Over 5,400 pilots have become aces, and they have only one thing in common: Shooting down five or more enemy aircraft in air-to-air combat. Not much else exists. In the ninety-one years of air combat (from World War I to the present), the aircraft have advanced from the Sopwith Camel to the F-22. The skills needed to become an ace have changed, and so has the nature of air combat. In the days of Richtoven and Hartmann, many of the kills were with machine guns. This held through the Korean War, but the planes were getting faster through each war (from 190 kilometers per hour for the Sopwith Camel to 635 kilometers per hour for the Me-109 flown by Hartmann to 1,091 kilometers per hour for the F-86F that dominated the skies over Korea). Then, in Vietnam, missiles began to enter the fray, allowing kills to be done from as far as 18 kilometers away with the AIM-9 Sidewinder. Today, the AMRAAM and other missiles allow kills to be made without even seeing the opposing aircraft (from as far as 70 kilometers away in the case of the AMRAAM).
Even during a war, the circumstances faced by these aces were different. Hartmann was in constant combat from 1942 on most of it against Russian pilots. This was a contrast to the American practice of constantly sending experienced combat pilots, like John S. Thach (inventor of the Thach weave), back to train new pilots. Thach had only seven kills, but the Thach weave still worked twenty years after the end of World War II, when propeller driven A-1 Skyraiders used it to shoot down a MiG-17 jets.
Who was the best fighter pilot ever? This is a question often debated, and never settled. Manfred von Richtoven (better known as the Red Baron of World War I) is one such contender. Another is Erich Hartmann, who is the all-time kills leader with 352 in World War II. Was it David McCampbell, who shot down nine aircraft in a single sortie on October 24, 1944? A case could be made for each of them, but the fact is, one cannot really determine who the best of all time was.
Other good pilots were shot down (like Thomas J. Lynch, who had 20 kills, Neel Kearby, with 22 kills, and Tommy McGuire, with 38 kills), and killed. Others had tours cut short for other reasons (Tom Lanphier, John W. Mitchell, and Rex Barber had their combat tours cut short after the mission when Lanphier shot down the airplane carrying Isoroku Yamamoto).
Also, very few of these top aces faced their contemporaries. Many of McCampbells victims were downed in 1944, when most of Japans best pilots had already been killed in battle, and the new ones had been barely trained. The only definitive instance of the top aces of two countries at war facing off in single combat was the dogfight between Randall Duke Cunningham (4 kills for the United States) and Nguyen ("Colonel Tomb") Toon (13 kills for North Vietnam) on May 10, 1972. Cunningham won that engagement, becoming the first American ace of the Vietnam War. The Cunningham-Toon dogfight was also exceptional in that both pilots saw each other and engaged in a dogfight.
United States Air Force studies in the wake of the Vietnam War (the most famous being the Red Baron study) indicated that 80 percent of the pilots killed never knew that they were a target until their killer opened fire. Hartmann estimated that a similar percentage of his victims never knew he was there until he opened fire. The results of Red Baron, which were in keeping with the observations of other American aces, led to the concept of maintaining situational awareness (knowing exactly where you are, and where everyone else is). Probably one of the most valuable tools for American pilots is JTIDS (Joint Tactical Information Data System) a datalink that gives the pilot a good situation report, telling him what other pilots (and planes like the E-3) are seeing. Pilots testing JTIDS on the F-15 reported drastic increases in their situational awareness in an exercise, they took on F-15s and E-3s without JTIDS, and achieved a 4-to-1 kill ratio in their favor, mostly because the pilots with JTIDS knew where the friendly planes and the adversaries were, and could sort out who was going to target which bandit a lot quicker than the ones without.
These variables (including the addition of tools like JTIDS) will explain why the best fighter pilot in history will never be determined definitively. One might be able to determine the best of an era or a war (in the case of Vietnam, Cunningham bested the best pilot on the other side), but even then, it will be the subject of debate for years as long as there are aviation enthusiasts. Harold C. Hutchison (firstname.lastname@example.org)