World War I’s Early Fighter Pilots: Knights of the Sky

World War I pioneered new forms of combat, including the first-ever encounters in the sky as fighter pilots fought high above the battlefields of Europe for dominance.

Apr 22, 2022By Turner Collins, BA History

manfred richthofen red baron fighter pilo wwi


On December 17th, 1903, the Wright brothers conducted their groundbreaking flight south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. This marked the first time a self-propelled, heavier-than-air vehicle would ever successfully take flight. After this relatively short fifty-nine-second flight, the world was taken by storm at the notion of man taking to the skies. In the few short years before the outbreak of World War I, a frenzy of aviation pioneering gripped the minds of engineers and inventors across the globe. By the outbreak of the war, many countries had already begun experimenting with aircraft, mainly for the role of observing and reconnaissance. However, it would not take long for pilots to take on a more dangerous and combative role in the skies above Europe. It was here that the first fighter pilots were born, figures regarded as noble knights and daring heroes, free from the grime, mud, and misery of the trenches below.


The First Fighter Pilots

pre world war 1 plane
A reproduction of an early aircraft, via CNN


The invention of heavier-than-air vehicles was a new phenomenon in the world, having only really taken off some ten years prior to the outbreak of World War I. Despite this, many countries were indeed interested in the possibilities of these new inventions. France would be one of the first adopters of aircraft, looking into how airplanes could be used for scouting and reconnaissance, replacing one of the roles traditionally performed by cavalry. In the initial stage of the war, aircrews were seen less as fighter pilots, or even combatants at all, with many instances of aircraft coming across one another only for the pilots to wave at one another as they passed by. Indeed, at this point, airplanes were so new that weapons for use in the sky did not exist – and the war so fresh that animosity had yet to grow between the sides.


Soon enough, this brief period of relative peace in the sky ended as first pistols and grenades would be ineffectual against one another before machine guns were mounted onto planes. As the war progressed, it became increasingly obvious how crucial aerial recon and especially spotting for the modern massed artillery batteries really was. Because of this, the focus of pilots started to shift away from exclusively reconnaissance and towards preventing their enemies from doing the same.


New Technology For War

fighter pilot push style plane
A “Pusher” style Vickers F.B.5, via Britannica


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Even in a field so completely new and previously unimaginable as air combat, it became evident that being able to shoot forward was a necessity, given the speeds and angles at which aircraft often approached each other. The issue was how to achieve such a capability. Initially, a few different methods were used.


One solution included designing the entire plane so that the engine and propeller sat behind the crew facing backward, known as “pusher” type aircraft, which had a second crewman mounting a machine-gun on the front. The problem with this design was the planes themselves proved to be much slower and less maneuverable than other “pulling” designs. Another solution was to mount a machine gun at the very top of the plane’s wings, above the arc of the propeller. However, this had the problem of increasing drag, reducing stability, and being incredibly inaccurate at any range. It was the French who equipped their fighter pilots with the first weapons that could fire through the propellers of their planes, making them much more accurate and user-friendly for the aircrew. The only problem with this design was there was no way of actually preventing the bullets from hitting the propellers, which were simply reinforced and curved with wedges to deflect the bullets away… often into the plane or back at the pilot.


fokker scourge world war 1
The Fokker M.5K/MG which began the scourge, via This Day in Aviation


The first true fighter aircraft ever introduced was made by Germany, which had been lagging behind the Entente powers in the air until this point in World War I. This design, known as the Fokker E.I, used a revolutionary system that allowed a machine gun to synchronize its fire through a propeller with an absolute guarantee that it would never hit the blades. This would revolutionize warfare in the air and almost immediately changed the balance of power in the skies over Europe. While the aircraft itself was not terribly impressive even for the time, this new technology brought about a time known as the “Fokker Scourge” of 1915, where German aircraft were feared.


In terms of technological leaps, the synchronization gear would prove to be the most influential of the war and would soon be adopted by every participant as the standard for aircraft and fighter pilots. Over the course of the rest of the war, designs and parts would continue to improve, allowing for faster, more stable, and more impressive aircraft. The balance of power in the air would shift back and forth as new, increasingly complicated, or streamlined designs were pushed into service by both sides.


The Knights of World War I

fighter pilot prepare airfield
Aircraft landed in formation outside London, via Britannica


At the outbreak of World War I, many of the great powers had some number of aircraft, though many were still incorporated into other military branches. The French had been the first nation to pioneer their own air force through the Service Aéronautique in 1909. This quickly became known as the Cinquième Arme, the fifth service alongside the Army, Navy, Gendarmerie, and National Guard. Likewise, Germany had begun its own aviation battalions in 1910, though it was not until 1916 that a fully unified air force, the Luftstreitkräfte, was established. England, for its part, was slower to adopt an air service, starting in 1912 with the formation of the Royal Flying Corps. When fighting began, England often found itself in a secondary role to France, which had invested much more time and effort in both its technological and infrastructure developments for the air branch of its military.


