Who was the greatest ace of all-time?

Erich Hartmann

Greatest Ace - Lt. Col. Grant Mahony, by Jack Cook

Who was the greatest ace?

My choice is Lt. Col. Grant Mahony of Bridal Veil, Oregon. He flew more combat tours and had more missions (600+) than any American aviator in WWII. He flew in the Philippines, Java, Australia, China and Burma. He commanded the 17th Provisional Sqd, 76th Ftr Sqd, and the Fighter Section of the 1st Air Commandos.

He was KIA as Deputy CO of the 8th FG in Jan 45. He had 5 kills in the air and a estimated 25+ on the ground. He received the DSC, SS, 3 DFCs, PH, 11 AMs, 4 DUBs, 12 campaign stars and the British DFC. Not only was a great pilot, but he was a outstanding leader, mission planner and role model for pilots of lesser experience.

Greatest Ace - Erich Hartmann, by Anonymous

Gotta' be Erich Hartmann of the Luftwaffe. 

There isn't anyone else better, period, end of story. Anyone who says otherwise isn't looking at the reality of war. Hartmann didn't score until 1942 and accumulated 352 victories between 1942 and the end of the war. No better record anywhere in the entire world. Marseille might have been a better shot, but he died before becoming the greatest. Barkhorn and Rall are next. Of the American aces, I give the nod to Eugene Valencia or Marion Carl. Best Allied ace? Ivan Kozhebud, 62 kills, mainly in La-5/7's. The Lavochins were very good radial engined fighters and the Yak-3/9's were superb. According to people who flew both, better than Spitfire.

The Germans were the best in the world.

Greatest Ace - other than WW2 aces, by max_g_cunningham

In all fairness, you might also take a look back at WW1, and the guys who literally "wrote the book" including Boelcke, Immelmann, Gunemyer, Bishop, Ball, and Von-Richthofen. I realize that list in incomplete, but again, the suggestion is that it's dominated by Germans. 

You have to give consideration to the conditions, and circumstances in each conflict. My choices would come from the Korean theater, as that represents BOTH the gun fight scenario, and the dawn of the modern high speed/altitude jet era. Also consider overall circumstances, and how apparently increasingly difficult it became, say in Vietnam, and more recently, to score.  Don't forget the Israelis, and possibly Pakistanis.

Greatest Ace - the Germans, by Greg_P

Good points about Korea and the newer conflicts. 

I stick to WWII since the pilots was the ace except in the case of early night fighters where radar was used. Today, the E-3 Sentry sends the fighter to a point to intercept a bogey and the electronics take over as called out by the non-pilot. Thanks, I'll stick with pilots.  WWI had their share. I simply believe that the WWII aircraft were the pinnacle of piston engine development with the most destructive armament available. The Aces of WWII are the best in my book, flying planes limited by propellers and some by early jets, but they were superb.  Modern aces have help from non-pilots in the same aircraft, from AWACS, from radar sits, and from electronics that can make the kill all by themselves. For productivity in the face of the electronic enemy, modern aces are superior, but VERY expensive to support considering the price of a single air-to-air missile, the price of the AWACS and supporting cast.

The last great conflict where the individual pilot was king was Korea. I nominate the MiG-15 as the bets of the conflict when flown by a veteran pilot. The F-86 was good, but had a lower service ceiling, less effective armament, and a lower thrust to weight ratio. Wing loading and gunshighs were about even. The Russians claim a very good kill-to-loss ratio when the plane was flown by a competent pilot and I have no reason to doubt it. The Americans claim a very good kill-to-loss ratio for the war and I have no reason to doubt THAT since MOST MiG-15's were not flown by veteran Russian pilots.

Still, of the people of the era of aces, Hartmann was the best followed by Barkhorn and Rall.  I'd bet against anyone in Korea going against any Luftwaffe ace with 200 or more kills in WWII flying either jet. Both the MiG and the Sabre had bubble canopies and handled similarly. The Americans are fond of stating that the MiG had handling problems in combat, but I have a an old friend who bought three MiG-15's from China and he tells a different story. Our guys used to say that the MiG would fall into a flat spin when turned hard under heavy "g." Poppycock.  The NATO fliers used G-suits. The Chinese and Russians didn't. They simply were on the leading edge of G-LOC and had airframes that would support it. When the pilot passed out, the neutral stability of the MiG resulted in a spin. If the pilot woke up in time, he could recover. If not, a smoking hole and another story of the MiG's supposedly "bad handling." No such thing in reality.

The Germans were and remain the best in air-to-air combat when using single seat, non-radar-controlled aircraft to oppose enemy aircraft of similar capability.

As to who is the best right now in 2003, I nominate the F-22 development squadron. Of course, we have never gone up against Russian-flown and Russian-maintained SuperFlankers or MiG-29's ... so who's to say? Think the British, French, or Japanese are not in contention? Try flying against them. Think the Saudis, Indians, or Pakistanis are not good? Probably depends on equipment. Ditto for the Argentineans. Ask a few RAF pilots. Sure, the UK won the Falklands war, but the Argentineans acquitted themselves nicely.

Today, it depends on currency and the quality of training.

