Jon Guttman, author of more than 25 books on military aviation history, picks the top pilots from World War I through Israel’s Holy Day War in 1973.
Manfred von Richthofen German, World War I
Credited with 80 victories, von Richthofen turned Jagdstaffel 11 into Germany’s most lethal fighter squadron (350 successes) and later formed the mobile wing known and respected by the British as “The Red Baron’s Flying Circus.” His death in April 1918, probably by ground fire, deprived Germany of a great leader and pilot.
René Fonck French, WWI
An expert stalker, flying Spads, Fonck became the Allied ace of aces, with 75 kills and another 52 unconfirmed. His tally included a record six in one day—on two different days.
Edward Rickenbacker American, WWI
Born of Swiss immigrants, Rickenbacker was a champion racing driver before joining the U.S. Army Air Service at 27. Older and more mature than most of his contemporaries—and more ambitious—Rickenbacker became the top-scoring American ace, with 26 victories. He also led the 94th Aero Squadron, America’s top-scoring unit (70 wins), and earned the Medal of Honor.
Erich Hartmann German, World War II
“Bubi” Hartmann was a master of the Messerschmitt Me-109, shooting down 352 Soviet and American aircraft—a score unlikely to be surpassed. Only 24 years old when sent off to a Soviet gulag in 1945, he not only survived 10 years of captivity but subsequently rose to colonel in the postwar West German Bundesluftwaffe.
Lidiya Vladimiovna Litvyak Russian, WWII
The five-foot-two “Lilya” Litvyak flew Yakovlev Yak-1s with an all-female regiment until placed with male units on the front line, where she shot down at least eight German planes and one observation balloon before disappearing on August 1, 1943. Found decades later and confirmed as killed in action, she was posthumously awarded the Gold Star of a Hero of the Soviet Union.
Ivan Nikitovich Kozhedub Ukrainian, WWII
The top-scoring Soviet—and Allied—ace flew various model Lavochkin fighters to achieve what has recently been upgraded to 64 victories, including a Messerschmitt Me-262 jet. One of only three to receive three Gold Stars of a Hero of the Soviet Union, he retired as an air marshal, dying in 1991.
Richard Ira Bong American, WWII
Bong flew Lockheed P-38 Lightnings in the Pacific, shooting down 40 Japanese aircraft over New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, the Dutch East Indies, and the Philippines. Though promoted to major, he never held a unit command. He fatally crashed while test flying a Lockheed P-80 jet in August 1945.
Emil Lang German, WWII
Flying Focke-Wulf Fw-190As on November 3, 1943, “Bully” Lang shot down 18 Soviet aircraft during four combat sorties near Kiev, the most ever kills in a single day. Later transferred to France, he upped his total to 173 victories before being killed over Belgium at age 35 in September 1944.
Nikolai Vasilyevich Sutyagin Russian, Korean War
Piloting Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15bis jets over Korea with Russia’s 17th Fighter Regiment, Sutyagin was credited with 22 victories, of which 13 correspond to United Nations losses and another to a damaged plane. He is also the highest-scoring jet ace on record.
Joseph C. McConnell American, Korean War
McConnell was a latecomer to the Korean War, but in North American F-86Es he shot down 16 MiG-15s in four months, including three on his last day, May 18, 1953. He was killed soon after the war, crashing while test flying the fifth production F-86H in August 1954.
Giora Epstein Israeli, various wars
At the helm of Dassault Mirage III and IAI Nesher delta-wing fighters, “Hawkeye” Epstein shot down 16 Egyptian and one Syrian aircraft, nine of them MiG-21s, during the 1967 Six-Day War, the 1969–1970 War of Attrition, and the Holy Day War of 1973. Retired from the Israel Air Force, he is currently a captain with El Al Israel Airlines.