The realities of the war quickly shattered the long-standing perception of warfare as a clean and noble adventure. World War I saw industrial, mechanized killing not only brought out the complete horrors of conflict but likewise showed the impersonal nature of long-ranged, rapid-fire killing. Every great power had begun the war with numerous divisions of cavalry, which epitomized the sleek elegance of what war was thought to be. These horsemen were often slaughtered in droves by modern technology, and very soon, all cavalry units had been dismounted and put into the trenches alongside the infantry. It was in the skies that the myth found new life in the knight-like gallantry of fighter pilots.


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Fighter pilots and aircrew standing near aircraft, via Modern War Institute, United States Military Academy, West Point


High above the mud and dirt of the trenches below, combat in the sky was still considered clean and noble. Fighter pilots engaged in tests of skill and daring in combat, directly engaging with enemies in elegant dances as they struggled to out-maneuver and out-perform their opponents. Pilots were largely comprised of officer classes and thus already predisposed to be seen as higher grade than the masses who died daily on the front.


Pilots made for great propaganda, combining this gentlemanly image with records of their own victories: the ace pilot. Every country was quick to recognize the morale and excitement that could be drawn up by bringing attention to their pilots, whose skill in the sky was rather unique, as one pilot could very well turn the entire course of air supremacy in any given area on the front. As such, in a conflict best known for its dehumanizing misery and horror, these fighter pilots making use of their own skill and bravery were held high in the eyes of the public as gallant knights and heroes for their homeland. These views would influence the pilots themselves, who adopted codes of honor and maintained a sense of chivalry among one another and even with their opponents, something rarely found in the brutal and ruthless trench combat below.


History’s Most Famous Fighter Pilot

red baron fighter pilot ace
Manfred von Richthofen: The Red Baron, via CNN


It is primarily because of this idealized view of fighter pilots in World War I as noble knights and pioneers of the sky that the most famous pilot in history came from this war: Manfred von Richthofen, better known by his nickname, Baron von Richthofen, and later, The Red Baron. Although there were many notable pilots during the war and since, it was the Red Baron who truly epitomized the legend of the ace, the ideal against which all fighter pilots would be compared.


Born in 1892 to an aristocratic family, Richthofen initially joined the cavalry arm of the German military, which, when combined with his noble heritage, already conjures images of knighthood. Like all cavalry units, the men would soon find themselves dismounted, relegated to support and communication duties. He quickly grew bored of these duties and longed for combat, applying for a transfer to the newly-formed air service, becoming interested in aircraft after passing through an airfield behind the front lines. Serving first as an observer and gunner, it would be some time before Richthofen actually decided to fly solo, and, when he finally did, he at first appeared to be a rather below-average fighter pilot. He invited his brother Lothar to join him in the newly formed squadron “Jasta 2,” which would become famous for the quality and performance of its pilots.


On the 17th of September, 1916, he scored his first kill: a Vickers reconnaissance aircraft forced down in German lines with the loss of both crew. Richthofen was recorded as having placed a stone on the grave of his enemy after being buried with full military honors, as was common among aircrew of both sides during the war.


world war 1 fokker triplane
A reproduction of the Red Baron’s most iconic aircraft, the Fokker Dr.1, via The Aviation Geek Club


While perhaps not the most skilled fighter pilot, Richthofen was an exceptional tactician and methodical in his approaches to every engagement. He boasted enough skill and impressive marksmanship to ensure that he was a deadly opponent to even the most experienced aircrew. It was this combination that earned him 80 aerial victories, the most of any pilot in the war, and an immense amount of fame. His red-painted aircraft became a heroic symbol to his allies and was a sign of fear and reverence to his enemies. Injured in the summer of 1917, he was offered a position on the ground, as German high command feared that the death of its most famous hero would be too bad of a blow for morale, but Richthofen refused, stating that all soldiers had a duty to do and that he was not exempt.


Tragically, the fears of the German high command were soon realized. In the spring of 1918, while fighting with Canadian aircraft over a section of the front line secured by the Australian Imperial Force, the Red Baron was shot down and killed. His body was secured by the Australian forces and was by all accounts regarded with a good deal of respect by those present.


His body was put to rest in a full military funeral with the honor guard and a fired salute. A number of wreaths were left by numerous air squadrons in the area, including one bearing the words “To our gallant and worthy foe.” Despite the merciless nature of their war and conflict, fighter pilots took the image that had once been little more than propaganda and truly became noble knights of the sky.

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By Turner CollinsBA HistoryTurner has always had a passion for history and a love of sharing this with others. Having worked with a number of museums on his native Vancouver Island he hopes that his interest proves infectious with others. Having completed his BA in History in 2021 he looks forwards to continuing with his academic learning in pursuit of a MA. When possible he loves to travel, seeking to gather as many new experiences as possible wherever he can.