Greatest Ace - the handling weakness attributed to the early MiGs, by max_g_cunningham

Please be reminded, the MiG-15, and MiG 17, and for that matter, ANY T tail fighter aircraft is going to have issues (difficulties and limitations) associated with high AOA maneuvers. At high AOA, such as maybe
quite readily experienced in the heat of ACM (a gun fight over the Yalu river would qualify) a T tail has a tendency to stall, and thus the entire airframe, first looses longitudinal directional stability, can pitch- up, uncontrollably, and/or in a relatively easily reproduced worst case scenario will readily depart into a dreaded flat spin. For further clarification, No matter what, at high AOA, behind a certain point, The main wing at some stage, is going to effectively shunt most of the air flow to the high mounted rear stabilizers. This was also an issue in particular with the F101 Voodoo, and the mighty F104 Starfighter as later western contemporaries. I believe it was the F104 that in developed versions even had a solenoid activated "kicker" on the control stick, to warn the pilot of such impending disasters.

The consensus over the handling limitations of the early MiGS is well documented, a matter of officially recorded history, and based on empirical experience, tested, and verified by among others, non other than Charles Yeager himself.

Greatest Ace - courage of WWI pilots, by Al Lowe

WWII may have been the pinnacle of piston engine development, but the pilots of WWI had to have a courage since unrivaled in air-to-air combat. 

They not only needed courage to go up and face their enemy in aerial combat, but they had to have courage to go up in UNRELIABLE machines. Machines that might, at any moment without help from their enemy, catch fire, fall apart, or go into a sudden uncontrollable dive from which they would likely not return. And most of them did this without parachutes!!

Greatest Ace - individual scores don't matter>, by Al Lowe

Its gotta' be Erich Hartmann of the Luftwaffe, who accumulated 352 victories. No better record anywhere in the entire world.
It's a BAD idea to equate numbers with who is the greatest. You can say that Hartmann is the highest scoring ace ever, but that does not make him the greatest. 

Many more qualities than just their individual scores go into making a great ace. In fact, individual scores shouldn't even matter. There are some great "aces" who didn't even get 5 victories. Many of the men of the 332nd FG would fit that description. And even though many credit him with 60+ victories, that is not what puts Saburo Sakai among the greatest aces. Nope, going by scores is not the way to determine the greatest ace.

Greatest Ace - Hans Joachim Marseille, by Al Lowe

It has to be Marseille. He was the supreme shot and boy did he know how to fly his aircraft. Although his over-keenness to attack anything that flew, regardless of the situation, may have been his down fall in the end. He also did come up with an effective method of successfully attacking the Lufbery circle.
In all fairness to Marseilles, the Lufbery Circle was a limited tactical maneuver. It has some serious weak points, and was best left to WWI. 

Greatest Ace - Re: WW1 Billy Bishop & William Barker, by JoeB

Be advised that no compilation on Billy Bishop is complete without mention of William Barker.

Interesting. On the tag line "not just one sided revisionist's story" and how it relates to the question on this thread. Is it necessarily "revisionism" to look in the other side's loss records and try to figure out how many planes were actually downed? It's not always possible, even in total, and it's usually not possible to say exactly how many were shot down by a particular pilot. And it could be done with an ax to grind in an unfair way.

But assuming it's done in good faith I think it's very important, and the answers can differ very widely. Common statements like "all pilots over claim" is true and not true. Yes almost all have (though not absolutely all actually), but the degree varies a lot.

For example Norman Franks et al's book on Richthofen's kills Under the Guns of the Red Baron shows not all, but a remarkably high percentage can be confirmed in British records (almost all his victims were British or Commonwealth with is interesting itself). OTOH see this post on Nikolai Sutyagin, the top scoring MiG-15 ace of the Korean War. At most 5 of his 21 victories possibly correspond to UN losses, by my research, and it's quite unlikely all 5 were by him since there were competing claims of other MiG pilots in each case, sometimes many. Surely a factor like this also matters in evaluating aces.

I don't mean that in a personal way toward any particular ace or to suggest deliberateness (it may be true but I have no personal opinion about it, not sure how much it matters or if there's really a bright line in between deliberate and accidental overclaims). The situations of combat and of various air force's standards of victory confirmation have varied a lot over the history of air warfare, and sometimes changed fairly rapidly and significantly within an AF during a war. One cannot evaluate aces from one time and air force compared to another time and air force without some idea how accurate claims tended to be for that air force, or that person if it can be determined. And there is no basis for the assumption that it would tend to average.

Greatest Ace - over-claims and the historical record, by Al Lowe

Is it necessarily "revisionism" to look in the other side's loss records and try to figure out how many planes were actually downed? It's not always possible, even in total, and it's usually not possible to say exactly how many were shot down by a particular pilot.

Not all the original German records for WWI still exist. There are copies of many that were made between the world wars, and not all copies were complete copies.  According to one of the historian, there is ONE original Jasta daily diary still in existence. The problem is when you try to confirm things that happened 80+ years ago, when many of the participants are now dead, and many records from both sides are missing, it gets difficult to say with certainty exactly what happened. 

Still, if you look at fighter pilot claims from WWI and WWII, you'll find that most, if not all, did over-claim to some degree. This was brought out especially during the Battle of Britain. Going by German claims during the Battle, the RAF should not have existed much past August of 1940.

Depending on the source, either Bishop was the greatest thing since sliced bread, or he was a consummate liar. I don't think he was either. Why did the RFC and RAF confirm most of his claims without question? Paul Cowan (Producer of "The Kid Who Couldn't Miss") and Brereton Greenhous would have us believe it was because the RFC was looking for a hero. That would not explain his claims that were confirmed prior to June 2, 1917. Up that point the RFC already had their hero in Albert Ball. Up to that time, Bishop had 22 confirmed. He also had several unconfirmed as well. So there was not a blanket policy about confirming his claims.

