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Focus on 10 exceptional pilots

Updated: Dec 4, 2023

Get ready to dive into the incredible world of the masters of the skies. I'm talking about those who defy gravity at staggering speeds, those who tame the most powerful aircraft without ever losing their cool, and those who rise to the top of the nation to save it: the heroes of aviation. Aircraft recognition, deterrence, and interception of enemies are their daily routine.

F-16 Solo Display

But how do fighter pilots achieve such mastery? Pilots with a high level of concentration and stress resistance can aspire to the status of 'ace' achieved after five authenticated victories in aerial combat. Come and discover our focus on 10 pilots who have forever left their mark on the history of aviation!

1. Manfred von Richthofen - "The Red Baron" (1892-1918)

Manfred von Richtofen

The German captain "Red Baron," whose real name was Manfred von Richthofen, holds the top spot in the rankings for reigning at the pinnacle of the Central Powers during World War I.

At just 11 years old, he entered military training, encouraged by his father, an officer in the cavalry. He enlisted for the first time in the German Imperial Army as a cavalryman in the 1st Regiment of the Guard Uhlans. In 1915, he was finally accepted into the Johannisthal pilot school and painted his plane bright red, earning him the nickname "Red Baron."

In total, Richthofen scored 80 victories in aerial combat. His combat strategy made him the most famous flying ace of World War I. Renowned for escorting his wounded pilots back to base, using his plane as a shield, the Red Baron stirred a lot of emotion upon his disappearance in 1918, both on the German and Allied sides. He became one of the most iconic figures in aviation history.


Manfred von Richthofen, the true knight of the sky, is also famous for shooting down an enemy plane and then saving the wounded pilot. Instead of letting him languish in the wreckage, he made an emergency landing, rescued the pilot, and took him behind German lines for medical care.

2. René Fonck - "The White Stork" (1894 - 1953)

René Fonck

René Fonck is one of the most decorated fighter pilots in the world. From childhood, he was marked by a fascination with the sky and showed a keen interest in flying machines. At the age of 10, he built his first homemade glider. By 18, Fonck was working as a mechanic and an observation balloon pilot. His passion for flight paid off when he was accepted into the flying school in Pau just a year after the start of World War I.

In 1917, Fonck joined Squadron N 48 and quickly demonstrated his skill in choosing targets and favoring attacks from behind. With 75 confirmed aerial victories, the White Stork rivaled the Red Baron for the title of the most prolific ace. Richthofen prevailed, but Fonck continued his aviation passion after the war through air competitions and received numerous awards for his wartime heroism.


During World War I, Fonck was involved in a remarkable encounter with the German ace Manfred Von Richthofen. The two aces crossed paths and exchanged salutes instead of engaging in a deadly duel. Fonck later explained that he had great admiration for Richtofen's courage and skill.

3. Chuck Yeager - The Sound Barrier Breaker (1923 - 2020) 

Chuck Yeager

Charles Elwood Yeager, known by his real name, is famous for being the first person to break the sound barrier aboard the Bell X-1 rocket. A dedicated enthusiast, this American pilot used his expertise to assist many military pilots in their command roles and astronaut training.

Hailing from West Virginia, the Sound Barrier Breaker joined the Army Air Corps soon after finishing his studies, where he quickly stood out during training. In 1944, during a mission over France, his P-51 Mustang was shot down, but Yeager survived and escaped to Spain. Upon his return to the United States in 1945, he was celebrated for shooting down five German planes in a single day.

In 1947, Yeager named the Bell X-1 rocket "Glamorous Glennis" after his wife and was selected by the Flight Performance School to become the first person to break the sound barrier at 43,000 feet and a maximum speed of 700 mph (approximately 1126 kilometers per hour).

For his aeronautical achievements, Yeager was honored with the Mackay Trophy and the Collier Trophy, presented in person by President Harry S. Truman at the White House.


When Yeager broke the sound barrier, he was actually in critical condition, as two of his ribs were fractured due to a horse riding accident. To avoid disqualification, Yeager kept his injury a secret and asked a friend to help him close the cockpit door. He thus set a new record in the aviation world.

4. Edward Mannock (1887 - 1918)

Edward Mannock

He is one of the greatest aces of World War I aerial combat.

His calm demeanor and unwavering determination accompany an aggressive, risky, and mastered piloting technique; I'm referring to Edward Mannock.

