The Fighter Pilot’s Survival Guide

Today’s manual of fighter tactics was written 100 years ago, in World War I.

The strategies of Eddie Rickenbacker’s era live on today with pilots flying F-22 Raptors in the 94th Fighter Squadron. (USAF/Tech Sgt Rey Ramon)
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On October 28, 1916, German pilot Oswald Boelcke, in flight with five squadron mates, including Manfred von Richthofen, closed on a group of British de Havilland DH 2 fighters. Boelcke and Erwin Bohme chased the tail of the same aircraft, piloted by Alfred McKay of the Royal Flying Corps. Boelcke tried to break away, but Bohme’s landing gear tore a strip of fabric from the top wing of Boelcke’s Albatross D.II. The wing failed, the airplane dropped from the sky, and within minutes, Germany’s leading ace—with 40 victories—was dead at the age of 25.

Popular accounts of the crash tell of Boelcke’s skill in bringing his airplane down in a survivable controlled crash, but his failure to secure his lap belt before takeoff likely sealed his doom. Respected on both sides of the trenches, Boelcke was not only mourned in Germany as a national hero but also honored by the RFC, which dispatched an aircraft to drop a wreath over his home airfield. The great irony was that Boelcke, a leading aerial tactician who had written an elegant list of commandments followed to this day, died breaking one of his own rules: Two aircraft should not attack the same opponent.

Most mid-grade officers of any service know the book On War by Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian officer who fought against Napoleon in the 1815 Waterloo Campaign. Clausewitz is still studied as part of the centuries-old lessons of ground conflict. Similarly, any Army or Marine Corps private knows the 14th century French terms enfilade (to put on a string) and defilade (to slip off), made historic by Napoleon but first used by the English during their Hundred Years War against the French, to describe the angles from which an attacking army fires on a foe. Oswald Boelcke is in this company. By the early 20th century, Boelcke had written the canon—Dicta Boelcke—for a new type of warfare. Its precepts would guide every subsequent generation of fighter pilots.

“I’ve always believed that by the end of World War I, any modern airman would recognize what’s going on,” says Richard Muller, who teaches air power history at the U.S. Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies at Alabama’s Maxwell Air Force Base. “The focus on roles and missions, tactics, situational awareness… Obviously [today is] very different from World War I, but too many times, we focus on what’s changed.”

Eddie Rickenbacker in a Spad XIII. (NASM (SI a-4312-a))
So esteemed was Oswald Boelcke that Germany organized its air force around his tactics. (NASM (SI 00152636))
During the Vietnam War, Air Force Colonel Robin Olds, an F-4 Phantom pilot, became famous for Operation Bolo, which used clever tactics to down seven MiG-21s. (National Museum of the USAF)
German Albatros D.III fighters stand ready for the fight in 1917. (National Museum of the USAF)
Shortly after the Korean War, F-86 pilot Frederick “Boots” Blesse wrote No Guts, No Glory to remind fighter pilots that teamwork ensures success. (Ivan Voukadinov )
Three F-5N Tiger IIs from Marine Fighter Training Squadron 401 in Yuma, Arizona, join up to fight as a team.
A canvas water bag from Rickenbacker’s 94th. (Courtesy
Formation flying, one of Boelke’s inventions, was perfected in the next world war. P-51 Mustangs from Iwo Jima (background) escort a B-29 bomber over Japan in July 1945. (NARA)
Robin Olds’ aggressive style fit the nickname of his unit, the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base. (National Museum of the USAF)

In the current era of sophisticated surface-to-air threats, some of Boelcke’s rules, such as always continue the attack you have begun, may not universally apply, but aerial combat is still about fundamentals, says Navy Commander Brian Ferguson, who trains fighter pilots of all services as an F-5 adversary pilot. “Ultimately, many of Boelcke’s dictums from the dawn of aviation are still valid today, despite a quantum leap in technology,” Ferguson says. “A simple metaphor would be football: All the fancy plays, shiny gear, and team logos are useless without a firm grasp of the basics of blocking and tackling.

“The caveat about multiple aircraft attacking the same defender is extremely important,” Ferguson says. “Aside from the irony of Boelcke’s demise for that reason, this is not an altogether uncommon occurrence in training. There are several close calls per year in military ranges resulting from this very thing.”

In the earliest days of World War I, spotters, or long-range reconnaissance aircraft, penetrated far behind enemy lines to observe troop concentrations, supply routes, and arms depots. The pilots would then report the information so troops in the interminable trench warfare could reposition themselves. The most noteworthy of these aircraft were German Fokkers, French Moranes and Nieuports, and British Bristols.

At first, observers from each side would shake fists as they flew by each other; later they fired rifles—cumbersome in the slipstream and eventually replaced by revolvers. Various attempts were made to fix machine guns to aircraft, sometimes mounted in the observer’s cockpit if the airplane was a two-seater.

It wasn’t until Anthony Fokker’s 1916 interrupter gear enabled a gun to be fired safely through the propeller’s arc that air-to-air combat was invented. The first Fokker E.1s and later versions became the legendary “Fokker scourge” in the hands of the best German pilots: Boelcke; Ernst Udet, later a World War II Luftwaffe general; and Max Immelmann, namesake of a maneuver still taught today.

Attack in Groups of Four or Six
Boelcke and others developed formation tactics and trained their fellow pilots as a cohesive unit. The German air force was largely reorganized around Boelcke’s ideas, including dedicated squadrons and coordinated attacks from above, a tactic the French had pioneered at the Battle of Verdun in 1916. There, the French were finally able to put more aircraft aloft than the Germans, and by using such tactics as power diving or coming out from the sun, they aggressively hunted German fighters. Boelcke, impressed by the French, began to amass greater numbers of aircraft into fighter wings.“It’s really in response to that that Boelcke started his mass fighter tactics,” says Muller. “Without radios, this was very difficult to do, but by [Verdun], the trend was larger numbers of aircraft under central control. Height could impart an advantage: Beware the ‘Hun in the sun.’ ”

The “finger four” formation (so called because the aircraft positions resemble the fingertips of a hand) has its roots a little later, in the Spanish Civil War, in which the Luftwaffe flew in support of Generalísimo Francisco Franco’s nationalist forces. Germany’s leading ace in that war and the first pilot to score 100 aerial victories, Werner Mölders, is credited with developing the formation that is still used today.

Tom Crouch, senior aeronautics curator at the National Air and Space Museum, mentions a conversation between Mölders and the high-scoring Adolf Galland, who looked like Hollywood’s idea of a dashing fighter pilot, complete with mustache. “If you want to be the modern Richthofen,” Mölders told him, “I prefer to be the modern Boelcke.”

About John Sotham
John Sotham

A former associate editor of Air & Space, John Sotham is a hopelessly nearsighted frequent flyer, with thousands of hours logged in exit rows worldwide. He is a retired U.S. Air Force Reserve colonel and a former crew chief on the F-4D Phantom II and A-10A “Warthog.” He started collecting aviation books when he was eight years old. Any opinions expressed are solely the author’s.

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