In the century since World War I, nearly 1,450 American pilots have been accorded the status of fighter ace— credited with downing at least five enemy aircraft in aerial combat. Most flew American planes in American uniform. Some did not, serving with France or Britain in the world wars, although some of those transferred to U.S. service. But all who had American citizenship were eligible for inclusion in the vaunted roster of aces.
The first U.S. ace was Raoul Lufbery, leading light of the famed Lafayette Escadrille in 1916-17, composed of idealists and adventurers who took war into the third dimension over the Great War’s western front. After 16 victories he died in action as a major leading the equally famed 94th “Hat in the Ring” Squadron in 1918.
The last U.S. ace was then-Captain Steve Ritchie who, with two back-seaters in his F-4 Phantoms, downed five North Vietnamese MiGs in 1972. He continued flying high-performance jets after retiring as a brigadier general.
As of this writing, the American Fighter Aces Association (AFAA) counts only 46 survivors. The current top gun is Air Force Colonel Clarence “Bud” Anderson, our last living triple ace well known for his Mustangs named Old Crow. His book, To Fly and Fight, still is one of the best aviation memoirs yet written. Next in line is another P-51 pilot, James L. Brooks with 13 victories in the Mediterranean Theater.
Two other Mustang jockeys round out the remaining double aces.
About twenty Navy aces survive from 373 since World War I. The most senior is Rear Admiral E.L. “Whitey” Feightner, now 95 years young. A Wildcat-Hellcat ace of 1942-44 vintage with nine victories, he also flew solo demonstrations with the Blue Angels in the 1950s.
The remaining Marine from 120 of all time is Dean Caswell who was rare among flying leathernecks in scoring his seven kills as a carrier aviator.
Of 41 U.S. aces in the Korean War, three survive including Lieutenant General Charles “Chick” Cleveland, current AFAA president.
While AFAA only recognizes those with their hands on the stick and throttle, three F-4 Phantom back-seaters logged five kills over Vietnam in 1972. The first was Navy Lieutenant (JG) Willy Driscoll, Lieutenant Randy Cunningham’s radar operator flying from USS Constellation.
Two Air Force “GIBs” (Guy In Back) were Captains Chuck DeBellevue, who shared four of Ritchie’s kills plus two others; and Jeff Feinstein who participated in five victories. After the war DeBellevue and Feinstein became Air Force pilots.
Since America ended its Vietnam combat in early 1973, air combat has been extremely rare. Only 56 shootdowns have been credited to U.S. airmen in those 44 years, including 37 in Operation Desert Storm during 1991. The highest individual score in that period is three, credited to an F-16 pilot over Yugoslavia in 1999.
Despite the dearth of aerial combat, America continues buying new aircraft dedicated to the air superiority mission, at appalling prices for questionable return. All three services worship at the stealth altar, purchasing trouble-plagued “low observable” fifth-generation jets that suck the economic oxygen out of the room for more useful types.
The Air Force’s F-22 Raptor overcame many and varied problems after years of post-delivery trouble shooting, but acquisition was limited by mounting costs. That has not been a concern with the tri-service F-35 joint strike fighter, the most expensive military acquisition ever. Now in its 21st year, the Lightning II program still is incapable of matching “the brochure” in any of the variants for the Air Force, Navy, or Marines.
It would make vastly better sense to slash or even cancel the ghastly expensive stealth programs and spend some of the savings on upgraded versions of existing “fourth generation” fighters: Air Force F-15s and F-16s with naval FA-18s. The stealth mission generally can be handled by far less costly electronic countermeasures which, unlike stealth, can be added on to existing airframes. But with corporate welfare a continuing mandate in the D.C. political swamp, any such policy change appears nearly impossible.
One of the selling points for stealth fighters was the technical advantage that presumably would offset “the enemy’s” superior numbers. Which enemy remains unknown with collapse of the Soviet Union 27 years ago. Since Vietnam the one-day record for U.S. aerial victories remains 11 scored by the Navy and the Air Force in three separate engagements on May 10, 1972.
The last time American jets downed 15 hostiles in one day was in June 1953. The last time American fighters claimed more than 20 was on August 15, 1945—the last day of World War II.
Thus, at this late date we have seen the era of the American fighter ace come and go in barely half a century. The breed’s 56-year epoch from 1916 to 1972 was only extended by a decade with crowning the last Israeli aces in 1982.
So where does that leave the American fighter ace today?
It’s a near certainty that there will be no more U.S. aces. Even now the next-generation air superiority fighters are being touted as remotely-controlled drones capable of inhumanly high-G maneuvers, cyberly linked to god’s-eye observers. It’s a nifty concept that requires perfect coordination and uninterrupted data-link connectivity.
Incidentally, the Iranians have already demonstrated the ability to hijack our drones in flight.
Meanwhile, America’s dwindling inventory of air-combat warriors provides dual benefits to their services and to the nation. They represent an irreplaceable link to our airpower heritage, harking back to the dawn of military aviation when anemic engines lifted fabric-covered wings into hostile skies.
The aces also afford a precious perspective that saw technology expanded almost beyond reckoning. Much hype has been touted about “the greatest generation” of WW II veterans, an indefensible assertion when compared to the Republic’s founders. But the WW II generation surely provided the greatest airmen, who learned to fly in 80-knot biplanes and finished their careers in Mach 2 jets. No comparable advance is possible.
So here’s all honor to the American fighter ace, the storied “knight of the air” whose gift of air superiority typically began as a starry-eyed kid inspired to follow his mentors into the contrail country.
We shall not see his like again.