Mannock was not destined for military service, let alone to become a fighter pilot. Born to Irish parents, he saw his father leave the family at a young age and quickly took on multiple jobs to alleviate the household's poverty. When the Great War broke out, Mannock was imprisoned with other Britons in Turkey, and in 1915, he returned sick to his homeland. This suffering became the spark for a future pilot eager to fight: he qualified with the Royal Flying Corps in 1917 and became the captain of the 74th squadron, the "Tiger" the following year.

Despite his socialist speeches that did not sit well with officers, Mannock earned their respect through his exceptional piloting and quickly achieved the status of aviation ace. He was notably awarded the Victoria Cross for defeating nine German planes between June and July 1918.


Despite being very aggressive in flight, Mannock had an incomparable sense of honor, even towards his adversaries. He refused to shoot down any enemy pilot in a parachute, considering it contrary to aviation ethics.

5. Jeannie Leavitt - The Pioneer of Women Fighter Pilots (1967 - …)

Jeannie Leavitt

Jeannie Leavitt became the first woman fighter pilot in 1993 when she flew an F-15E Strike Eagle. In 2012, she achieved the title of the first woman to command a USAF combat wing.

Hailing from Missouri, Jeanne Marie Flynn grew up in a family of aviation enthusiasts and joined the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs right after high school graduation.

Additionally, she excelled in her aerospace engineering degree at the University of Texas and earned a master's degree in aeronautics from Stanford University. Once in the Air Force, she steadily climbed the ranks and became a general officer.

Jeannie Leavitt is notably recognized for supporting a threatened Royal Air Force Tornado GR1 with an Iraqi Roland surface-to-air missile during Operation Southern Watch in 1996. Today, Lieutenant Flynn remains an icon in military aviation history and has paved the way for many women aspiring to be pilots. Her life journey has been a key element in the evolution of diversity and inclusion within the armed forces.


Shortly after an instructor told her that "women don't belong in fighter jets," Leavitt became the first woman to lead an operational combat unit in the US Air Force, the 57th Wing at Nellis Air Force Base.

6. Ivan Kozhedub - The Russian Falcon (1920 - 1991)

Ivan Kozhedub

Ivan Kozhedub is a legendary figure in Soviet military aviation. Born in 1920, he became one of the greatest aces of aerial combat in World War II and the Korean War.

Hailing from Ukraine, Kozhedub's youth was marked by the upheavals of the time. He joined the Soviet Air Force in 1940 and quickly demonstrated his mastery of aerial combat. Elevated to the rank of aviation ace, he earned the nickname "The Russian Falcon," thanks in part to his extraordinary observational skills, allowing him to anticipate enemy movements.

As the most decorated pilot of the Soviet Union, Kozhedub amassed an impressive 62 confirmed victories during World War II alone. At the end of the war, he was particularly recognized for his significant contribution to the USSR's war effort against Nazi Germany.


During World War II, one of the most memorable encounters of The Russian Falcon occurred in a dogfight against a German elite pilot, the legendary German ace of aces, Erich Hartmann. Kozhedub successfully shot down Hartmann's plane. After the war, Hartmann, who had survived the encounter, declared that he had fought against the best pilot he had ever encountered.

7. Herich “Bubi” Hartmann - “The Black Devil of the South” (1922 - 1993)

Herich Hartmann

For many, Erich "Bubi" Hartmann represents the most prolific fighter ace in the history of aviation. His name is inseparable from the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force, during World War II.

His legend is notably based on his unparalleled record of 352 confirmed aerial victories.

Hartmann's ascent in the aviation world began in 1940 when he joined the German air forces.

Flying with Jagdgeschwader 52 (JG 52), the pilot popularized the "swoop attack," lightning ambushes capable of disorienting opponents in a fraction of a second. Hartmann thus became a master tactician of aerial combat.

The moniker "Black Devil of the South" originated from the appearance of his aircraft, adorned with a black tulip on its fuselage. This symbol perfectly reflected the intimidating aura of the pilot. Bubi's shadow continues to loom as a testament to the unwavering determination of a fighter ace.


Hartmann used to paint victory bars on the tail of his plane for each enemy aircraft he shot down. Soon, all available space was covered. The pilot then painted a huge black bar along the entire length of his plane, symbolizing his status as the most gifted fighter ace in his air force.

8. John Richard Boyd - Master of O.O.D.A. Loop (1927 - 1997)

John Richard Boyd

John Richard Boyd's name is not associated with an overwhelming number of aerial victories. Nevertheless, Boyd is the first pilot to become famous for his revolutionary contributions to combat theory and tactical decision-making.

Boyd's career began in the US Air Force, where he quickly became a accomplished fighter pilot. However, it is his tactical genius that truly sets him apart. He is credited with creating the concept of the O.O.D.A Loop, which stands for "Observation, Orientation, Decision, Action." It is a decision-making process in combat that emphasizes the speed and flexibility needed to gain an advantage over the adversary.

