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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.
The concept of the "ace" emerged in 1915 during World War I, at the same time as aerial dogfighting. It was a propaganda term intended to provide the home front with a cult of the hero in what was otherwise a war of attrition. The individual actions of aces were widely reported and the image was disseminated of the ace as a chivalrous knight reminiscent of a bygone era. For a brief early period when air-to-air combat was just being invented, the exceptionally skilled pilot could shape the battle in the skies. For most of the war, however, the image of the ace had little to do with the reality of air warfare, in which fighters fought in formation and air superiority depended heavily on the relative availability of resources.
World War I introduced the systematic use of true single-seat fighter aircraft, with enough speed and agility to catch and maintain contact with targets in the air, coupled with armament sufficiently powerful to destroy the targets. Aerial combat became a prominent feature with the Fokker Scourge, in the last half of 1915. This was also the beginning of a long-standing trend in warfare, showing statistically that approximately five percent of combat pilots account for the majority of air-to-air victories.
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. The British initially used the term "star-turns" (a show business term), while the Germans described their elite fighter pilots as Überkanonen (which roughly translates to "top guns").
The successes of such German ace pilots as Max Immelmann and Oswald Boelcke 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.
As the German fighter squadrons usually fought well within German lines, it was practicable to establish and maintain very strict guidelines for the official recognition of victory claims by German pilots. Shared victories were either credited to one of the pilots concerned or to the unit as a whole – the destruction of the aircraft had to be physically confirmed by locating its wreckage, or an independent witness to the destruction had to be found. Victories were also counted for aircraft forced down within German lines, as this usually resulted in the death or capture of the enemy aircrew.
Allied fighter pilots fought mostly in German-held airspace and were often not in a position to confirm that an apparently destroyed enemy aircraft had in fact crashed, so these victories were frequently claimed as "driven down", "forced to land", or "out of control" (called "probables" in later wars). These victories were usually included in a pilot's totals and in citations for decorations.
The British high command considered praise of fighter pilots to be detrimental to equally brave bomber and reconnaissance aircrew – so that the British air services did not publish official statistics on the successes of individuals. Nonetheless some pilots did become famous through press coverage, making the British system for the recognition of successful fighter pilots much more informal and somewhat inconsistent. One pilot, Arthur Gould Lee, described his own score in a letter to his wife as "Eleven, five by me solo — the rest shared", adding that he was "miles from being an ace". This shows that his No. 46 Squadron RAF counted shared kills, but separately from "solo" ones—one of a number of factors that seems to have varied from unit to unit. Also evident is that Lee considered a higher figure than five kills to be necessary for "ace" status. Aviation historians credit him as an ace with two enemy aircraft destroyed and five driven down out of control, for a total of seven victories.
Other Allied countries, such as France and Italy, fell somewhere in between the very strict German approach and the relatively casual British one. They usually demanded independent witnessing of the destruction of an aircraft, making confirmation of victories scored in enemy territory very difficult. The Belgian crediting system sometimes included "out of control" to be counted as a victory.
The United States Army Air Service adopted French standards for evaluating victories, with two exceptions – during the summer of 1918, while flying under operational control of the British, the 17th Aero Squadron and the 148th Aero Squadron used British standards. American newsmen, in their correspondence to their papers, decided that five victories were the minimum needed to become an ace.
While "ace" status was generally won only by fighter pilots, bomber and reconnaissance crews on both sides also destroyed some enemy aircraft, typically in defending themselves from attack. The most notable example of a non-pilot ace in World War I is Charles George Gass with 39 accredited aerial victories.
The Spanish ace Joaquín García Morato scored 40 victories for the Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War. Part of the outside intervention in the war was the supply of "volunteer" foreign pilots to both sides. Russian and American aces joined the Republican air force, while the Nationalists included Germans and Italians.
The Soviet Volunteer Group began operations in the Second Sino-Japanese War as early as December 2, 1937, resulting in 28 Soviet aces. The Flying Tigers were American military pilots recruited sub rosa to aid the Chinese Nationalists. They spent the summer and autumn of 1941 in transit to China, and did not begin flying combat missions until December 20, 1941.
In World War II many air forces adopted the British practice of crediting fractional shares of aerial victories, resulting in fractions or decimal scores, such as 11½ or 26.83. Some U.S. commands also credited aircraft destroyed on the ground as equal to aerial victories. The Soviets distinguished between solo and group kills, as did the Japanese, though the Imperial Japanese Navy stopped crediting individual victories (in favor of squadron tallies) in 1943.
The Soviet Air Forces has the top Allied pilots in terms of aerial victories, Ivan Kozhedub credited with 66 victories and Alexander Pokryshkin scored 65 victories. It also claimed the only female aces of the war: Lydia Litvyak scored 12 victories and Yekaterina Budanova achieved 11. Fighting on different sides, the French pilot Pierre Le Gloan had the unusual distinction of shooting down four German, seven Italian and seven British aircraft, the latter while he was flying for Vichy France in Syria.
The Luftwaffe continued the tradition of "one pilot, one kill", and now referred to top scorers as Experten.[N 1] During the war, and for some years after, the very high victory totals of some Experten were considered by many historians to be coloured by grandiose Nazi propaganda. In spite of this, there are 107 German pilots with more than 100 kills.
A number of factors probably contributed to the very high totals of the top German aces. For a limited period (especially during Operation Barbarossa), many Axis victories were over obsolescent aircraft and either poorly trained or inexperienced Allied pilots. In addition, Luftwaffe pilots generally flew many more individual sorties (sometimes well over 1000) than their Allied counterparts. Moreover, they often kept flying combat missions until they were captured, incapacitated, or killed, while successful Allied pilots were usually either promoted to positions involving less combat flying or routinely rotated back to training bases to pass their valuable combat knowledge to younger pilots. 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.
