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Death of an Air Ace, 1918

A little more than a decade after the Wright brothers' historic flight at Kittyhawk, the demands of war transformed the airplane into a weapon of death. Made of wood, canvas and wire, these early fighters took to the air filled with gasoline, ammunition and the likelihood that too steep a dive would rip the wings to shreds. It is no wonder that the pilots of these flimsy fliers measured their life expectancy in weeks. These early pioneers of the air did not have the luxury of a parachute. Just strapping oneself into the cockpit and taking to the air was an act of bravery. Careening into a mid-air duel-to-the-death with an enemy opponent required a special courage.

Raoul Lufbery had this special courage. His flying career began in 1911 when he became the mechanic for French pilot Marc Pourpe. The pair barnstormed
Lufbery with other pilots of the
Lafayette Escradille
their way through China, Japan, India, and Egypt finally landing in Paris just as war broke. Pourpe joined the French Air Service while Lufbery tagged along as his mechanic. To avenge Pourpe's death at the end of 1914, Lufbery applied for pilot training and earned his wings. He joined other American pilots in the Lafayette Escadrille and scored his first kill in August 1916. By the end of 1917, Lufbery was a leading ace with 17 official kills.

With America in the war, the pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille were absorbed into the American Air Service where their valuable experience was used to train the fledgling pilots. Lufbery was assigned to the 94th Aero Squadron as a teacher and advisor.

The Perils of Air Combat
On the morning of May 19, 1918, a German reconnaissance plane flew a low level photographic mission over the airfield of the 94th Aero Squadron. An American flyer immediately took to the air to challenge the intruder. His attacks, however, were ineffective and he soon exhausted his ammunition as the German pilot made a run back to his own lines. Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, who would finish the war as America's top ace, described what happened next:

"In the meantime, Major Lufbery, who had been watching the whole show from his barracks, jumped on a motorcycle that was standing in the road and rushed to the hangars. His own plane was out of commission. Another Nieuport ScoutNieuport was standing on the field, apparently ready for use. It belonged to Lieutenant Davis. The mechanics admitted everything was ready and without another word Lufbery jumped into the machine and immediately took off.

"With all his long string of victories, Lufbery had never brought down an enemy airplane within the Allied lines. All seventeen of his early successes with the Lafayette Escadrille and his last success - when he had gone out to avenge Jimmy Hall - all had been won across the German lines. He had never seen the wreckage of a single of his victories. Undoubtedly he seized this opportunity of engaging in a combat almost within sight of our field with impetuous abandon. Knowing nothing of the condition of his guns nor the small peculiarities of his present mount, Lufbery flew in to the attack.

"With far greater speed than his heavier antagonist, Major Lufbery climbed in pursuit. In approximately five minutes after leaving the ground he had reached two thousand feet and had arrived within range of the Albatros six miles away. The first attack was witnessed by all the watchers.

"Luf fired several short bursts as he dived in to the attack. Then he swerved away and appeared to busy himself with his gun, which evidently had jammed. Another circle over their heads and he had cleared the jam. Again
Major Raoul Lufbery
he rushed the enemy from their rear, when suddenly old Luf's machine was seen to burst into flames. He passed the Albatros and proceeded for three or four seconds on a straight course. Then to the horrified watchers below there appeared the figure of their hero in a headlong leap from the cockpit of the burning aircraft! Lufbery had preferred a leap to certain death rather than endure the slow torture of burning to a crisp. His body fell in the garden of a peasant woman's house in a little town just north of Nancy. A small stream ran nearby and it was thought later that poor Lufbery seeing this small chance for life had jumped with the intention of striking this water. He had leaped from a height of two hundred feet and his machine was carrying him at a speed of 120 miles per hour! A hopeless but a heroic attempt to preserve his life for his country!

"I remember a conversation we had had with Major Lufbery on the subject of catching a fire in the air a few days previous to this melancholy accident. I had asked Luf what he would do in a case of this kind - jump or stay with the machine? All of us had a great respect for Major Lufbery's experience and we were anxious to hear his response to this question.

"If you jump,
you certainly
haven't got
a chance."
'I should always stay with the machine,' Luf responded. 'If you jump you certainly haven't got a chance. On the other hand there is always a good chance of slide-slipping your airplane down in such a way that you fan the flames away from yourself and the wings. Perhaps you can even put the fire out before you reach the ground. It has been done. Me for staying with the old 'bus, every time!'

"What an irony now to recall old Luf's suggestions! His machine had received a tracer bullet in the fuel tank. The same bullet evidently cut away the thumb of his right hand as it clasped the joystick. The next instant the little craft was but one mass of flame, from which there was no means of escape."

   Reynolds, Quentin, They Fought for the Sky (1957); Rickenbacker, E., Fighting the Flying Circus (1919, reprinted 1965).

How To Cite This Article:
"Death of an Air Ace, 1918," EyeWitness to History, (1997).

The silk scarves worn by W.W.I pilots prevented chaffing of the neck as the aviator constantly twisted his head looking for enemy aircraft.
The development of the fighter plane arose from the need to prevent enemy reconnaissance aircraft from observing ground activity. The Germans introduced the first aircraft equipped with a machine gun that could safely fire through the propeller in July 1915.
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