The first fighter ace.
A sense of wonder and heroism emanated from the fighter pilots of the Great War. Perhaps the first generation of the war’s flyers were the greatest of them all, and few greater than Adolph Pégoud, le Roi de Ciel.
Like many others of the world war’s first pilots, Pégoud had been a trick flyer before the war, making dazzling aerial displays in shaky, primitive aircraft. In 1913, as a test pilot, he flew his plane in a loop, the first pilot to do so. In shaky craft made from plywood and liable to break up at any minute, Pégoud’s job took guts. Later, he became the first man to jump out of a plane with a parachute, so there was no surprise when Pégoud volunteered immediately to fly planes for the French Army at the outbreak of the war.
Flying a two-seater biplane, Pégoud went beyond his reconnaissance duties. On the 5th of February, he and his observer shot down two German machines and forced another to land. In the war’s early days, with aerial combat still a rarity, forcing another plane to land counted as a kill. By April, Pégoud had reached a tally of five, becoming history’s first fighter ace.
The massacre in the trenches horrified civilians in every nation, but the exploits of these daring airmen offered them a much-needed glimpse of nobility. As British historian Alistair Horne wrote: “”Never since the Middle Ages and the invention of the longbow had the battlefields of Europe seen this kind of single combat. When the champions of either side met to fight spectacular duels in and out of the clouds, the rest of the war seemed forgotten; even the man in the trenches paused to watch, as the hosts of Greece and Troy stood by when Hector and Achilles fought.” Little wonder that the most successful pilots began to garner cults of personality, adored by the press and the general public. The military latched on to the idea and awarded the best pilots. Five kills made one an ace, or for the Germans, an Überkanonen, “top gun”.
For his kills, Pégoud won the Croix de Guerre, and recognition as the first fighter ace in history. His streak continued in July, when another kill brought his score to six, but he met his match in August while on a sortie east of Belfort to intercept a German observation plane. Suddenly, a German fighter plane streaked into view to rescue Pégoud’s intended prey. Pégoud turned to face this upstart challenger, and entered his last combat, unknowingly facing against a flying student of his from before the war, Unteroffizier Walter Kandulski. A shot from Kandulski’s gunner struck Pégoud in the head, and the 26 year-old’s plane tumbled to the ground. Kandulski flew over Pégoud’s airdrome later in the day to drop a funeral wreath in commemoration of his old teacher.