The air war of 1965 between India and Pakistan marked the first ever "ace in a day" in the jet age when PAF pilot M.M. Alam shot down five IAF Hunters in a single sortie. Overall he had 9 kills.
The South Vietnam Air Force was the world’s sixth largest air force at the height of its power in 1974 but armed with mostly obsolescent aircraft. This allowed many North Vietnamese pilots to claim "ace" status. American air-to-air combat during the Vietnam War generally matched intruding United States fighter-bombers against radar-directed integrated North Vietnamese air defense systems. American McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, Vought F-8 Crusader and Republic F-105 Thunderchief fighter crews usually had to contend with surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft artillery, and machine gun fire before opposing fighters attacked them. The long-running conflict produced 22 aces: 17 North Vietnamese pilots, two American pilots, three American weapon systems officers or WSOs (WSO is the USAF designation, one of the three was actually a US Naval aviator, with an equivalent job, but using the USN designation of Radar Intercept Officer or RIO).
The series of wars and conflicts between Israel and its neighbors began with Israeli independence in 1948 and continued for over three decades. Of the 50 known aces during these battles, one was Egyptian, three Syrian, and the rest Israeli.
Brig. General Jalil Zandi (1951–2001) was an ace fighter pilot in the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force, serving for the full duration of the Iran–Iraq War. His record of eight confirmed and three probable victories against Iraqi combat aircraft qualifies him as an ace and the most successful pilot of that conflict and the most successful Grumman F-14 Tomcat pilot worldwide.
Realistic assessment of enemy casualties is important for intelligence purposes, so most air forces expend considerable effort to ensure accuracy in victory claims. In World War II, the aircraft gun camera came into general usage, partly in hope of alleviating inaccurate victory claims.[N 2]
And yet, to quote an extreme example, in the Korean War, both the U.S. and Communist air arms claimed a 10-to-1 victory/loss ratio. Without delving too deeply into these claims, they are obviously mutually incompatible. Arguably, few recognized aces actually shot down as many aircraft as credited to them. The primary reason for inaccurate victory claims is the inherent confusion of three-dimensional, high speed combat between large numbers of aircraft, but competitiveness and the desire for recognition (not to mention optimistic enthusiasm) also figure into inflation, especially when the attainment of a specific total is required for a particular decoration or promotion.[unreliable source?] Adolf Galland stated: "Hermann Göring actually goes much further, and claims that scores were deliberately falsified for the purpose of fabricating grounds for decorations—but this seems unlikely to be the case, nor Goering's real opinion."
The most accurate figures usually belong to the air arm fighting over its own territory, where many wrecks can be located, and even identified, and where shot down enemy are either killed or captured. It is for this reason that at least 76 of the 80 aircraft credited to Manfred von Richthofen can be tied to known British losses—the German Jagdstaffeln flew defensively, on their own side of the lines, in part due to General Hugh Trenchard's policy of offensive patrol.
On the other hand, losses (especially in aircraft as opposed to personnel) are sometimes recorded inaccurately, for various reasons. Nearly 50% of RAF victories in the Battle of Britain, for instance, do not tally statistically with recorded German losses—but some at least of this apparent over-claiming can be tallied with known wrecks, and aircrew known to have been in British PoW camps. There are a number of reasons why reported losses may be understated—including poor reporting procedures and loss of records due to enemy action or wartime confusion.
While aces are generally thought of exclusively as fighter pilots, some have accorded this status to gunners on bombers or reconnaissance aircraft, observers/gunners in two-seater fighters such as the early Bristol F.2b, and airborne weapons officers in aircraft like the F-4 Phantom. Because pilots often teamed with different air crew members, an observer or gunner might be an ace while his pilot is not, or vice versa. Observer aces constitute a sizable minority in many lists. Charles George Gass, who tallied 39 victories, was the highest scoring observer ace in World War I.
In World War II, United States Army Air Forces B-17 tail gunner S/Sgt. Michael Arooth (379th Bomb Group) was credited with 17 victories. The Royal Air Force's leading bomber gunner, Wallace McIntosh, was credited with eight kills, including three on one mission. Flight Sergeant F. J. Barker scored 13 victories while flying as a gunner in a Boulton Paul Defiant turret fighter, piloted by Flight Sergeant E. R. Thorne.
With the advent of more advanced technology, a third category of ace appeared. Charles B. DeBellevue became not only the first U.S. Air Force weapon systems officer (WSO) to become an ace but also the top American ace of the Vietnam War, with six victories. Close behind with five were fellow WSO Jeffrey Feinstein and Radar Intercept Officer William P. Driscoll.
The first military aviators to score five or more victories on the same date, thus each becoming an "ace in a day", were pilot Julius Arigi and observer/gunner Johann Lasi of the Austro-Hungarian air force, on August 22, 1916, when they downed five Italian aircraft. The feat was repeated five more times during World War I.
Becoming an ace in a day became relatively common during World War II. A total of 68 U.S. pilots (43 Army Air Forces, 18 Navy, and seven Marine Corps pilots) were credited with the feat.
On September 7, 1965, he battled defending the city of Lahore where he shot down five Indian Air Force Hawker Hunter fighters in less than a minute, four of them within 30 seconds. He was awarded the Sitara-e-Jurat ("The star of courage") and bar for his actions. He observed: "Before we had completed more than of about 270 degrees of the turn, at around 12 degrees per second, all four Hunters had been shot down." After the war, PAF confirmed his kills and listed on the top of the hall of fame list at the PAF Museum in Karachi. The Pakistan Air Force figures have been disputed by Indian sources which claim that Alam made four kills, attributing one of the losses of Sqn Ldr Onkar Nath Kacker's aircraft to technical failure or some other cause, including the possibility of ground fire.
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