Once air combat passed the novelty phase in
early 1915, a more professional approach ensued.
That year, the RFC issued a standard form, “
Combats in the Air,” for aircrew to fill out after each
engagement. The French and Germans did likewise, though with differing levels of detail. The
Germans, for instance, seldom identified their
own aircraft types.
Combat reports served the military purpose
of assessing damage to the enemy. But soon the
newspapers began keeping score, and the fighter
ace was born. In fact, France became home of
the ace, where reporters transferred into the
third dimension the prewar sport term l’ace from
Direct comparisons are difficult due to differences in various nations’ victory credits. The only
“pure” system was that of Germany: one pilot,
one credit—and only for enemy aircraft assessed
as destroyed or captured.
Britain’s victory credits began as a hodgepodge, including enemy aircraft forced to land:
“driven down” or seen “out of control” (OOC).
The RFC/RAF (Royal Air Force) eventually settled
on results considered “decisive,” including those
assessed as hard kills and, illogically, OOCs. By
1918, about 40 percent of British claims were
OOCs; probably fewer than 10 percent of those
were actually destroyed.
The French assigned full credit for shares but
assigned no “moral” victories, as with the British.
The other combatants adopted something
similar to the French system, knowingly or
otherwise. Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Italy
allotted full credit for shared victories, usually—
but not always—considered destroyed. Most
naval branches apparently considered a seaplane
landed on the water a victory.
A century later, Britain’s early air fighters
appear with spotty records. The RFC’s first four
“aces” appeared in 1915, led by Capt. Lanoe
Hawker, who eventually was credited with seven
victories, not all kills. He flew at least three aircraft types to compile his record: the Bristol
Scout, F.E.2 with front gunner, and the DH.2
in which he died. His Scout was mounted with
a Lewis gun angled outboard beyond the prop
ark—an awkward arrangement that nevertheless
produced results. Hawker’s contemporaries also
flew the Vickers Gunbus and Nieuports.
Of the 31 British pilots credited with five or
more successes in 1915–16, only seven would
have been considered aces in France and just four
by America’s WW II decimal system. In fact, four
had the equivalent of 1.00 or less.
In a class by himself was 19-year-old Lt. Albert
Ball, reportedly an eccentric youngster, who
played Schubert on the violin illuminated by a
flare. He joined No. 13 Squadron in early 1916,
transferring to No. 11 in May, flying a Bristol
single-seater scout. Thus began a sensational
The Royal Aircraft Factory
series of “FE” aircraft
culminated with the 1916
F. E.2b that was truly a
fighter—although its method
of overcoming the lack of a
machine gun was crude in
the extreme, not to mention
dangerous. (Photo courtesy of
Greg van Wyngarden)