Bishop did not intentionally lie, the way Cowan and Greenhous would have us believe.

Greatest Ace - accuracy of  records, by JoeB

Incompleteness is always a potential issue. For example, in Korea, it's very difficult to accurately compute the exact personal scores of US pilots for claims past around September of 1951 because after that the Chinese were a major factor, and though we know total losses of theirs that when combined with the Russians jibe reasonably with total US claims (would mean their losses were ~70% of US claims, pretty accurate claiming) we don't know their losses day by day. Then there were some though fewer NK piloted a/c from November '51 and we have no official believable number for their losses, though we can estimate them to be a fairly small % of the combined Russian/Chinese losses from intel/defector sources.

Going the other way though we have lots of US records, many incomplete but piecing together many kinds we can figure out a very high % of the real losses to MiG's. And while a bit higher than the loss totals frequently published over the years in US sources, not a whole lot higher, and much lower than the total of MiG claims. So IOW we can quantify it, and it doesn't really make sense, IMHO, in that case to just say "all pilots probably over claimed, but let's still treat the official MiG pilot scores as real".

My understanding of WWII in Europe, in the West, is that it's somewhat similar on both sides: careful research can establish certainly a fairly accurate overall claim accuracy of both sides, though to a lesser extent any single pilot's score (who shot down who? is always hard in large battles). Even in PTO for some periods Japanese records actually are pretty complete, and it doesn't seem really justified to say the full Allied claims may have been real because the Japanese burned some records. For example in the controversy over "The Flying Tigers" by Ford some years ago. I tend to believe Ford's numbers, real JAAF losses were something like 40% of the AVG's claims. We have to factor that into evaluating an AVG ace compared to evaluating a USAF Korea ace, even if we can't figure out the individual scores. We know one pilot flew under a confirmation system that resulted in enemy losses 40% of claims, another flew under a system resulting in 70+%. And if a Soviet pilot in Korea (or in the 1939 border war against Japan) we know their opponents total losses were <15% of their total claims. I believe our thinking about aces has to reflect those general differences even if we can't prove or disprove particular claims.

The kind of psychological issue,  whether some very inaccurate claims were deliberate, is not that interesting a topic. It does not really matter that much. If someone claimed 21 planes and apparently really shot down ~3 (Sutyagin example again) and it was an honest mistake or not, what's the difference really, except if one is trying to be polite to some still living person?

Greatest Ace - Billy Bishop, by Al Lowe

I don't like the attack on Bishop's honor, or truthfulness, as it were. After all, he risked his life in two world wars. In the first one, just climbing into those wire and cloth machines should have gotten him a medal. 

In the 2nd war he worked so hard at his recruiting duties he nearly died in 1942 from an inflamed pancreas. Due to continuing fatigue, he finally asked to be relieved of his duties in late 1944.  When he died on Sept. 11, 1956, he was 62. Not really all that old. But if you look at pictures of him taken around that time, he looked 20 years older. Most people believe that his activities during WWII is what shortened his life. Of course he was known to be a heavy drinker too. Most likely a result of what he'd seen and done during WWI.  He wasn't perfect, but I don't think he deserves the doubts that have been heaped on his record the last 22 years.

Greatest Ace - Re: Half full, half empty ?, by JoeB

by max_g_cunningham: "I stand by the historically accepted version of the "truth" more or less, as written and attested to by the people who did it, saw it, heard about it first hand, and lived it."

But at times, actually usually in the history of air combat, the "truth recorded by those actually there" is irreconcilable between "those who were there" on one side compared to "those who were there" on the other. Usually somebody must have been mistaken and all things equal it stands to reason it was the claimants who were wrong, because they didn't *know* the enemy's losses but the enemy certainly did know his own losses and can be assumed to have correctly recorded them, usually, if the records were secret at the time. The general principal of accepting then-secret loss records over claims, going both ways, is sound I believe, and should be followed where the records exist for both sides. Even if not provably complete (they never are) records should be fairly judged, not totally rejected as "incomplete" or "they wouldn't admit all their losses even to themselves" just to avoid to questioning the scores of aces. From what I've seen that's a problem too.

To get back to a concrete example (I am questioning the basic accuracy of the Billy Bishop article here on this site, isn't that at least as good a specific example to examine as Billy Bishop books?) Sutyagin article on this site, and my post. I think that article, though saying only 12 of Sutyagin's 21 claims can be verified is still tweaking the US loss evidence substantially in Sutyagin's favor to get a number even that high. It's assuming for example that US losses attributed to AAA were really by Sutyagin (though the Soviet records show he claimed different US a/c types in each case from the types lost to AAA); it's crediting planes certainly to him that were indeed lost but where several other Soviet or Chinese pilots also claimed them; and it's crediting losses on days different from his claims. I get a maximum of 5 real victories, min 0 and likely 2 or 3. This is the other side of "revisionism" IMO, trying to uphold ace's scores against loss record evidence from the other side showing big overclaims.

I don't agree with what I interpret as you tying together examining records of both sides in air combat with "post modernism". Examining all evidence and following where it leads is classical rationalism, not post modernism. My view is traditional: there is a single truth but human observers imperfectly perceive it. The more angles from which an episode is viewed the closer we can get to that truth.

