Conditions of Aerial Combat • On the Western Front, the British and French air force outnumbered the Germans during World War One. Together they produced 125,000 aircraft, while the Germans built less than 50,000. With these superior numbers, the Allies were generally able to take the fight to the Germans, bombing and reconnoitering over their lines. This fundamental aspect of WWI's air war meant that German fighter pilots usually flew over their own terrain, which required less fuel, less flying time, and also easier confirmation of downed aircraft. An added bonus for the German jagdflieger was the prevailing west wind. Any crippled German plane gliding for home had the wind at its back; while any damaged Allied plane faced head winds. Not a small consideration for the light craft of those years. Thus while the Allies' greater numbers gave them the edge in the air war, many German aces were able to rack up impressive scores of downed British and French planes.
Aircraft Milestones • In the first few months of the war, combat between airplanes was unknown; they were used for observation and some far-sighted aviators could envision using them for bombing. After some pilots took up pistols and rifles, some planes had machine guns mounted in the observer's seat, which typically fired rearward or to the side. When a French pilot, Roland Garros, bolted steel deflectors to his propeller, which permitted him to fire a machine gun through it, the airplane became an offensive weapon. Then Tony Fokker, a Dutch airplane builder and entrepeneur working for the Germans, installed interrupter gear, permitting a machine gun to fire through the prop with much more reliability. For a time, the Fokkers gave the Germans an edge.
Lieutenant Roland Garros, who had been a famous stunt pilot before the war, came to Saulnier and had steel deflector plates attached to his propeller blades and a fixed machine gun mounted in front of the cockpit. The interrupter gear was not installed, Garros relying on the steel plates to ward off the bullets that hit the airscrew. At the end of March Garros took to the air, and in just over a fortnight he had shot down five German planes. On April 19, though, he was brought down by enemy ground fire while strafing an infantry unit near Coutrai. His attempts to set fire to his plane (as all pilots did when they crashed landed in enemy territory, so the enemy could not get their hands on their technology) were unsuccessful and his modified airscrew was quickly in the workshop of Anthony Fokker
Anthony Fokker improves Garros' Innovation The problem of perfecting a machine gun that would synchronize its firing with the rotation of the propellers was the assignment given to Anthony Fokker. In two days the Dutch engineer had improved on Garros' innovation considerably. Fokker Eindekkers were armed with synchronized Spandau machine guns and roamed the skies virtually unopposed for a while. German aces such as Immelman and Boelcke led a reign of terror in the skies, known as the Fokker Scourge. But, as things went in that war for control of the air, the Allies weren't too far behind in making an answer to the Fokker Scourge. A little while later the Allies came up with a synchronized gun designed by Georges Constantinesco
Aces by Nation • Germany Manfred von Richthofen 80 • France Rene Fonck 75 • Canada William Bishop 72 • UK Edward Mannock 61 • South Africa A. Beauchamp-Proctor 47 • Australia Robert Little 47 • Ireland George McElroy 47 • Belgium Willy Coppens 37 • Austria-Hungary Godwin Brumowski 35 • Italy Francesco Baracca 34 • USA Eddie Rickenbacker 26 • Russia Alexei Kazakov 17
Aces The possibility of earning the title of ace was a strong incentive for these competitive and proud pilots to risk their lives repeatedly, spurring many through their first months of combat. Once they had become aces, the lure of medals and prestige continued to drive them. When compared to other military groups, combat pilots won a disproportionate number of military medals. Also, solo pilots, away from the eyes of a commanding officer or co-pilot, could engage the enemy without the threat of court martial or other punishment.
In keeping with their image of modern knights, many of the public believed that aces would stop firing when his opponent ran out of ammunition or in some way could not fire back. But pilots said they rarely did this. In fact, in his autobiography, German ace Manfred von Richthofen (the "Red Baron") said he once made the mistake of allowing a pilot with a jammed machine gun to land in order to be captured instead of killed. When von Richthofen landed beside the plane, the downed pilot suddenly opened fire on him. Having been tricked once, von Richthofen decided never to be gullible again and always fought until the plane had crashed with a dead pilot.
Aces almost always preyed on two-seat reconnaissance planes or anyone else who was unlikely to defeat them. The picture of two knights jousting often depicted in stories of the aces, even on book covers and recruiting posters, was largely fictional. German doctrine said to attack only when there was an advantage. The aces who survived were always careful and never reckless. Thus, battles between two aces were rare, and even in those unusual cases where two pilots engaged each other in battle, the airplanes or machine guns involved were rarely equal.