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American Aces of Aces Had Short Lifespans

eddie rickenbacker frank luke lufbery sumner sewell

Ace of Aces

Edward V. RickenbackerAround this time, Edward V. Rickenbacker became the leading American ace, a title that had been passed on from Raoul Lufbery through a succession of aviators who were now dead. Though he had plenty of competitive instinct and appreciated the honor, Rickenbacker was concerned about the life span that seemed to be attached to the title.

Had he been killed, the following quotation from Fighting the Flying Circuswould seem eerily prescient, like the Flanders Fields poem. Since he wasn't killed, it is maybe a statement that man knows not his time, even when there is more of it than he thinks.

Mingled with this natural desire to become the leading fighting Ace of America was a haunting superstition that did not leave my mind until the very end of the war. It was that the very possession of this title - Ace of Aces - brought with it the unavoidable doom that had overtaken all its previous holders. I wanted it and yet I feared to learn that it was mine! In later days I began to feel that this superstition was almost the heaviest burden that I carried with me into the air. Perhaps it served to redouble my caution and sharpened my fighting senses. But never was I able to forget that the life of a title-holder is short.

The honor was not for nothing - for the amount of time he spent in action, Rickenbacker’s score was the greatest of any World War 1 pilot. However, he did not keep the title long; his current score would shortly be bettered by a man about whom Rickenbacker himself said:

The incredible Frank Luke, the most daring aviator of the entire war, went on a rampage at that time and shot down fourteen enemy aircraft, including ten balloons, in eight days. No other ace - Britain's Bishop, from Canada; France's Fonck, or even the dread Von Richthofen - had ever come close to that.

More on Luke, and Rickenbacker regaining the title, to come.

The Cause of the Traffic Jam

The great stories of the WWI air war were mostly air-to-air combat. But St Mihiel was where the aviators really showed what they could do for their own ground forces, and against the enemy ground forces. "Air power had wrought damage on and behind the lines, but, equally important, it had destroyed the morale of the enemy as well. American planes had ranged far behind the German rear, strafing, causing panic and bringing about the surrender of sixteen thousand German troops."

Airplanes were well-equipped to incapacitate a whole lot of foot soldiers with a few bullets. Demonstrating this use of aviation at the St. Mihiel salient, Eddie Rickenbacker and Reed Chambers saw three-inch guns being moved, covering half a mile of road - so they attacked.

All down the line we continued our fire - now tilting our aeroplanes down for a short burst, then zooming back up for a little altitude in which to repeat the performance. The whole column was thrown into the wildest confusion. Horses plunged and broke away. Some were killed and fell in their tracks. Most of the drivers and gunners had taken to the trees before we reached them. Our little visit must have cost them an hour's delay.

On their return to base, they also reported information on the scope of the retreat and where guns could be aimed for best effect. The overall result of the intelligence gathered by a couple of airplanes was devastating to an already retreating army:

Later observations which we made over this road indicated that our gunners had made a good job of this task. The Germans had abandoned huge quantities of guns, wagons and supplies and had only saved their own skins by taking to the woods and covering the distance to Vigneulles on foot. The highway was utterly impassable.

Blowing Out the Flame

One of many awful ways to die from a WWI aircraft accident was by burning to death. So there was discussion of whether the best thing to do was jump or stay with the burning aircraft. Two stories that suggest the best policy was staying with the airplane are Raoul Lufbery's death by jumping and then there's Sumner Sewell's story, one of the odder ones of the war, that happened around this time.

Sewell's engine had been shot up by a German pursuer three miles above the ground, and the aircraft was on fire. As Rickenbacker commented, "One can imagine the mental torture Sumner Sewell endured during the next few minutes! It takes some time to fall three miles even at the top speed of a 220 H.P. motor."

Wind speed kept the fire blowing back from Sewell, but it was eating down the fuselage toward him and the German was still shooting too. So he dodged as best he could with the aircraft in that state, and the sudden maneuver both put out the fire and emptied his fuel tank through a fist-sized hole. Meanwhile the German apparently decided the job was done and left Sewell alone for the last thousand feet. He managed to crash softly enough to survive, and a bit later, his wheel landed too. It had been shot away and his powered dive caused him to win a race to the ground against his own wheel!   

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