Even for US claims in Korea, they were much closer to real Soviet/Chinese/NK MiG losses than MiG claims were to real US losses to MiG's. But still in some cases we have then-secret Soviet unit records, that in some cases cover all units engaged, and they don't show some US claimed victories as MiG losses. For example the first USAF MiG claim by an F-80 Nov 8, 1950: no actual MiG loss though the combat can be found in the Soviet records, the time and other particulars agree. OTOH they usually do show the US claims as losses (esp. when the US was facing the Soviets alone, usually the case up to September 1951). And sometimes show losses the US *didn't* claim (Nov 11, 1950 victory of F-80's, actually the first USAF MiG victory, only credited a "probable") tending to reinforce the genuineness of such records, which in general I see no positive reason to doubt for *losses* (their claims are highly exaggerated, pretty clearly) where they exist. Completeness is a big issue later on in the war, since detailed Chinese and needless to say NK loss records aren't available. But should historians ignore those sources where they exist and stick with US claims only?

Greatest Ace - Soviet claims, by max_g_cunningham

One difficulty I have with opposing claims throughout the cold war, is that the Soviet's lied compulsively about practically anything, and everything, throughout that entire era. Take for instance what's come to light about the various catastrophes that frequently befell the Soviet Space Program. Another example would be to take a look at their actual standard of living, (sordid) as experienced by the average "joe smuck," in comparison to what they (their leadership) claimed throughout,,.

Conversely, the opposing perspective on the Cuban Missile Crisis, provides some very interesting insights, and contrasts to the Western account, vis-a vie the withdrawal of US missiles in Turkey, etc.  It's important to separate cold war propaganda, from unbiased logged historical records, unfortunately, under the old totalitarian Soviet system, the unbiased truth was/is more difficult to discern than in the western perspective, even with all it's own inherent flaws.

Greatest Ace -Soviet claims, by JoeB

When it comes to Soviet *claims* of US a/c they shot down in Korea. Their whole political situation was probably a factor in how exaggerated those claims were, more overstated than most AF's claims in most wars, much more overstated than the American claims in Korea.

However when it comes to their losses, we have to be more careful throwing the baby out there. When I say their loss records I mean literally the original then secret documents from that time that were submitted by the units to higher HQs. I'm not talking about any public statements by the Soviet gov't (which of course never admitted it had fought in Korea at all).

It's possible losses in those records were also fudged, perhaps between damaged and repaired or not repaired planes, and so forth. Interestingly that's the same things post 1991 Russian author and their supporters, (like Mr. Zampini who wrote the inaccurate article still posted by this site though it's been pointed out it's inaccurate and no one has defended it), constantly accuse the USAF of having done, no evidence of it though on any widespread basis either.

But it's no so likely IMO the Soviet records are completely or widely false when it comes to their losses. That would mean the Soviet AF would have been confusing itself in its own secret records. Where would the real results be? And if it was necessary to show a good result v. the Americans even in the secret records, it was much easier to exaggerate American losses (who could prove they were exaggerated?) than understate the Soviet ones (and have to hide losses of planes let alone pilots in all sorts of other reports). This is typically the case in air warfare history.

So even for the Soviets I stick to the idea *then secret loss records* (not public announcements), if apparently reasonably complete, beat claims of the other side. Unless there's specific evidence one side went to the extreme of concocting false, secret loss records. And I don't of know any evidence even the Soviets went that far. The fact US claims somewhat exceed Soviet and Chinese admitted losses is no proof of that, claims virtually always exceed losses and US claims didn't exceed MiG losses in Korea by much by the standards of WWII (Soviet/Chinese+ estimated NK MiG losses ~75% of US claims).

Greatest Ace - Theodore Weissnberger, by steve

Sticking to ww2, Hartmann is one of the usual choices. His record is astonishing. One thing to keep in mind is strike rate. Rall had a better strike rate than Hartmann. One pilot that gets little mention is Theodore Weissnberger. He had even a better strike rate than Rall & unlike Rall had a significant # of allied victories in his bag of 208. 25 allied victories in 3 weeks its been reported. he also flew the jet & got a few victories in it at the end of war. Learning how to shoot accurately in the 262 was no easy task. Heinz Bar had over 1000 missions to get his 220. Weissengerger had around 500 missions. Marseille probably was the most skilled & invented entirely new tactics, his victims were mostly P-40s & hurricanes. Galland said it didn't matter, he would have done well in any theater. & don't forget, the # 2 man after Marseille scored only 61!, that's a big gap. Pips Priller was another great ace with 101 allied,( channel coast ), victories. He was only shot down 3 times, ( which compares well with some of the others,( Bar 18 times, Hartmann 14 times,Rudorrfer 16 ), & scored his 101 in only 308 (1307, see correction below) missions. Galland flew over 400 missions to get his 104 victories.

So then, I would pick these 3: Marseille, Priller, & Weissenberger.

Greatest Ace - Priller correction, by steve

Correction on Priller, he flew 1307 missions, not 308. I stand corrected. Still his record is amazing, 68 Spitfires, & his score was 95 by the end of 43, but only scored 6 more in 44 & 45, as he was busy with administrative duties. He did get 11 heavies, so he encountered a wide range of opponents. He also got to fly the D-13, which had 100 more horse than the D-9 & a revamped supercharger, He said: I felt very confident in this particular machine. For those interested in the long nose series of the 190, The D-9, ( & D-13 ), were actually better overall than the TA 152 as the 152 had an extended wingspan, which was good for high altitude performance & turning ability, ( I have read that the last dogfight of WW2 was between a 152 & a Tempest & the 152 outturned it with ease & shot it down ), but was not good for diving & roll rate. So the D-9 was considered By Eric Brown, ( Britain's top test pilot ), & even Kurt Tank himself to be superior overall.

