A flying ace, fighter ace or air ace is a military aviator credited with shooting down several enemy aircraft during aerial combat. The actual number of aerial victories required to officially qualify as an “ace” has varied, but is usually considered to be five or more. The few aces among combat aviators have historically accounted for the majority of air-to-air victories in military history. Use of the term “ace” to describe these pilots began in World War I, when French newspapers described Adolphe Pégoud, as l’As (French for “Ace”) after he became the first pilot to down five German aircraft, being awarded the Croix de guerre. The British initially used the term “star-turns” (a show business term), while the Germans described their elite fighter pilots asÜberkanonen(which roughly translates to “top guns”).
The successes of such German ace pilots as Max Immelmann 15 victories and Oswald Boelcke 40 victories,were much publicised for the benefit of civilian morale, and the Pour le Mérite, Prussia’s highest award for gallantry, became part of the uniform of a leading German ace. In the Luftstreitkräfte the Pour le Mérite was nicknamed Der blaue Max/The Blue Max, after Max Immelmann, who was the first fighter pilot to receive this award. Initially, German aviators had to destroy eight Allied aircraft to receive this medal. As the war progressed, the qualifications for Pour le Mérite were raised, but successful German fighter pilots continued to be hailed as national heroes for the remainder of the war. Hermann Goering received the Blue Max.
Eddie Rickenbacker was an American fighter ace in World War I and Medal of Honor recipient, with 26 aerial victories. Albert Ball, Britain’s first famous flying ace. He was killed in 1917, aged 20. Soviet VVS 1st. Lt. Ivan Kozhedub, 62 victories, the top Allied World War II Ace of Aces with 62 victories over Axis aircraft. German Major Erich Hartmann nicknamed “Bubi” (“The Kid”) by his comrades and the “Black Devil” by the Soviets, was a German fighter pilot during World War II and the most successful fighter ace in the history of aerial warfare with 352 kills. Russian Lydia Litvyak, 12 victories, of the Soviet Air Force, one of only two female flying aces in history.
An imbalance in the number of targets available also contributed to the apparently lower numbers on the Allied side, since the number of operational Luftwaffe fighters was normally well below 1,500, with the total aircraft number never exceeding 5,000, and the total aircraft production of the Allies being nearly triple that of the other side. A difference in tactics might have been a factor as well; Erich Hartmann, for example, stated “See if there is a straggler or an uncertain pilot among the enemy… Shoot him down.”, which would have been an efficient and relatively low-risk way of increasing the number of kills. At the same time, the Soviet 1943 “Instruction For Air Combat” stated that the first priority must be the enemy commander, which was a much riskier task, but one giving the highest return in case of a success.
Similarly, in the Pacific theater, one of the factors leading to the superiority of Japanese aces such as the legendary Hiroyoshi Nishizawa (about 87 kills) could be the early technical dominance of the Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” fighter.
Adolphe Pégoud, on 31 August 1915, age 26, was shot down and killed by one of his pre-war German students, Unteroffizier Otto Kandulski. Max Immelmann was shot down on 18 June 1916, aged 25, in Sallaumines. Oswald Boelcke was killed in a crash following a midair collision on 28 October 1916, age 25. Hermann Goering committed suicide in the prison of the Nurnburg court house on 15-10-1946, age 53. Eddie Rickenbacker survived the war and died July 23 1973, aged 82, in Zürich, Switzerland. Albert Ball crashed to his death in a field in France on 7 May, 1917, age 20, over Annœullin, France. Ivan Kozhedub, survived the war and died 8 August 1991, aged 71, in moscow, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union. Bubi Hartmann was sentenced to 25 years of hard labour and spent 10 years in various Soviet prison camps and gulags until he was released in 1955. He died on 20 September 1993 aged 71 in Weil im Schönbuch, Germany. Russian Lydia Litvyak was shot down near Orel during the Battle of Kursk as she attacked a formation of German aeroplanes on 1 August 1943, aged 21, Krasnyi Luch,.