Pictures of World War I

Each Worth 1000 Words…

Flying Aces: The Pilots of World War I

The First World War is often called a “pilot’s war” because it was the first war fought in the skies and, consequently, the first war in which an aviator’s skill was really put to the test. Air warfare was one of the most dangerous missions in the military during WWI; to succeed a pilot needed not only exceptional flying abilities, but also good aerial offensive and defensive tactics too. Even then, pilots who were excellent at navigating the skies and taking down targets were still at risk of plane or equipment failure. This was because military aircraft were still very new and untested during this war, so it was difficult to maintain quality standards for pilots and planes. Prior to the war, pilots had been restricted to flying for commercial or entertainment purposes. When the war finally started in 1914, the need for any pilot, regardless of skill level or experience, sky-rocketed to unprecedented proportions.

The Life of a Fighter Pilot

With both delicate aircraft and inexperienced men flying into battle for the first time, the death rate for pilots during WWI was predictably high. During the first years of war, a pilot was not expected to live longer than two or three weeks. This number would only decrease as the years went on, with aviator life expectancy dipping as low as 17 hours, in-flight, during Bloody April in 1917.

Despite the risks and danger, young men signed up for flight training and service in droves. The pilot life seemed heroic and adventurous and many young men were anxious to get a taste. On the surface, it’s easy to see why. Pilots were paid $6.00 a day for their service–an exorbitant amount for the time–and they were also granted perks such as use of military planes outside of combat. The pilot life was often one of frivolous spending and boozing; a lifestyle which, clearly, had a certain appeal to thrill-seeking youth.

The Rise of the Flying Ace

Pilot life wasn’t all fun and games though. Many skilled aviators were still able to make a respectable name for themselves during World War One. A flying ace, or just “ace”, was a title granted to the top pilots of each nation. To earn this title, an aviator had to shoot down at least five enemy aircraft during air warfare. This was easier said than done, of course, and the awarding of this title was considered a very high honor. Aces were often idolized and worshipped as heroes by their countries and proud citizens. In fact, the title “ace” itself was popularized first by civilians and the media before the military finally adopted the term to boost morale among the ranks.

Famous Aces

  • Manfred von Richthofen, or the “Red Baron”, is one of the most famous German aviators of the first world war and, arguably, the most notorious pilot of all time. He is cited as completing 80 successful aerial victories against other aircraft, more than any other pilot during the war. The Red Baron started his career with the military in the cavalry before he moved to aviation. He quickly gained recognition as a skilled pilot and eventually became one of the most dreaded aviators in the sky. By the time he died in 1918, he was a national hero and an international icon.
  • René Fonck was another famous aviator from France. His victory total of 75 was almost as high as the Red Baron and Fonck still holds recognition for being the all-time Ace of Ace on the Allied side. Unlike the Red Baron, Fonck was not killed in aerial combat and was also lucky enough to survive the rest of the first world war and even served as a pilot in the second world war too. He would continue to live until age 59 when he died in 1953.
  • Edward “Mick” Mannock was the British equivalent of René Fonck. He is recorded as having achieved 73 aerial victories and was considered one of the greatest English pilots. His achievements were not limited to flight skill either, he was also a brilliant aviation tactician. So much so, that once he gained command over an 85 Squadron, it is recorded that they never lost another wingman again. Even though Mannock would die in aerial combat in 1918, his aviation rules have managed to live on, with some, like surprise attacks and using the enemy’s disadvantage, still being used as strategies in air warfare today.


First World War Fighter Pilot and Flying Ace Photos