Fighter pilots are some of the coolest figures in military history. Instead of relying on comrades and armed battalions, they complete their daring missions all by themselves and rack up the kills. With so many amazing fighter pilots, it’s hard to list all of those who are the best, but here are some aces who stand out.
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Hollywood helped glamorize fighter pilots with movies such as Top Gun, but these amazing figures certainly don’t need the help of screenwriters for their daring deeds to stand out. Fighter pilots fly dangerous missions with minimal support and are vital in advancing the military’s goals.
Comparing fighter pilots around the world is hard due to changes in military technology, battle layouts, and the arrangement of different militaries. For example, German pilots in World War Two have higher kill counts than US pilots, not because they were better but because US pilots tended to leave active duty sooner.
This list uses a few criteria including kill counts, missions, and unquantifiable skills to put together a list of the best fighter pilots of all time.
15. Giora Epstein
Giora Epstein may not be a household name for people who are not hardcore aviation history buffs, but he should be. This Israeli general is actually the top-scoring jet ace of all time.
A “flying ace” is any fighter pilot who successfully shoots down enemy airplanes or other aircraft during air battles. Jet aces target jets specifically. Giora Epstein managed to shoot down 17 confirmed jets.
The short tenure of his fight makes his numbers even more impressive. Epstein saw combat during the six-day Yom Kippur War. He managed to shoot down a whopping 8 aircraft during just two days of the war.
14. Indra Lal Roy
India is not a country that is known for its Air Force prowess. However, more people should know about Indra Lal Roy, one of the top pilots for the British RFC during World War One and India’s only fighter ace.
Roy joined the British military when he was only 18, in 1917. The RFC rejected him at first due to poor eyesight, but they reversed that decision—one that would prove very wise.
During just one year of fighting, several months of which he spent convalescing from injury, Roy achieved a whopping 10 victories.
13. Josef Frantisek
The top scorer of the Battle of Britain, or the pilot with the most kills during the initial air fight for Britain, was not British at all but Czech—Josef Frantisek. This amazing fighter pilot managed to rack up 17 kills in just one month of the battle.
Frantisek joined the RAF’s Polish 303 Squadron after fleeing his native Czechoslovakia, which was invaded by Nazi Germany in 1939.
Besides his impressive number of kills, Frantisek stands out for the daring nature of his deeds. He was driven by his desire for revenge against the Nazis and got special permission to fly out of formation and wage his own battle against Nazi planes, attempting daring feats.
12. Robin Olds
Robin Olds is one of the most decorated American fighter pilots in history. He is one of the few pilots to achieve the coveted title of “triple ace,” meaning that he shot down 15 enemy aircraft in one day.
Olds’s career spanned several decades in the US military. He saw action in World War Two and the Vietnam War. Robin Olds also pioneered several fighter pilot techniques such as precision bombing.
Besides his kills, Robin Olds is famous for his larger-than-life personality. He was married to a Hollywood star and had a bombastic, charismatic presence that inspired many film scripts.
11. Hans-Joachim Marseille
Hans-Joachim Marseille was one of Nazi Germany’s best fighter pilots. He was nicknamed the “Star of Africa” thanks to his prowess during Germany’s North Africa campaign.
Even though Marseille was killed in 1942, he achieved an eye-popping 158 kills. His skill meant that he once brought down 17 enemy aircraft in one day.
Besides his impressive battle numbers, Marseille was known for his rebellious nature. He flew later than expected and out of formation. He also had a chivalrous attitude towards air battle, shooting at enemy engines so the pilots had a greater chance of survival.
10. Eddie Rickenbacker
Eddie Rickenbacker, a racecar driver turned military pilot, is one of the most decorated fighting aces that the US military had during World War One.
Rickenbacker joined the military in 1917 and was assigned to be a mechanic and driver at first. Luckily, the military recognized his talent for flying, and he joined the Air Force.
During his time with the 94th Aero Pursuit Squadron, Rickenbacker achieved 26 air victories.
9. Chuck Yeager
Chuck Yeager was one of America’s best fighter pilots during World War Two. In 64 battles, he managed to achieve 11.5 kills, including downing a German Messerschmitt Me-262 jet with a much smaller aircraft.
