of the most famous airman in all of the British Isles. After the war he published a memoir of his days of aerial war titled “Five Years in the RFC.” Sadly later that year he would lose his life on July 9th, 1918 when his engine failed causing his plane to crash. By the time of his death he had earned the rank of Major, which was a significant accomplishment for someone who had joined the RFC as a mechanic.

3. Donald MacLaren

10 Of The Greatest Air Aces Of The First World War

Donald MacLaren stands out from his fellow air aces in terms of life expectancy in the Royal Flying Corps. With as many as 54 official aerial wins, MacLaren is considered to be the most successful ace of World War I to pilot the Sopwith Camel Aircraft, which, in turn, earned him his celebrity status.

MacLaren left his profession of fur trading and enlisted himself in RFC in 1917. Following his training as a fighter pilot, MacLaren performed all 54 kills within a span of just nine months. He joined the No. 46 Squadron in November 1971 and saw his first flying combat in February 1918. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross, Distinguished Flying Order and Military Cross for his gallantry. He was also awarded the French Legion of Honour and Croix de Guerre.

In October 1918 during a friendly wrestling match with a friend, Donald broke his leg. Armistice was declared while he was in the hospital. After the war, Donald MacLaren participated and assisted in the formation of the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was then appointed the commander of Canadian pilots in England who had been transferred to the new air force. Unlike some aces of the World War I who lived short to taste glory, MacLaren died on July 4, 1989, at the age of 95.

2. Georges Guynemer

10 Of The Greatest Air Aces Of The First World War

Georges Guynemer was a famous French ace who had 54 aerial victories during the First World War. However, Guynemer had earned his celebrity ace status not only because of the overwhelming 54 kills but also for being one of the most chivalrous fighter pilots in the history of World War I.

During an aerial combat with Ernst Udet, the latter found his weapons jammed due to some fault in machinery and was sure to meet his death from the replying blow to be inflicted by Guynemer. But Guynemer saw through his helplessness and spared his life by not fighting him back. This one event established the flawless character of Guynemer.

Guynemer had a sickly childhood and was initially rejected by the military. But he joined the RFC as a mechanic and through his determination made it into fighter pilot training in 1915. He joined Escadrille MS.3 and he used his mechanical skills to upgrade his aircraft for inflicting maximum damage on enemy aircraft. His modified aircraft helped him embark on a killing spree, and he became one of most feared pilots in the enemy brigade. He designed the “Avion Magique”, a Spad XII fighter plane with an outstandingly powerful cannon that inflicted damage both on the enemy’s aircraft and the Spad XII itself.

On September 11, 1917, he died on the Western Front over Belgium after being shot down during a mission.

1. Werner Voss

10 Of The Greatest Air Aces Of The First World War

Werner Voss was considered as Germany’s Prince of Skies during the First World War and the only competitor to the Red Baron with regard to aerial warfare and victories. Werner Voss took part in the war when he was just 17 and enlisted himself in the army as a cavalryman. He was then transferred to the aviation sector where became an overnight celebrity due to his aggressive acrobatic combat style. His accuracy in aerial fighting brought him 48 official victories for which he received the prestigious “Pour Le Merite”. It was considered as the highest military honor during World War I.

Werner Voss is known to have received the most rapid promotion in the German army during the war and was also awarded the Iron Cross for his impeccable achievements in air. Werner Voss is most know for his involvement in the greatest dogfight of the First World War. He was outnumbered by seven experienced British fighter pilots over Belgium. They trapped him above and below by British aces including James McCudden. But instead of trying to escape, Werner Voss fought back, charging directly at the British planes and managed to get hits on nearly every one of the planes surrounding him. He was able to fight back for 8 minutes before finally his aircraft was too damaged to fly. He died when his plane crashed. There has been much debate over whether Voss had the opportunity to escape the trap and retreat safely and some wonder why he choose to take over the British pilots instead.

The 20-year-old German celebrity ace was later heralded as the greatest airman of his time by James McCudden, who said it was a privilege to watch Voss fight.