A Finite Fraternity: Combat Fighter Ace

By Scott Spangler on August 24th, 2015

Frederick Payne, America’s oldest surviving combat fighter ace, died August 6 at age 104. According to his obituary in The New York Times, the retired U.S. Marine Corps brigadier general earned this singular achievement at the controls of a Grumman F4F Wildcat in the skies over Guadalcanal in 1942.

What’s interesting to me is that the pilots who will likely be America’s last two combat fighter aces, Duke Cunningham and Steve Ritchie, joined this finite community a mere 30 years after Payne, when they each downed the requisite five enemy aircraft in 1972 in the skies over Vietnam. Flying the F-4 Phantom, their back-seaters, William Driscoll and Charles DeBellevue, share this combat achievement. American aviators have logged a lot of combat time in the ensuring 43 years, but conflict has changed, and most of their targets are on the ground—or on the screen.

It seems clear that the era of the combat fighter ace exists only in history, and that those who’ve earned this distinction are members of a finite fraternity.

“With Mr. Payne’s death, there are 71 surviving aces, said Arthur Bednar, coordinator of the American Fighter Aces Association,” said his Times obituary, adding that “only 1,450 American pilots qualified to be called ace, a distinction reserved for pilots who downed at least five enemy planes in aerial combat during World Wars I and II and the wars in Korea and Vietnam.”

Most of them are from World War II, perhaps the zenith of aerial combat. General Payne was but one of 122 U.S. Marine Corps aviators who earned the distinction of ace by downing at least five of their foes. Aces in the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army Air Force are more than five times the number of Marines. Regardless of when they achieved this distinction of aerial combat, the resource of their first-hand experience shrinks as each of them goes west.

Some may argue that some future conflict may anoint new aces, but given the economics and technology and employment of human resources in modern conflicts, that seems highly unlikely. In the time that’s left for this finite community of American aces, we should recognize their contribution to what is now aviation history long past. – Scott Spangler, Editor

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5 Responses to “A Finite Fraternity: Combat Fighter Ace”

  1. Joe Noah Says:

    It is worth noting that the American Fighter Aces have now been awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. George Preddy is one of the top ten American Aces, and the top Mustang ace.

  2. Charlie Branch Says:

    OK, I’ll whine about including Jeff Feinstein, another F-4 GIB, in the list. Will future aces be putting RPA silhouettes on their console chairs? Have their chair knocked ever when they’re shot down?

    Last week, I met “Misty 40” at last, and noticed his humor in the patch copied from the Thai bases, which is painted on the nose of his Long-EZ: “105 Missions, North Vietnam, F-100.” You got it; he transposed the numbers from the F-105 patch.

  3. John Patson Says:

    What is to celebrate? Each ace “kill” is most likely just that, the killing of another human being. Snipers are not honoured so why expect pilots to be?

  4. Ron Goulet Says:

    I missed the history about Gen. Payne’s accomplishments in his efforts acquiring his goals as a ace? I feel it should have been told.Thank you for noting his life as we owe thanks to men that stood up for our future .And it should be noted that weak people such as our President do more harm than the public knows,

  5. Ziko Says:

    Just a bit more historical stuff re WW2, then I will join the more comprntoeary debate. This again from ‘1940 – MYTH AND REALITY’.’In the early 1930s, Baldwin (Stanley Baldwin, Prime Minister) had told the House of Commons that, ‘the bomber will always get through’…The development of radar as an early-warning system completely changed the picture. Its feasibility was demonstrated in 1935 and by 1939 a complete chain of radar warning stations had been built around Britain’s east and south coasts. Once these had been integrated with operational control rooms to plot the movements of bombers and fighters and linked to radio direction of fighter squadrons an excellent defence system had been created.The Luftwaffe had a total front-line strength of 4,500 aircraft compared with the RAF’s 2,900…the RAF had a fighter force of about 700 to face 800 German fighters and 1,000 bombers…Factors other than the balance of opposing forces, however, were crucial in determining the outcome of the Battle of Britain. During the summer of 1940 the key tasks facing Britain were to build and repair enough aircraft to keep the RAF in the air, find enough pilots to fly the aircraft and devise effective tactics to counter the Luftwaffe. The seeds of Britain’s ability to (temporarily) produce more fighter aircraft than the Germans lay in the cabinet’s decision in 1938 to increase fighter production, thus ensuring the creation of the necessary industrial capability. The immediate cause of success was to break up the Air Ministry in May 1940 and create a new Ministry of Aircraft Production under Lord Beaverbrook, outside the RAF’s control…During the summer of 1940, British fighter production was two and a half times the German level, which was deliberately cut back below the levels planned on the outbreak of war. As a result of Beaverbrook’s herculean efforts and those of the workers on the production lines, the RAF was never short of aircraft during the Battle of Britain and only for a short period did losses exceed expectations.Britain rose to the first challenge of supplying enough aircraft, but the second providing the pilots brought the RAF to the verge of disaster. The damage was essentially self-inflicted. Although almost 300 aircraft per week were being produced, the RAF could only turn out 200 pilots per week. This was because the training organisation was highly inefficient. In the year before the summer of 1940, it took 4,000 training aircraft to produce 2,500 pilots, whereas the Germans produced one pilot for every aircraft in their training organisation and their pilots were, equally if not more, skilled….There were still about 9,000 (RAF) pilots for 5,000 aircraft operational in the summer of 1940, yet throughout the crucial summer months of 1940, the RAF consistently complained of a chronic shortage of pilots, and toward the end of August, the pressure on the operational squadrons was so intense it was doubtful whether they could continue flying for much longer.The reason for this apparently anomalous situation was the way the RAF allocated its pilots: only 30 percent of the total strength was actually in front-line squadrons. 20 percent were engaged in the vital task of instruction and another 20 percent, though qualified, were still receiving further instruction. The rest were in staff positions. Even at the height of the Battle of Britain, 30 percent of the RAF’s qualified pilots were in office jobs…as many qualified pilots were sitting behind desks as were available to both Bomber and Fighter Commands together.Despite the gravity of the situation facing Britain and Churchill’s repeated pressure, the RAF refused to change their policy and only a token 30 pilots were removed from administrative jobs to join the front line. The near fatal shortage of pilots during the Battle of Britain was therefore a situation entirely of the RAF’s making.’

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