However, Yeager’s greatest claim to fame came in peacetime. In 1947, he flew the Bell X-1 aircraft, the first aircraft to break the sound barrier.
Yeager never lost his passion for the air. In 2012, he flew in an F-1 to mark the 65th anniversary of breaking the sound barrier.
8. David McCampbell
For 31 years, David McCampbell faithfully served the U.S. Navy as a fighter pilot. His most famous achievements came during World War Two as commander of the “Fabled Fifteen.”
The “Fabled Fifteen,” or Carrier Air Group 15, were some of the most celebrated fighters in the Pacific theater of World War Two. Together, they achieved an amazing 318 victories.
McCampbell is celebrated not just for his role in leading this squadron but also for his individual numbers. He achieved 34 victories, got “ace in a day” twice, and set the single-mission record by shooting down nine planes in a day.
7. Douglas Bader
Douglas Bader, the celebrated World War Two RAF pilot, has 20 confirmed individual kills and some more shared victories. These are certainly impressive numbers, but not as large as some of the other pilots on the list.
However, Bader is one of the best fighter pilots of all time because of his story. He achieved his kills 8 years after losing his legs.
Even as a double amputee, Douglas Bader was a successful soldier who commanded respect even from his enemies.
6. Ivan Kozhedub
The top-scoring Allied forces fighter pilot is probably someone you’ve never heard of. That honor belongs to Soviet pilot Ivan Kozhedub.
Ivan Nikitovich Kozhedub was born into a poor family in Ukraine but rose high in the ranks of the Soviet military. During World War Two, he achieved a whopping 64 victories.
Most of his kills came later in the war when he flew with other lone wolf aces. His successes include being one of the first people to shoot down a high-powered German Messerschmitt Me 262 jet.
5. Gregory Boyington
Gregory Boyington, nicknamed “Pappy” because he was much older than his comrades in arms, is one of the most famous American fighter pilots of World War Two.
Boyington served in the Marines and as a volunteer for the Flying Tigers, an air squadron that supported China against the Japanese. During World War Two, he achieved a confirmed 26 kills.
Besides his impressive kill numbers, Pappy Boyington is famous for his bravery and daring deeds, particularly as the commander of the “Black Sheep Squadron.” There is even a TV show based on his life.
4. Max Immelmann
World War One was the first major war where armies used air battles to their advantage. That led to several fighter pilots becoming celebrated figures, including Max Immelmann.
Max Immelmann, nicknamed “the Eagle over Lille” for his exploits on the Western Front, was Germany’s first air ace. To become an ace, a pilot has to down five or more enemy aircraft.
Immelmann achieved 17 victories before his death in 1917. He also invented many dogfight maneuvers including the Immelmann turn.
3. Richard Bong
Richard Bong is one of the most-decorated American pilots of all time. He set countless records during World War Two when he also impressed with his bravery.
Bong managed to rack up 40 kills in the Pacific theater with his trusty P-38 fighter planes. His exploits earned him the nickname “Ace of Aces” and many awards, including the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Sadly, Bong died on the home front in 1945 during an accident while testing Lockheed jets.
2. Erich “Bubi” Hartmann
The fighter pilot with the most kills of all time is Erich “Bubi” Hartmann, a German pilot who downed 352 enemy aircraft during World War Two.
His record will never be broken, in part because most modern armies don’t follow the Luftwaffe practice of pushing record pilots further and further into the front.
Besides his amazing kill numbers, Hartmann is remarkable for his success in flying safely. Neither he nor his wingmen were shot in over 1000 missions.
1. Manfred von Richthofen
Manfred von Richthofen, the infamous “Red Baron” of World War One, is probably the most famous fighter pilot of all time. Although he owes much of his modern-day fame to the character Snoopy from Peanuts, his achievements stand out on their own.
Before he was shot down in combat, the Red Baron achieved 80 kills, a remarkable number for the flying technology of the time.
Besides his kill numbers, the Red Baron is famous for his flair. While other pilots try to camouflage their planes, he painted his Fokker bright red, so enemies would know he was coming and commanded a unit known as the “Flying Circus.”