Greatest Ace - Proposed Ranking Criteria, by Spitz

Let's categorize how to rank the best pilot, some standard system of ranking these guys instead of throwing out claims with different standards, or worse yet repeatedly pulling for favorites. This will have to be devilishly comprehensive.

Here are my ideas as to ranking them:

  1. Strike rate (Kills/mission): This is more important than total kills because it shows that they actively, skillfully, and successfully searched for the enemy and kicked their butts when they found them. This must of course be modified by theater conditions, and probably is best done for each theater and side, then analyzed collectively.
  2. Single day/mission feats: Alternate translation: Spree fighters. These are the guys who can go into high intensity environment, often at terrible odds, and not just survive but help their wingmen survive and simultaneous beat the snot out of the enemy. Therefore, the also reflects on endurance, tactics, reflexes, and marksmanship (ammo limitations). Several American pilots, Yeager included, are high in the rankings here, but this is where the German pilots simply pull away from the rest, for although no one faced worse odds, that only makes the feat more amazing that they survived, and often than not didn't run out of fuel or ammunition despite the fact that they almost always had less ammo and fuel than the Allied aircraft did. This is Emil Lang and Erich Rudorffer, run away from the pack. Lang is the all time single day kills record holder, with 17-18, but actually scored 3, 4, 5 or more kills repeatedly until he was killed by P-47s when his landing gear fell out in flight and couldn't be pulled back up. Rudorffer scored 13 in 17 minutes, and also was a repeat performer who survived the war with (in some ways) a better record than Lang's.
  3. Survival/Cause of death
  4. Tactical ingenuity
  5. Wingman Losses
  6. Times shot down/circumstances
  7. When applicable, multi-role abilities
  8. Aircraft types shot down
  9. Aces shot down
  10. Plane(s) flown/dissimilar comparisons
  11. Mission Accomplishment/Overkill rate

Another ace, who only scored 4 kills, nonetheless is one of the best in another category. Siegfried Schubert flew only one aircraft for a very limited number of missions before dying in an accident in his aircraft, but it was easily the most difficult to score kills with, and he was able to shot two B-17s during a flight that lasted only about 10 minutes or less TOTAL (probably shot them down in 5 minutes or less) in his craft: the Me-163B, the most ingenious but possibly most dangerous aircraft made by either side during the entire war. Hats off to a man whose skill must only have been matched by his bravery.

Greatest Ace - Germans who flew many missions, by steve

Buligen had 800 missions & 112 allied planes shot down, & was never shot down himself.

Priller had 1307 missions, 101 planes & was shot down 3 times.

Galland flew 425(?) missions to get his 104, & was shot down 3 times.

One pilot that gets little mention is Hackl. 192 kills with gun camera evidence for another 24. He had 44 confirmed victories in last 10 months of war, with the 24 gun camera ones. That would make 68 western kills in last 10 months of war. He was also # 2 or 3 in four-motor (bomber) kills.

Greatest Ace - German aces, by Spitz

Rudorffer had his kills confirmed. 8 Brit fighters in 32 minutes, 7 more in 20, then 7 Russians in 7 minutes and 13 more in 17. 10 4-engine bombers of ~60 Defense of Reich victories, 12 kills flying the Me-262 (making one of the higher-up-there jet aces and proving he could do well in anything) and although 136 of his 222-224 victories were on the Russian Front, 58 of them were Il-2 Sturmoviks--tough turkeys to take out. However, he did so in over 1000 missions (~1:5 strike rate is pretty low), and was shot down 16 times and bailed out 9 (How many #%$@! lives did this guy have?!?). So he probably does cut it.

Lang, on the other hand, is still in it. Yes, many of his victories were East Front, but plenty of good pilots gained their majority on that Front (Hartmann and Krupinski just to name two), and it was far from being a cakewalk. His first victories came in March 1943, way late in the war, yet by the time he died in September 1944, he had 173, including 28 (9 Spitfires, 9 P-51's, 6 P-47's, and 4 P-38's) over the Western Invasion Front alone, the highest of any German ace. This came after only 403 missions--a 1:2.3 strike rate which is ridiculously high! Among other achievements: 18, 12, and 10 Russians in single days, 68 Russians in October 1943, 33 more in November, 3 RAF Spits in 5 min., 2 USAAF P-47's in 1 min., 2 USAAF P-38's in three minutes, 4 USAAF P-51s in 1 day, never shot down until death, when landing gear of his 190 fell open in flight and was bounced by P-51's (Shoot-down went to American Ace Darrell Cramer, 7 confirmed kills), Oldest German Ace in Luftwaffe. Just on the surface! This guy takes the cake for me.

Hackl nonetheless does seem pretty impressive, considering the theater and time he got those victories, although still not quite as impressive to me as Lang. A high number of four-motor kills isn't really impressive to me, considering that one, it requires only for someone to be able to hit a barn door at 100 yards (except, like Schubert, when you're attacking at ~590 mph and a 45-or-so degree angle of attack with a small supply (60-90 per gun with two guns, depending) of high caliber weaponry), and two, a good marksman with a 30-mm can blast a bomber out of the sky within three shots. Fighter kills (Fw-190's, Spitfires, and P-51's for incredible speed, maneuverability, and agility, Me-262's for maneuverability, heavy armament, and insane speed, and P-47's for being maneuverable, heavily armed, and built like a brick outhouse (see Robert S. Johnson's story on flying home after having an Fw-190A unload all its ammo on him)) are in many ways much more impressive.

