A Brief History
On December 18, 1982, arguably the greatest combat pilot in German military history died of a stroke in Rosenheim, Bavaria, West Germany. Hans-Ulrich Rudel is credited with shooting down only 9 enemy airplanes, and yet eclipses such German legendary aces as Baron Manfred von Richthofen (80 aerial kills, #1 during World War II) and Erich Hartman, history’s all-time leading ace with 353 air to air kills without ever being shot down or forced to land by enemy airplanes (all during World War II). Rudel performed his aerial heroics flying dive bomber missions. We used the occasion of Rudel’s death to declare him “Germany’s Greatest Pilot” in a previous article, meaning “greatest combat pilot.” Today we take a look at contenders for the Greatest Combat Pilot honors for American military pilots. As always, you are welcome to question anyone we included in the list and offer alternate names of other great military pilots that you would want to see considered. (Use the search function on this site to find many more articles about pilots, airplanes, and aerial combat.) Honorable mention: Joe Foss and Gregory “Pappy” Boyington.
On July 23, 1973, American pilot and national hero, Eddie Rickenbacker, died at the age of 82, later buried in his native Columbus, Ohio, the city of his birth. Rickenbacker was the leading American flying “Ace” in World War I, having shot down 26 enemy aircraft and being awarded the most medals of any American war hero of World War I, including the coveted Medal of Honor. Prior to his wartime exploits, Rickenbacker had been a premier race car driver and automotive designer. After various other pursuits, Rickenbacker became the head of Eastern Airlines in 1935, a position he held for decades, including buying the airline in 1938. Rickenbacker compiled his victories when there was no real superiority of allied aircraft over the German airplanes and pilots he faced. His combat career was short and was threatened as much by the unreliability of the aircraft as by the enemy. Pilots on the Western Front had a life expectancy of only about 20 minutes of combat, according to one source. (“They used to call themselves the 20-Minute Club because the life expectancy of a new pilot in combat in 1916-17 was 20 minutes,” March said of the early pilots.) No parachutes, no armor, no modern navigation aids all told of a grim mission for these World War I pilots, yet Rickenbacker traded his cushy job as the driver for General Pershing for an assignment that would probably lead to a fiery death. His exploits made him the first and perhaps greatest hero of American fighter pilots.
A US Army Air Service Brigadier General, Mitchell was a vocal proponent of air power. When his prophetic exhortations fell on deaf ears, he was accused of insubordination and court martialed (at the order of President Coolidge) after first being reduced in rank to Colonel. He was convicted of insubordination and resigned. After he died his vision of air power and the primacy of aircraft carriers over battleships became accepted doctrine and he became a retroactive hero. Given a Congressional Gold Medal and a promotion to Major General after his death might make his heirs feel better but came too late for him. Cracked fact: Mitchell is the only American to have a military airplane named after him, the North American B-25 Mitchell. Mitchell had served as the commander of all American air forces during World War I, and emerged from the war as the premier American aviation expert. Alas, despite prophetic vision about the future or air power and his vivid demonstration of the superiority of airplanes over battleships by sinking captured German battleships in a stunning demonstration after the war, Mitchell had powerful critics and rivals that did him in. Only after his death and the tragedy of World War II was this great military pilot vindicated.
Most famous for the “Doolittle” raid on Japan in 1942, getting some measure of revenge for Pearl Harbor, Doolittle was more, far more than merely a one time hero. Doolittle was quite a pilot, being the first man to fly an “outside loop” (normal loops you see at air shows are inside loops) and the first to take off, fly and land an airplane completely by instruments with no visibility outside of the cockpit. His raid was later recreated in a harrowing scene featured in the Academy Award-winning blockbuster 2001 film Pearl Harbor with Alec Baldwin portraying Doolittle, a man who did much! (We strongly recommend seeing the Director’s Cut version of the film, which is far superior to the theatrically released version, and watching the companion documentary available as part of the four-disc Director’s Cut DVD release titled “One Hour Over Tokyo: The true story behind James Doolittle and the Tokyo Raiders”) The Doolittle Raid is also depicted in the 2019 major blockbuster film, Midway. Of course, a movie about the famous raid was also made specifically about the raid, Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (1944). Doolittle remained an important part of the development of American airpower after his famous raid, achieving the rank of Lieutenant General and given the honor of a 4th star after his retirement in recognition for his enormous contributions to American aerial military power.
America’s leading fighter pilot ace of World War II, Bong shot down 40 Japanese aircraft, more than any other American pilot in history. Bong flew the twin engine Lockheed P-38 Lightning in combat And earned the Medal of Honor for his exploits. A quiet and unassuming man, Bong was an American hero that could have relaxed in his fame and sold war bonds or other cushy duties, but instead he chose to become a test pilot, a dangerous profession to say the least. Bong’s death came not at the guns of a fearsome enemy fighter plane, but at the controls of America’s first operational jet fighter, the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, which he was test flying on August 6, 1945, the same day as the Hiroshima atomic bomb. He was only 24 years old.
