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Kings of the Air: Aces High

It is only relatively recently that military history has discovered the individual soldier, using the experiences and testimony of individuals to supplement the more traditional accounts of the clash of armies. Aviation history, in contrast, has moved in the opposite direction. Even during the First World War, much aviation writing consisted of stories about individual pilots. This remains a strong, possibly even a dominant, theme today, where aerial combats are forensically examined to determine exactly who killed who, and when and where, while relegating the larger campaign in which these individuals participated to a summary paragraph or two (and, yes, I realise the irony here).

The notion of celebrating the deeds of individual pilots first saw the light of day in 1915. In what had been a sterile year at the Front, with horrendous casualties for little or no gain (it should be remembered that there were more French casualties in 1915 than in any other year of the war), then any victory was to be prized, and could be exploited to the full by your own propaganda. Borrowing a term used in sport, these victorious pilots became 'aces'. If the first confirmed aerial victory had been by Frantz and Quenault in October 1914, then the first ace was Adolphe Pégoud.

Pégoud was another star of pre-war aviation – the first to loop-the-loop, and the first to make a parachute descent from a plane. Like Védrines, Pégoud's status may have allowed him a wider choice of missions, and it certainly brought him a better plane. While the rest of his squadron, MF25, had to make do with a slower Maurice Farman 7 or 11, Pégoud enjoyed a fast Morane-Saulnier, which he put through its paces one clear February morning over Sainte-Menehould in 1915. There, he shot down a Taube and two Aviatiks.

At a time when downing any enemy aircraft in combat was still a novelty, destroying three in one day seemed an extraordinary feat, and Pégoud was the hero of the hour. 'Congratulations from everyone at HQ, from the commander and his staff,' he noted the following day. 'General Julien, the commander of the engineers, arrived to congratulate me and invited me to dinner this evening. ... Made my report; congratulations all along the line. Got ready for dinner with [the] general. Arrived 1900 hours at the Hotel Saint-Nicolas, where he dines with all his staff. Around forty at the table. Introduced to them all. Most delightful meal, no ceremony, no fuss, very chummy. Congratulations all round. Everyone wanting to know more. All withdrew at 2030 hours. Most agreeable. Came home and went to bed.'

Yet the aces were always a small group. Altogether, 182 French pilots were credited with five victories or more during the war, scoring 1,756 victories from the total of 3,950 enemy aircraft shot down by French fighters. Thus, around 3% of all French fighter pilots were responsible for nearly half the total of victories. The top forty aces, who each shot down twelve or more of the enemy, accounted for one-fifth of all victories.

Aces did not attain their status by accident, but by hard work. That was certainly the view of René Fonck: 'It's a long, difficult apprenticeship before you become a great “ace”, strewn with repeated disappoinments and failures during which we put our lives at risk a hundred times over.'

Maxime Lenoir agreed. 'To be a good fighter pilot, you need to a lot of flying time. Some people think all that's needed to find some Germans is to go out looking for them. That's insane. Firstly finding them isn't enough, you have to find a way of forcing them to accept combat. The sky isn't the Place de la Concorde and anyone who wishes to fly away can do so quite safely if he's a little ahead of you. You also need a long training to pilot a fighter. ... In my early days with N23 I was a hard-worker, a grafter. All I was trying to do was become a champion but I didn't think I could do it within a few days. So many frights before I could bask in my first success.'

Fonck and Nungesser had begun their flying careers in bomber squadrons, while Lenoir and Armand Pinsard both served in a reconnaissance unit. Such experience was vital, according to Fonck: 'We should be transferring experienced aviators to the fighter squadrons, not accepting beginners. Any novice with guts will be downed within the first few months [and] those that are cautious will be no use for at least six months.' 

To some extent, this is apparent from the career progression of the best fighter pilots. Fonck qualified as a pilot in May 1915, but did not obtain his first victory until August 1916; even then, he shot down no more that year - his remaining seventy-four victories were obtained in the last twenty-one months of the war. Guynemer obtained his wings in April 1915 and shot down his first aircraft in December. After then accumulating some 200 flying hours, he then achieved forty-nine victories in nineteen months. Georges Madon had obtained his wings in 1913, but only scored his first victory in September 1916. It must also be said that 1916 saw a significant increase in the number of aircraft over the front lines - from the summer of that year, most flights over the lines would result in some kind of combat. 

Pictures: a dinner at the Aero-Club de France in 1917 - seated at the front are Albert Deuillin, a bandaged Alfred Heurteaux, Guynemer and Paul Tarascon; Adolphe Pégoud; Maxime Lenoir; René Fonck.


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