Greatest Ace - viermots & invasion front aces, by steve

OK, agree on 4 motor kills. Hackl said it only took 3-4 30 mil hits to knock down a bomber. There is 2 ways to look at jet kills. Yes it did take a lot of practice to develop shooting skills for jet speeds, but Georg peter Eder said: it was much safer to fly 262 than 109 cause it was so much faster. Um, I do have one question about your comment about Lang's 28 invasion front kills being highest. Is that single engine fighter kills? Weissenburg got at least 25. Don't know how many of Hackl's 68 were invasion front kills. For an interesting piece of data on Hackl, read Luftwaffe aircraft in profile # 2. A Russian opponent mentions what a tough opponent he was.

I will include Lang in my top 5 for now based on what you've said. 173 kills in 403 missions is "real" good. Surprised you didn't mention Bar. He got 124 western opponents. Lang & Weissenburg are close in # of missions flown. I think I read Weissenburg flew 500 (?) to get his 208.

The Germans were best simply cause they had more experience than anyone else. Reinert (?) said: I thought I was pretty good after 200 missions, but I was a whole lot better after 700 missions. A judo man with 700 hrs of practice will probably lose to a man with 7000 hrs practice. It has nothing to do with race or nationality pure & simple experience. We'll never know how many mission Nishizawa flew. But he was awesome.

Greatest Ace - Greatest Ace, by Spitz

First, the Me-262 was safer than a Bf 109, but that says nothing. Remember the problems with the 109 landing gear and yaw, remember how many were claimed in combat PLUS how many were destroyed for other reasons, just to start. The 190 was much safer than either; remember too the flameout, snaking, and underpowered problem with the Jumo jet engines, plus the structural inability of the 262 to press high speeds or tolerate rapid throttle changes. A good starter for the safety and performance of 190 vs. 262 would be an interview with Walter Krupinski talking about both in the late 1990's; he definitely critiques the 262, but has nothing but praise for the Fw-190D-9.

Second, I confirmed Lang's 28 being the most on quite a few sites, and they were all single engine fighter kills.

Third, agreed on the Germans. Ask any pilot on either side about experience and they will tell you it made all the difference in the world. And the Germans fought the entire war long, and had lots of kills and survivors come out the other end, many of whom the Americans made into instructors and wing leaders of their future pilots stationed in Western Germany.

Greatest Ace - George Beurling, by Spitz

Re: RCAF 32-kill ace George Beurling.

In terms of eyesight, marksmanship, and cunning in one-on-many situations, Beurling was off-the-wall good; his work on marksmanship, deflection shots, and equations for range and deflection, are proof of that, as well as faking a forced landing to evade the enemy. But from there I think his merits are few and far between. He adopted the dive and run tactic to a great deal of success, but he was caught at least once trying it because of ignoring other planes in the area and forgetting about speed advantages and characteristics of German aircraft that were superior to the Spitfires in the dive.

His being a fiercely solitary hunter also lowers his status; his attitude and methods endangered both himself and his wingmen, and no ace should rely solely on themselves to both break up an enemy formation, shoot down aircraft, and not get shot down themselves without being aware of team tactics and how to counter them alone consistently (which Beurling didn't do). He also has a lower strike rate despite being in Malta during its worst hours and attacking flights of 90+ planes, got shot down quite a few times (largely because of his own recklessness), lost a boatload of wingmen, and, was a poor team tactician. However, he is actually pretty impressive otherwise, and was worth bringing up despite his weaknesses.

So far, my list includes Lang, Weissenburg, Nishizawa (top Japanese), and Robert Johnson (top P47/American and excellent dissimilar tactician), for Vietnam and since, Cunningham (dissimilar tactics, missile ace, three in one day including probable ace).

Greatest Ace - Beurling's natural abilities, by max_g_cunningham

Based only on the criteria, of natural ability, talent, physical attributes, being at home in the air, being born with, and developing the tools, and being able to use them under combat, on this basis, Beurling was one of the most naturally "gifted" pilots that ever entered a cockpit.  He's qualified on that basis to be among the greatest of all time.  He was no "team player," no strategist, no inspirational leader of men, who led by example, and looked after his people, no Von Richthofen.

It all depends very much on your point of view and criteria. In a competitive arena that bears some cursory similarity, take the example of the late Ayrton Senna of FIA F1 GP fame, vs. Alain Prost, throughout the early 1990s.

Very much like Beurling, Senna was revered for natural ability, second to none in his era. He possessed natural ability, finely honed cognizant skills, guts & balls, determination & aggressiveness, total fearlessness. He was singularly focused and committed at the exclusion of all else, to the extent of qualifying nearly as being practically an idiot savant, and quite frequently recklessness, in his all consuming ambition to win all the time.  It paid off, until unfortunately, the day that due to his limited judgment, his luck simply ran out, when he went a little too fast, in the wrong place, and at the wrong time. Exactly Like Beurling he was a loaner, egocentric, not a team player at all, either, and had mediocre judgment and that makes for a mediocre tactician and a lousy strategist. Another excellent example of that "type" would also be the late Gilles Villenuve.