Boyd is also the originator of the Energy-Maneuverability Theory, a mathematical approach to evaluating aircraft performance that has aided in the design of some of the best aircraft in history.

John Richard Boyd thus revolutionized aerial tactics by teaching pilots from schools around the world.

A true visionary, his influence extended to business management, strategic planning, and even politics, where rapid adaptability is crucial.


To prove his skills in aerial strategy, Boyd challenged the top fighter pilots in duels on a simulator. He offered to beat them using an aircraft of his own design, the "F-16 Fighting Falcon." Boyd won all the battles, one after the other. From then on, the master of the O.O.D.A Loop became the intellectual leader in aerial combat tactics.

9. Jacqueline Cochran - The Daring Star of the Sky (1906 - 1980)

Jacqueline Cochran

Fearless pioneer and staunch advocate for gender equality, Jacqueline Cochran left an indelible mark on her time. Fighter pilot, aviation instructor, and speed record holder, Cochran wore many hats.

Jacqueline Cochran's life started difficultly. She was abandoned at birth and spent her youth with a farm family in Louisiana, in a stilt house she nicknamed her "beaver existence." At a very young age, she was sent to Georgia to work in a textile factory, then took courses in cosmetology to open her own beauty salon. While still a beautician, Cochran kept her childhood dream in mind: to fly.

She took her first flying lessons at the age of 26, alongside starting her cosmetics business.

Jacqueline Cochran is best known as the first woman to participate and win the prestigious Bendix Trophy air race. However, her achievements don't stop there. At the age of 31, she set a women's speed record by flying at over 480 km/h and quickly caught the attention of the aviation industry.

During World War II, Cochran played a crucial role in convincing the U.S. government to create the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) program, allowing thousands of women to fly military aircraft.

She later became the director of WASP.

After the war, she participated in research projects on high altitude and supersonic speed: she became the first woman to break the sound barrier in 1953. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the French Legion of Honour, leaving an inspiring legacy for future generations of female pilots.


During the 1938 Bendix Trophy race, Jacqueline Cochran encountered major mechanical issues with her plane. Instead of giving up, she made repairs while flying at low altitude and finished fourth, defying expectations and beating many seasoned male pilots.

10. Saburo Sakai - The Eagle of the South Seas (1916 - 2000) 

Saburo Sakai

Saburo Sakai, the fourth greatest ace of the Japanese naval air force, is part of the "Cleaner Trio" with Ota and Nishizawa. A fighter pilot in the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II, he is particularly known for flying over 1,000 km with his left side paralyzed and one eye blind.

With samurai ancestors forced to become farmers after the Korean War, Saburo Sakai was initially destined for work in the fields. At only 11 years old, his father passed away, and Saburo was adopted by his maternal uncle, who financed his studies in Tokyo. He eventually enlisted as a third-class sailor in the Japanese Navy at the age of 16.

Top of his class in pilot training at Tsuchiura, Saburo Sakai received a silver watch from Emperor Hirohito himself. In 1938, he flew the Mitsubishi A5M in his first combat during the Second Sino-Japanese War. With 13 aerial victories to his name, Sakai was sent into combat over Guadalcanal.

During the day on August 7, 1942, he was seriously injured in the head and had to fly for nearly 5 hours (about 1,000 km) to return to the Rabaul base. After more than 60 aerial victories, Saburo Sakai took part in the last aerial combat of his career during the Japanese attack against two Consolidated B-32 Dominators in 1945. He was one of the few pilots in his unit to survive the war.


After the war, Saburo Sakai decided to write his memoirs entitled "Samurai." They became a classic in aviation literature.

You have just discovered the stories of combat aces, these masters of the skies who have left their mark on aviation through their exploits and dedication. From Manfred Von Richtofen to Saburo Sakai, including Jacqueline Cochran, each not only demonstrated exceptional skill but also contributed significantly to the evolution of aerial tactics and practices in the aviation world.

Photo credit:

guillaume.rgn97 - F-16 Solo Display

Sanke card/Wikimedia - Manfred von Richtofen

George Grantham Bain Collection - René Fonck

USAF - Chuck Yeager

Robin Vansemmortier Collection - Edward Mannock

USAF - Jeannie Leavitt

Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation - Ivan Kozhedub

Unknown/Wikimedia - Erich Hartmann

US Government - John Boyd

Musée de l'Air Paris - Jacqueline Cochran

Unknown/Wikimedia - Saburo Sakai

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