Stories about “aces” have been around for decades. Pilots who shot down large numbers of planes are considered a form of flying acrobats who risk their lives to defend their countries. Usually, a pilot is considered an ace if he shoots down five enemy planes. The best fighter pilots in history have destroyed many times that number.
World War I was the earliest war in which fighters were engaged in any number. Consequently, it produced the first aces.
24/7 Wall St. reviewed various historical sources to determine who was the greatest fighter pilot of all, considering only the top ace for each country in each war. Our decision is based on the number of “kills” or “victories.” That is, the recorded number of aircraft shot down. And an ace is a pilot who achieves at least five kills in one day.
Because these numbers were sometimes exaggerated by either the pilots or their hero-worshippers, or otherwise were undocumented, we relied exclusively on official estimates from government sources.
Of the fighter pilots we considered, each had a distinctive style of attack, and often a distinctive look. Manfred von Richthofen, the legendary “Red Baron,” for instance, had the planes in his fighter wing painted in bright colors, making his team famous as the “Flying Circus.”
The greatest fighter pilot in history was Erich Hartmann. Here are the details:
- Aerial victories: 352 kills
- Primary war: World War II
- Country: Germany
This German ace was undeniably the most successful fighter pilot in history, taking down more than three times the number of aircraft as his closest competitors: 352 victories in 825 missions. He was forced down on 14 occasions and captured in one incident, but he managed to escape and return to duty. At the end of the war, Hartmann surrendered to the United States and was turned over to the Russians, who imprisoned him, sentencing him to hard labor. After 10 years, he returned to Germany, where he continued in active duty until 1970.
Click here to read about all the greatest fighter pilots in aviation history.
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