Waiting Less Than Patiently
Eddie Rickenbacker put a lot of explanation of the life of fighter pilots into his book Fighting the Flying Circus. At this point 100 years ago, American pilots were chomping at the bit to prove themselves.
The British and the French had had three years and more of air fighting and the veterans of these squadrons looked upon the American pilots with something of amusement and something of polite contempt. They had believed in the story of our twenty thousand aeroplanes which had been promised by April.
But however frustrating it was to the Americans not to be "doing something", there were benefits in a gradual introduction to the front lines. The disappointments of waiting taught Rickenbacker lessons "that repaid me eventually tenfold."
As I look back upon it now, it seems that I had the rare good fortune to experience almost every variety of danger that can beset the war pilot before I ever fired a shot at an enemy from an aeroplane. This good fortune is rare, it appears to me.
Don't Shoot Down the French
Finally, on 29 April 1918, Rickenbacker started his string of victories that would end in him being crowned American Ace of Aces (a title, as he noted, that had for many shortly preceded death.) He started by trying to attack a French airplane.
James Norman Hall got a call that an enemy two-seater was coming over the lines, and Hall and Rickenbacker went up. This was a time when having radio communication would have been nice, because Rickenbacker saw an aircraft and couldn't understand why Hall was not going after it. He did his best to communicate with the aircraft's body language, dipping his wings and darting in the direction of the aircraft, but Hall didn't follow.
Finally Rickenbacker decided to take on this enemy himself, got in position behind while remaining undetected, and was ready to shoot when he noticed the insignia on the fuselage was French. He broke away and went to find Hall. As Rickenbacker realized, "it would be a trifle difficult to face Jimmy Hall again and explain to him why I had left him alone to get myself five miles away under the tail of a perfectly harmless ally three-seater."
Streak of Living Fire
Rickenbacker followed as Hall headed toward something Rickenbacker couldn't even see, but at this point, "my confidence in James Norman Hall was such that I knew he couldn't make a mistake."
They came at the Pfalz out of the sun, from a thousand feet above. Their only worry was that he might dive, "for the Pfalz is a famous diver, while our faster climbing Nieuports had a droll little habit of shedding their fabric when plunged too furiously through the air."
Hall attacked while Rickenbacker maneuvered to cut off the retreat. The German saw Rickenbacker and climbed rather than dived. As he passed Rickenbacker, Hall started firing. Realizing it was two to one, the German ran for home.
At 150 yards I pressed my triggers. The tracer bullets cut a streak of living fire into the rear of the Pfalz tail. Raising the nose of my aeroplane slightly the fiery streak lifted itself like the stream of water pouring from a garden hose. Gradually it settled into the pilot's seat. The swerving of the Pfalz course indicated that its rudder no longer was held by a directing hand.
The Pfalz crashed and Rickenbacker had his first victory, shared with Lafayette Escadrille legend James Norman Hall.
No Closer Fraternity Than Air-Fighters
There is a peculiar gratification in receiving congratulations from one's squadron for a victory in the air. It is worth more to a pilot than the applause of the whole outside world. It means that one has won the confidence of men who share the misgivings, the aspirations, the trials and the dangers of aeroplane fighting. And with each victory comes a renewal and re-cementing of ties that bind together these brothers-in-arms. No closer fraternity exists in the world than that of the air-fighters in this great war. And I have yet to find one single individual who has attained conspicuous success in bringing down enemy aeroplanes who can be said to be spoiled either by his successes or by the generous congratulations of his comrades. If he were capable of being spoiled he would not have had the character to have won continuous victories, for the smallest amount of vanity is fatal in aeroplane fighting. Self-distrust rather is the quality to which many a pilot owes his protracted existence.
Doug Campbell and Alan Winslow, credited with victories which were American firsts, congratulated Rickenbacker. Even more meaningful were the congratulations of squadron commander Raoul Lufbery, whom Rickenbacker revered. Lufbery's leadership of the 94th Aero Squadron was about to end; while Rickenbacker became American Ace of Aces and live for decades, Lufbery's remaining lifespan was measured in days.