The Value of an Ace

Readers of this site may recall about three years ago (!) a discussion about what an ace is worth to an air force.  Some of this came about from my previous post “How Sure Are You?” which was mostly about the validity of combat claims and intelligence assessments.  At the time, I had suggested a quickly coming follow up post about aces; those pilots credited with five or more confirmed kills.  Well funny thing, at the time my intentions were good but after failing to find the statistical data I wanted I sort of forgot all about it.

These last few weeks I’ve been thinking more about this site and expect over the course of 2019 my activity will gradually increase again.  So of course, in the course of a week, I read two different books that touched on the issue that served to remind me of wanting to look at this.

This should be a short sort of post.  The burning question is: is an Ace actually worth much beyond pure PR value?  Or put another way: Does our desire for heroes make too much out of nothing? or conversely, are we too cynical and fast to dismiss the idea that a few great pilots cause major mayhem.

The idea of the “Ace” pilot came about almost as soon as aerial combat started.  Certainly by 1915 the term was in broad use, although it took time for a hard definition to emerge.  In World War II there was still some variability.  The most common application was a pilot with five or more air-to-air kills.  In some cases shared kills counted for less, the Soviets treated them as equal to a solo kill.  Ground kills generally did not count or counted separately, but the US Eighth Air Force treated them as full kills (in acknowledgement of the extreme hazard in gaining them).  The Luftwaffe labeled those pilots “experten” who scored ten kills.  The Japanese and Italians kept no official record.

When we figure in all the difficulties in crediting and confirming kills the whole process seems more like voodoo than a science.  But post war research can illuminate.  Especially when official histories and logs of claims and losses can be cross referenced.  I think it is most common in current literature to credit confirmed, damaged and shared aerial kills as a kill. An ace has any combination of those that adds up to five or more.  Again, this is nothing “official”, it is a convention for identifying top fighter pilots.  It varies some between authors and researchers. The term is often applied more broadly to include non-pilot gunners or pilot/radar operator combinations in night fighters.

We also have to acknowledge the difficulty in making broad or universal rules and mistaking “kills” for an absolute measure of quality.  A squadron can be overwhelmed by numbers and better quality equipment no matter the individual qualities of the pilots.  Or a great and gifted pilot can go a whole career without ever seeing an enemy aircraft, even if they flew combat.  Conversely a young fighter pilot might encounter a group of transport aircraft with no fighter escort (I know of no rating of “cheap Ace”!).

But directly to the point, one piece of data I found was in “Inferno” by Max Hastings. Overall an excellent one-volume narrative history of World War II. But in talking about The Battle of Britain he produces some interesting statistics. He says 3.5% of pilots accounted for 30% of claims for the RAF. In the Luftwaffe the imbalance was even greater (numbers not given). This does all relate to the one battle; but it was a high intensity battle with large numbers on both sides.

A second, similar sort of statistic comes from Raymond F. Toliver.  He is an author, historian of the American Fighter Aces Association and a member of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots.  In the Forward to “Hunters in the Sky” by James R. Whelan he simply says 3% (about 1400) American fighter pilots made ace in the 20th Century and scored 40% of all air-to-air kills.

So to the extent we can generalize from two situations, it seems reasonable to say the top pilots do contribute a disproportionate number of kills. They ARE significantly more effective than the mass, or the “average” pilot.

Now I have some suspicions I can find no data to confirm. It does seem the US and Britain took more seriously the idea of placing a high value on the whole fighting team than the Germans or Japanese did. This could be consistent with democratic ideals. Of course the Soviets took it even further to point of valuing the Unit over the individual, which seems to me to risk a whole other set of problems. But in short, the Germans and Japanese produced a number of extraordinary pilots (the Germans to an amazing level) but regarded the rank and file as fodder that existed purely to set up advantageous situations for their leaders.
While the Americans and British had a tour of duty system that encouraged experienced pilots to go home and teach the next generation. But even more than this, Allied tactics later in the war were flexible towards getting more pilots, more opportunities.
And of course there’s a flip side to these stats, the 97% “rank and file” fighter pilots scored 60-70% of all kills.  German and Japanese stats (if available) would almost certainly be more lop-sided.  But it seems clear, as very dangerous as Ace fighter pilots may be, any well trained fighter pilot could be an important part of the air combat team.

I have no more data than this.  And a big limitation to these stats is they present a couple of broad overviews.  There is no error correction for pilots who shot down the only two enemy aircraft they saw in their career vs those who saws dozens or hundreds but only brought down two.  Or the potentially great pilot who was overwhelmed and killed in a hopeless encounter, whose deeds remain undocumented.  The best I can offer is so often true of statistics; I *think* the total numbers are large enough to even out the extreme outliers.

~ Dave 

About atcDave

I'm 55 years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I've been an air traffic controller for 33 years; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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4 Responses to The Value of an Ace

  1. Certainly an interesting point and one that could be debated for years to come. ‘Kill claims’ are definitely difficult to confirm, cross referencing can make some easier but not all. There are so many factors to include, the majority of which you have already mentioned, that it almost becomes a ‘meaningless’ exercise. There is no doubt that at the time, ‘Aces’ were looked up to and emulated so from a morale point of view they were valuable. Statistically were they? Well that’s a whole new ball game.

    • atcDave says:

      I’ve seen it suggested that Ace’s claims are actually more likely to be valid than non-ace pilots are. Not only that, but many pilots (Like many soldiers) are known to just never shoot.
      Ultimately I believe the whole team matters for a number of reasons, but the “top” pilots do seem to cause disproportionate damage.

  2. jfwknifton says:

    I think that aces must have had a great value for the public but I can’t imagine that the rest of the squadron would be particularly in awe of somebody with six kills. One great value that the ace does have however, is if he is shooting planes down because of a new tactic or technique he has. From a book I read recently, “Sailor” Malan was obviously held in awe by the rest of the squadron during the Battle of Britain, and he spent a lot of time training his men. He is credited, for example, with introducing the German “kette” or finger four, and he had a lot of things to say about deflection shooting too.

    • atcDave says:

      Yes, Sailor Malan was known as a great tactician and trainer. Much like John Thach in the US Navy. Others, like Marsaille or McGuire are better known as braggarts and hot heads. For good or bad the top aces always get the most attention.
      But I think those lower tally aces get a fair amount of attention too. In so many wartime photos it’s the aces who are singled out, even if they only had five or six kills. Now granted, photographers and reporters aren’t pilots. But I think getting five was always seen as a big deal. Bigger than crossing the equator for a sailor. It was like proof of your professional value. Many young pilots got themselves killed trying to get there.

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