Born Franciszek Stanisław Gabryszewski in Oil City, Pennsylvania in 1919, Gabby was the son of Polish immigrants. Gabreski quit college at Notre Dame University after 2 years to join the US Army in 1940, with the express purpose of becoming an aviation cadet. (Incredibly, his first foray into flying during college resulted in a negative assessment of his potential as a pilot.) Gabreski was assigned to a fighter unit at Wheeler Field, Hawaii, when the Japanese attacked on December 7, 1941. He was one of the pilots that got off the ground (in a P-36 Hawk fighter) but too late to intercept the Japanese attackers. Gabreski had an uncanny sense of combat and the conduct of operations and training, and volunteered to transfer to England where he could be a liaison with the RAF and their considerable Polish contingent of pilots. His mission was to absorb as much knowledge and insight into aerial combat as possible, something he accomplished rather well. Gabby first flew in combat in a British Spitfire with the RAF, and in 1943 transitioned to the powerful American Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. (All of Gabreski’s WWII aerial victories came in P-47D Thunderbolts.) Gabby went on to shoot down 28 German planes during World War II in aerial combat, plus another 3 on the ground, quite an achievement as the German planes were clearly superior to those Japanese aircraft faced by Americans in the Pacific. His value to the Allied war effort was largely as a commander and leader, one who passed on his immense knowledge of aerial combat to subordinates and fellow pilots. Unfortunately, Gabby was downed not by a German pilot, but by his own over-enthusiasm as he got too low during a strafing run on a German airfield and his propeller clipped the runway, downing our great ace. He finished the war as a POW. During the Korean War, Gabreski again flew in combat, claiming an additional 6 ½ victories over Soviet built MiG-15 jet fighters while flying the North American F-86 Sabre.
McCampbell served in the US Navy from 1933 to 1964, attaining the rank of Captain. He remains the top US Navy scoring ace with 34 confirmed aerial kills, and ranked 3rd among US aces in World War II. On October 24, 1944, McCampbell had the rare distinction of shooting down 9 enemy planes in a single day! Not only that, but he managed the feat in a single aerial mission (one flight), something that is unmatched by any fighter pilot of any country. The US Navy nearly missed out on this excellent pilot, when during the Great Depression the Navy actually discharged him after he graduated from the US Naval Academy! David was recalled to active duty in 1934 and served with the surface fleet until being sent to pilot training in 1937, earning his wings in 1938. After a variety of assignments during World War II, including being aboard the USS Wasp when it was sunk in 1942, he got his fateful assignment as commander of Air Group 15 in 1944, serving aboard the USS Essex. As commander of the air group of this mighty aircraft carrier, McCampbell’s airmen and airplanes were responsible for more enemy planes and ships destroyed than any other American air group. Besides his epic 9 victory mission, McCampbell has the further distinction of being the only American to twice achieve 5 or more kills in a single day, blasting 7 Japanese planes from the sky on June 19, 1944 (in 2 missions). Of course, these heroics earned McCampbell the Medal of Honor.
Joseph C. McConnell and James Jabara.
These 2 great pilots were the top American aces of the Korean War (1950-1953). McConnell remains America’s top jet ace of all time, with a total of 16 kills of enemy jet aircraft (MiG-15’s), while Jabara was America’s first ever Jet ace, though McConnell was the first to become America’s “triple jet ace” (shooting down 15 jet planes). Both of these aces flew the North American F-86 Sabre in combat. McConnell flew 60 combat missions in World War II, but as a navigator on B-24 bombers. Jabara was a fighter pilot during World War II, and was credited with downing 1 ½ German planes. Jabara had the harrowing experience of having his canopy shot off during combat, and incredibly shot down his German attacker sans canopy! He also has the rare distinction of surviving an air to air collision between his P-51 Mustang with another P-51, both of which went down with their pilots safely parachuting. Not to be outdone by himself, Jabara also survived an air to air collision with a German fighter, leading to the crash of both planes. As Jabara and the German pilot both parachuted to safety, they met on the ground and shook hands! McConnell died in 1954 while serving as a test pilot for a new version of the F-86, proving once again just how dangerous the life of a test pilot is. Jabara died in an automobile accident in 1966 at the age of only 43.
Question for students (and subscribers): Who is your pick as the top US military aviator? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Doolittle Hopps, Jonna. Calculated Risk: The Extraordinary Life of Jimmy Doolittle Aviation Pioneer and World War II Hero. Santa Monica Press, 2005.
Franks, Norman. American Aces of World War I. Osprey Publishing, 2001.
Hammel, Eric. Aces at War. Pacifica Press, 1997.
Sims, Edward. American Aces. Ballantine, 1963.
Waller, Douglas. A Question of Loyalty: Gen. Billy Mitchell and the Court-Martial That Gripped the Nation. HarperCollins, 2004.
The featured image in this article, a screenshot of Hans-Ulrich Rudel in 1945 (Adolf Galland in the back-ground), is a work of a U.S. Army soldier or employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.