1916-1925: America– War and Peace

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Author: Edward Vernon Rickenbacker  | Date: 1918

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Airplane Duels

IT was April 29, 1918, that I had my first turn of luck. I was in the air with Captain James Norman Hall following a course towards Pont-a-Mousson, as that experienced flyer led the way.

Whether or not he knew all along that a German craft was in that region I could not tell. But when he began to change his direction and curve up into the sun I followed close behind him knowing that there was a good reason for this maneuver. I looked earnestly about me in every direction.

Yes! There was a scout coming towards us from north of Pont-a-Mousson. It was at about our altitude. I knew it was a Hun the moment I saw it, for it had the familiar lines of their new Pfalz. Moreover, my confidence in James Norman Hall was such that I knew he couldn’t make a mistake. And he was still climbing into the sun, carefully keeping his position between its glare and the oncoming fighting plane. I clung as closely to Hall as I could. The Hun was steadily approaching us, unconscious of his danger, for we were full in the sun.

With the first downward dive of Jimmy’s machine I was by his side. We had at least a thousand feet advantage over the enemy and we were two to one numerically. He might outdive our machines, 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. The Boche hadn’t a chance to outfly us. His only salvation would be in a dive towards his own lines.

These thoughts passed through my mind in a flash and I instantly determined upon my tactics. While Hall went in for his attack I would keep my altitude and get a position the other side of the Pfalz, to cut off his retreat.

No sooner had I altered my line of flight than the German pilot saw me leave the sun’s rays. Hall was already half-way to him when he stuck up his nose and began furiously climbing to the upper ceiling. I let him pass me and found myself on the other side just as Hall began firing. I doubt if the Boche had seen Hall’s Nieuport at all.

Surprised by discovering this new antagonist, Hall, ahead of him, the Pfalz immediately abandoned all idea of a battle and banking around to the right started for home just as I had expected him to do. In a trice I was on his tail. Down, down we sped with both throttles full open. Hall was coming on somewhere in my rear. The Boche had no heart for evolutions or maneuvers. He was running like a scared rabbit. I was gaining upon him every instant and had my sights trained dead upon his seat before I fired my first shot.

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 a 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. At 2,000 feet above the enemy’s lines I pulled up my headlong dive and watched the enemy machine continuing on its course. Curving slightly to the left the Pfalz circled a little to the south and the next minute crashed onto the ground just at the edge of the woods a mile inside their own lines. I had brought down my first enemy aeroplane and had not been subjected to a single shot….

A time later six of my Spads were following me in a morning’s patrol over the enemy’s line in the vicinity of Rheims. We were well along towards the front when we discovered a number of aeroplanes far above us and somewhat behind our side of the lines. While we made a circle or two, all the while steadily climbing for higher altitude, we observed the darting machines above us exchanging shots at one another. Suddenly the fracas developed into a regular free-for-all.

Reaching a slightly higher altitude at a distance of a mile or two to the east of the melee, I collected my formation and headed about for the attack. Just then I noticed that one side had evidently been victorious. Seven aeroplanes remained together in compact formation. The others had streaked it away, each man for himself.

As we drew nearer we saw that the seven conquerors were in fact enemy machines. There was no doubt about it. They were Fokkers. Their opponents, whether American, French or British, had been scattered and had fled. The Fokkers had undoubtedly seen our approach and had very wisely decided to keep their formation together rather than separate to pursue their former antagonists. They were climbing to keep my squad ever a little below them, while they decided upon their next move.

We were seven and they were seven. It was a lovely morning with clear visibility, and all my pilots, I knew, were keen for a fight. I looked over the skies and discovered no reason why we shouldn’t take them on at any terms they might require. Accordingly I set our course a little steeper and continued straight on towards them.

The Spad is a better climber than the Fokker. Evidently the Boche pilots opposite us knew this fact. Suddenly the last four in their formation left their line of flight and began to draw away in the direction of Soissons—still climbing. The three Fokkers in front continued towards us for another minute or two. When we were separated by less than a quarter of a mile the three Heinies decided that they had done enough for their country, and putting down their noses, they began a steep dive for their lines.

To follow them was so obvious a thing to do that I began at once to speculate upon what this maneuver meant to them. The four rear Fokkers were well away by now, but the moment we began to dive after the three ahead of us they would doubtless be prompt to turn and select a choice position behind our tails. Very well! We would bank upon this expectation of theirs and make our plans accordingly!

We were at about 17,000 feet altitude. The lines were almost directly under us. Following the three retreating Fokkers at our original level, we soon saw them disappear well back into Germany. Now for the wily four that were probably still climbing for altitude!

Arriving over Fismes I altered our course and pointed it towards Soissons, and as we flew we gained an additional thousand feet. Exactly upon the scheduled time we perceived approaching us the four Fokkers who were now satisfied that they had us at a disadvantage and might either attack or escape, as they desired. They were, however, at precisely the same altitude at which we were now flying.

Wigwagging my wings as a signal for the attack, I sheered slightly to the north of them to cut off their retreat. They either did not see my maneuver or else they thought we were friendly aeroplanes, for they came on dead ahead like a flock of silly geese. At two hundred yards I began firing.

Not until we were within fifty yards of each other did the Huns show any signs of breaking. I had singled out the flight leader and had him nicely within my sights, when he suddenly piqued downwards, the rest of his formation immediately following him. At the same instant one of my guns—the one having a double feed—hopelessly jammed. And after a burst of twenty shots or so from the other gun it likewise failed me! There was no time to pull away for repairs!

Both my guns were useless. For an instant I considered the advisability of withdrawing while I tried to free the jam. But the opportunity was too good to lose. The pilots behind me would be thrown into some confusion when I signaled them to carry on without me. And moreover the enemy pilots would quickly discover my trouble and would realize that the flight leader was out of the fight. I made up my mind to go through with the fracas without guns and trust to luck to see the finish. The next instant we were ahead of the quartet and were engaged in a furious dog-fight.

Every man was for himself. The Huns were excellent pilots and seemed to be experienced fighters. Time and again I darted into a good position behind or below a tempting target, with the sole result of compelling the Fritz to alter his course and get out of his position of supposed danger. If he had known I was unarmed he would have had me at his mercy. As it was I would no sooner get into a favorable position behind him than he would double about and the next moment I found myself compelled to look sharp to my own safety.

In this manner the whole revolving circus went tumbling across the heavens—always dropping lower and steadily traveling deeper into the German lines. Two of my pilots had abandoned the scrap and turned homewards. Engines or guns had failed them. When at last we had fought down to 3,000 feet and were some four miles behind their lines, I observed two flights of enemy machines coming up from the rear to their rescue. We had none of us secured a single victory—but neither had the Huns. Personally I began to feel a great longing for home. I dashed out ahead of the foremost Spad and frantically wigwagging him to attention I turned my little bus towards our lines. With a feeling of great relief I saw that all four were following me and that the enemy reenforcements were not in any position to dispute our progress.

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Chicago: Edward Vernon Rickenbacker, "Airplane Duels," 1916-1925: America– War and Peace in America, Vol.12, Pp.151-157 Original Sources, accessed July 6, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=29J36DGHVCY3MBD.

MLA: Rickenbacker, Edward Vernon. "Airplane Duels." 1916-1925: America– War and Peace, in America, Vol.12, Pp.151-157, Original Sources. 6 Jul. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=29J36DGHVCY3MBD.

Harvard: Rickenbacker, EV, 'Airplane Duels' in 1916-1925: America– War and Peace. cited in , America, Vol.12, Pp.151-157. Original Sources, retrieved 6 July 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=29J36DGHVCY3MBD.