There's a lot there in common with many Aces throughout history, "these types," who rack up the most impressive victories, in terms of sheer adventure, courage, against the most unfavorable odds, these are the guys who often win the Congressional Medals, the Victoria Crosses; they don't always survive, and they don't necessarily rack up the highest totals.

Prost on the other hand was the opposite, skilled and aggressive, but also methodic, a planner, a fine tactician, & strategist, highly opportunistic, an uncanny knack for being in close second place, exactly at the right time, patient, a team player which put him at odds when combined with Senna, all traits that are also shared among very many of the absolutely most successful Aces in terms of numbers, (We could name dozens, starting with Hartmann) including even at times held in criticism for being overly cautious. However he did very well also, and head to head in the same arena as Senna.

This analogy illustrates the essentials, and conflicting traits of BOTH types who have it within themselves to compete, and win, Ace's. To find and quantify "the greatest of all time," is sheer folly, like chasing rainbows, but it might be sensible to find someone who combines BOTH characteristics, held in check, and perfectly balanced. The dilemma might be that the two distinct "types" are diametric opposites.

Greatest Ace - Me 262, by steve

Eder probably was referring to the incredible speed of the 262 when said it was safer than the prop jobs. One could "hit & git." The 109 G-6 with gun pods was a very dangerous plane to try & dive away from 47's & 51's in. Dogfighting was not necessary, as one could leave any opponent in the dust. The 109 was safer than any west Europe fighter once it was off the ground. Almost impossible to stall or spin. & only 5% of accidents were due to landing gear collapse, usually because the tailwheel wasn't locked. It is often quoted as being 1/3. not true. The 190 had a violent flick over problem in hard turns,( rare occasions ), & at 70 mph, it would drop like a stone. Mustang pilots have reported seeing 190's auger in, but never a 109.

The D-9 was quieter than the radial 190, & did not bleed off speed like the A series did in fast turns. It was "all that" according to Eric Brown.

As for Beurling, once he hit an E/A on the ground, after he shot it down, right in the middle of a number painted on the side of the fuselage,  because he wanted to prove he shot it down. So when ground witnesses had a look at it, they would see his bullet holes right where he said they were. Quite a marksman, especially considering his plane was mid wing armed.

Stanford Tuck is my favorite Brit ace. His story was great. He once fired his 20 mil cannon at an antiaircraft truck, & his shell went right down the barrel of the antiaircraft gun, killing the entire crew. Tuck's luck they called it. Juuka Lukanianan (sp?), Finland's top ace with 94 did it in less than 400 missions. The 3rd ranked Finnish ace had just over 400 missions & had  56 (?) kills. Finland's top ace should be looked into.

Greatest Ace - MiG 15 aerodynamics, by Greg_P

The wing loading of the MiG-15 and the F-101 are not even in the same county, much less ballpark. The MiG-15bis was about 60.1 pounds per square foot at max takeoff weight. The MiG-17 was 55.0 pounds per square foot, and that helps explain why it shot down loads of U.S. fighters in Vietnam. The McDonnell F-101 Voodoo has a wing loading of 123.5 pounds per square foot at max takeoff weight. 

There is very little chance of the MiG-15's wing blanketing the tail since it would be at an angle of attack of more than 18° ... and Korean War fighters stalled before that was reached. The F-101 came later, and COULD get to 18° AOA without stalling at the right speeds and configuration.

The MiG-15 was a superb fighter that, in the hands of an expert, was VERY dangerous to the F-86. We had better pilots, but the Russians supplied a superb aircraft. There is nothing wrong with the MiG-15 that can't be cured with a g-suit and training. The armament was not ideal for fighter vs. fighter combat, but it was intended to attack bombers when designed.

Last, I have ridden in a 2-seat MiG-15 UTI and can speak from experience, at least from the back seat. I didn't have any trouble flying it at 4 - 6 g, and it wasn't "directionally unstable" at all. Flew like it was on rails. I have NOT flown in a 2-seat F-86 as there are none available anywhere. You might want to ask Bill Rheinschild. He flies one in airshows all around the U.S.A. and loves it. About the only thing I don't like about it is the non-steerable nosewheel. You must steer with brakes. Otherwise, it is a VERY nice aircraft that is solidly built and rugged in the extreme.

Greatest Ace - What are the factors?, by drgondog

1. Victories in an even fight against a high quality foe (i.e. start with head on pass?)
2. Number of times defeated in aerial combat (does one 'disqualify')
3. Number of victories, number in one day, number in one encounter?
4. Leadership qualities? (i.e. Missions led with most scores and fewest losses)

5. Most victories scored when opponents had the tactical advantage to start (i.e. on your six?)
6. Ratio of victories to sorties?
7. Ratio of victories to encounters?
8. Number of wingmen lost while scoring a victory (Does one 'disqualify')

9. Mentor quality?(i.e. Number of other aces produced under your leadership)
10. Consistent quality of opposition? (i.e. Gunther Rall, one of the greatest, is quickly shot down after moving from Eastern Front to West)
11.Target rich environment?

All of the above? None of the above?

