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Why Lufbery's Gradual Introduction to Combat Worked

doug campbell eddie rickenbacker raoul lufbery red baron

Leading the Fledglings Out of the Nest

Raoul LufberyEddie Rickenbacker didn't think he was a mere fledgling on March 6th, 1918 when Raoul Lufbery took him up for a patrol over the lines. This was around the time Richthofen selected Udet for the Flying Circus, and neither protege would have long with his mentor. One difference between these mentorships was that Richthofen was the overall Ace of Aces with sixty-something official victories, and Udet was already a top ace in his own right, while Lufbery's official score didn't even equal Udet's, and Rickenbacker was completely new to flying at the front lines...as Lufbery soon demonstrated.

Personally Selected by the Greatest Pilot

Lufbery was, as Rickenbacker put it, "the greatest pilot of them all, Major Raoul Lufbery, the American Ace of Aces. He had shot down seventeen enemy aircraft. Lufbery, a native of France [but the son of an American] had emigrated to the United States as a young man but had returned to fight for his native land. He was the idol of two countries."

Lufbery announced that he would lead a patrol that morning, then casually selected Rickenbacker and Doug Campbell (a Harvard graduate who had taught himself to fly after coming to France) out of a group of twenty to fly with him. There would be little chance of combat, but they might at least experience anti-aircraft fire, a.k.a. "archie", named for a popular song of the time.

The Cure Might Be Worse Than the Airsickness

Lufbery had a "kind of corkscrew maneuver" for flying above the lines to be able to see in every direction, which Rickenbacker appreciated the purpose of, but had a hard time following. He was also appalled at the wasteland below him. "Not a house, not a barn, not a tree was left standing" where there had once been beautiful farmland.

Then he started to feel sick, but "Flying over the front lines in formation with the greatest American ace of them all was no time to get sick."

It was "archie" that saved him. As they flew over the region of some of the most accurate German anti-aircraft batteries, 18-pound shells came up at them. Rickenbacker's plane "rocked violently and a burst of light and sound hit my eyes and ears. Another blast rocked me and another and another. I looked behind me. Large puffs of black smoke marked my path through the sky." The fear drove out the nausea, and Rickenbacker flew back triumphantly, realizing he had kept his wits about him under fire - and thus passed the first test of being a combat pilot.

Inattention Can Kill You

Lufbery let Rickenbacker and Campbell boast about their flight after they landed, then asked whether they had seen other airplanes up there. None, they were certain.

Lufbery told them they must learn to look around - there had been two formations of five Spads (one just five hundred yards away). There had been enemy in view, too, four Albatroses and a two-seater. 

Lufbery paused and looked at us as though we were inattentive children. Then he grinned and walked over to my plane. He poked his finger through a hole in the tail and another through the wing; then he pointed to where another piece of shrapnel had gone through both wings not a foot from the cockpit. Just a few inches and I would have been a hero all right - a dead hero.

So That the First Combat Flight Isn't the Last

Rickenbacker took the lesson seriously and practiced visual perception in the air, and how to do the corkscrew without getting airsick. He realized that the frustration of waiting for the chance at combat was a blessing in disguise; that there were too many pilots whose first combat flight was their last. Later, he made a point of giving new pilots time to gain experience before throwing them into full combat.

Lone Hunters in the Air

The stories of great ace against great ace were few, partly because aces hunted like predators, chasing by preference those who were young, inexperienced, and lost.

Being alone, however, was not necessarily bad if you knew what you were doing. Lufbery liked to be on his own and scored many of his victories that way, and his unofficial score was close to the Red Baron's official final score of 80. Richthofen, understanding well that new pilots could be less than no help, would not tolerate pilots who were "lukewarm" in battle. Lufbery said it was better to go out alone, "no matter what the odds are against you," than to go out with pilots "who may or may not be as good as you are. It's a great responsibility to shepherd these pilots out and get back home safe. I prefer to fight alone, on my own."

Yet Lufbery shepherded innocent lambs such as Campbell and Rickenbacker, and both showed themselves worth the trouble, as Campbell would soon become the first all-American ace and Rickenbacker would go on to succeed Lufbery as American Ace of Aces, piling up victories faster than anyone else in the final months of the war. Read more in his autobiography.

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