Related Links: Quentin Roosevelt | Frank Luke | Eddie Rickenbacker | Raoul Lufbery | "American Eagles" - 345 page illustrated history of US Combat Aviation in World War I
It is hard not to have a certain kind of respect for World War I fighter pilots. Those who go through combat become men - old and wise before their time. Many of the senior warriors were often 21, 22, 23 or 24, not too far beyond what would have been their college years.
So many of these brave aviators died, frozen in time, immortalized in some cases, completely forgotten with an unvisited headstone in others. Or worse, they end up never found again either buried in some layers of dirt churned over repeatedly by the devastation of artillery shells or lumped into communal graves, and never properly identified because they couldn't be because they were too badly decomposed when their bodies were found, as happened to hundreds of thousands of the combatants on the Western Front.
It's hard to believe that these men were taking to the air. They were in motorized vehicles made of thin strips of wood, linen cloth and wire. At one point, the average amount of time for fatalities for just normal non-combat flying was one fatality for every sixty five hours of flight time.
They didn't have parachutes either. Parachutes were considered cowardly by the pilots and their superiors alike. Parachutes were not issued to American pilots until 1919, the year after the war ended. After all, the thinking was that parachutes would only encourage pilots to jump out of planes that were on fire or otherwise heavily damaged rather than trying to get the planes back on the ground. It wasn't until later in the war that the powers that be had the realization that good pilots were harder to come by than planes. Experienced ones were even harder. The aircraft themselves were far, far easier to replace.
World War I fighter pilots had a typical life expectancy of several weeks while flying in combat. Several weeks. Not much at all. In terms of flying hours, a combat pilot could count on 40 to 60 hours before being killed, at least in the early part of the war. Indeed, of the original seven pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille, only one emerged from the war neither killed nor wounded. What could have motivated these men to sign up and to push for inclusion in the air forces when they already knew this? Did they know of anyone who was beating the odds?
But these men - the green pilots as well as the great aces, the victims and the survivors - were, with a few exceptions, quite frequently very young men in calendar years. And the toll on their bodies and minds was incredible.
One of the those who survived include the great Roland Garros - pre-war stunt flyer, the first man to fly a loop the loop and inventor of the fighter plane lived long enough to shoot down a handful of German airplanes, be captured for almost three years, fly again only to be shot down October , 1918, a month before the war ended. He was 29 or 30.
Georges Guynemer's famous "Vieux Charles" Spad airplane hangs today in the Le Bourget Air Museum. Guynemer, a legend in France with 53 kills to his credit, was only 22 when he was shot down and killed on September 11, 1917. The Germans found his body later, still in the seat of his Spad, with "a slug through his skull." He had already crashed at least three other aircraft. His plane and body were later churnced to bits and lost forever. The French legend was that Guynemer simply flew up into the clouds, never to return.
Legion de Honneur winner Charles Nungesser was 25 when he was lured into a trap and nearly killed. Instead he managed to shoot down two of the German aircraft before the rest flew away, dismayed at the failure of their trap. He survived the war as the third highest ranking French ace behind Rene Fonck and Georges Guynemer. Nungesser had 45 kills, but in exchange received 17 wounds and injuries, crashed two airplanes. He broke both legs and a jaw in the process and toward the end of the war, he was either walking with two canes or having to be carried to and from his airplane even though he was still flying combat.
The German Werner Voss was only 20 when he was shot down and killed by Erwin Rhys-Davids. At the time, Voss was single-handedly dog fighting seven British SE-5s. His tally stood at 48 victories and he was the fourth highest ranking German ace.
At the top of the list was the famed Red Baron - Manfred von Richthofen - 80 kills and considered by many the greatest pilot of World War I - was practically an old man at 25 when he was killed the day after his 80th victory. His 80th victory did not result in a literal kill. Instead, Richthofen galantly gave a friendly wave to the downed aviator when he swooped down to check on his opponent before flying off. Both Richthofen and Werner Voss were shot down in the famous Fokker Dr.1 Triplane. Richthofen had been forced down once before after being gravely wounded enough to have a ten-centimeter wound on his skull. This wound kept him absent from the front for the next six weeks.
Another notable pilot was Eugene Bullard of Columbus, Georgia. He was the first African American aviator who became a pilot in France and for France in 1916 though first he served as an infantryman in the French army fighting in Verdun and elsewhere and getting wounded in the process. While he is not as famous as the Tuskegee Airmen or Benjamin Davis Sr., he was before all of them and truly a pioneer and an unsung hero in the United States, but he was always a hero in France.
At the head of the Lafayette Escadrille and later at the head of the 1st Pursuit Group was Raoul Lufbery, a French-born American. Lufbery, with 16 victories to his credit, who jumped to his death from his aircraft even as it was already burning on its way down to crash. He jumped approximately 1,000 meters (3,300) feet, fell into a small garden, and according to the old lady into whose garden he fell, got up and then fell back dead.