This survey is a little late for the right participants. If any group can make this decision it would have to come from the fighter pilot community itself to have some really valid 'opinion based' candidates and I doubt seriously there would be a 'consensus' - but I'll bet Hartmann would be very high in the vote for 'best overall' - after each ace ranked himself <grin>!! I would also tend to look at WWII first, then Korea as the primary arena

If hard pressed for my own opinion, I would say that one of the very top Luftwaffe pilots that fought and led green pilots, lost the fewest and survived while continuing to run up his score (like Priller/Hackl) in the Jan 1944 to end of war would meet most of the criteria above, as well as Nishizawa, or Kozhedub. At the end of the discussion there are one hell of a lot of American and Brit aces (and Finn?) that could fly and fight with any nominee you care to advance from Germany, Japan or Russia - but get dropped because of total score.

Greatest Ace - Erich Hartmann, by MK2

I give the nod to Erich Hartmann, not only based on his score but also the amount of combats he survived.

Some say score does not matter but the truth is, if it did not matter then why keep it? 352 victories is hard to argue against. Also let's remember that Hartmann shot down 7 P-51s, 4 in one combat sortie, so to say he scored against inferior opponents is not entirely correct. He survived the war, he scored over 50 more kills than the next Ace in history , which is a wide, wide margin. He was known and feared as the black devil of the Ukraine. He had to change the scheme of his ME-109 because Soviet pilots would refuse to engage him. He was a legend on the eastern front. As far as his mettle, he also survived 10 years in soviet captivity. he would be dead last on my list of pilots I would want to find at my 6 o'clock in combat.

Greatest Ace - It wasn't Hartmann, by Dmitry

Needless to say that Hartmann was very talented and lucky pilot, but he wasn't an ace though.

First, he always avoided dogfights. Being pursued with P-51s he bailed out of his undamaged(!) Me-109 full of ammo. He also was challenged number of times by Russian aces, who proposed him to fight with one of them at certain time and place, but he never accepted it. I may be wrong, but Stalin established a price for Hartmann's head, that's why he repainted his plane. The same thing happened to his infamous squadron Grunehertz J-54, which had to get rid or their emblem, because every Russian pilot in Ukraine was eager to shoot down a couple of "green asses."

Second, his tactics were extremely simple. American pilots called it "boom-zoom." He dived from very high altitude, made a burst during a surprise attack and zoomed back safe. No second dives on bombers, no dogfighting.

Third, his victories are not hard to argue against, because great number of them were not confirmed. In his book he reported his 197-202 victories by radio! One more thing, German pilots counted not kills, but "points", i.e. number of engines of an aircraft which was shot down. Having shot down 'pre-historic' 4-engine TB-3 would make four points, and breaking bombers flight formation was additional points, but it wasn't 'kill' anyway.

Drgondog proposed great list of factors, and Hartmann will hardly match any of these.

That is why I would call Alexander Pokryshkin the top WWII ace in the full meaning of this word. He matches nearly all criteria and this makes him number one. (By the way, American authors, who wrote the book about Hartmann, calls Pokryshkin the best.)
1. In the first days of war Pokryshkin alone(!) was attacked by 6 Me-109 and during dogfight he managed to shot down one of them. He flew Mig-3, which Germans called "Ivan" for what they called 'bluntness'. This example shows that in spite of German's technical and numerical superiority Pokryshkin showed superb frying techniques and marksmanship.
2. Several times he was 'ambushed' by German hunters and still he was the one who scored victories.
3. During one sortie he shot down 3 German bombers. Please note, that Hartmann and pilots like him preferred wooden fighters, because it's difficult to make surprise attack on bomber and one can easily get a burst in cockpit from tailgunner.

4. Having developed extraordinary flying tactics, he trained a number of outstanding fighter pilots like Klubov, Glinka brothers, Babak and Rechkalov. Later on he became a commander of a squadron. Both German and Russian historians mention that saying over the radio "Hi, Fritz, Pokryshkin is coming" could break enemy bombers formation and fail their mission. See the difference, Russian commanders had orders to shoot down Hartmann (who avoided dogfights) and German pilots had orders to avoid dogfights with Pokryshkin's guard squadron. ('Guard' is distinctive title for Russian most brave and successful troops.) Moreover, he became the first 3-times Hero of the Soviet Union. The second and the last was Kozhedub, who scored 63 kills, including two P-51 Mustangs.
5. And the last point for now. The quality of opposition. Pokryshkin was an expert on shooting down German aces. His head-on attacks were aimed on flight leaders, who were the most experienced pilots, often awarded with German Knight's Cross. Hartman says that his victims never were aware of his presence. It were easy kills of inexperienced pilots or badly damaged planes, which always were the best target for German 'hunters'.

Greatest Ace - for Hartmann, by Oberst Ulrich

First, Hartmann's plane was undamaged, but it was out of ammo and his fuel was almost out so he had no choice.

Second, he avoided the dogfights but he did get in the heat of it all and what would be best? To get in there and have a long grueling dog fight or get the kill and be over with it? Hartmann was not seeking personal glory but just to survive and that would be what most right minded people would do. About his plane being painted...he had it re-painted because time after time it was recorded that when his plane entered combat the Soviet aircraft would flee battle!

About the points: You must be getting it confused with FLAK. The FLAK crew men were awarded kills by points but Pilots it was one kill one victory. No 1/3, 1/2 kill etc like the RAF and US forces. In Hartmann's book it mentions that the one Russian pilot was the best Allied ace but not the best over all. And if you are complaining about Hartmann's kills reported by radio then how do you confirm Pokryshin's kill when he was attacked by 6 ME 109s and he was ALONE! By the way the top Russian ace scored 62 kills (Kozhedub, Ivan Nikitch and Pokryshkin had 59.