Knights of the Sky
John Sadler and Rosie Serdiville
Casemate, Havertown, Pennsylvania, 2017, 160 pages
Book Review published on: April 5, 2019
What is it that drives people to want to work in a dimension that is outside of their natural order? John Sadler and Rosie Serdiville take on this question as they trace the evolution of aviation as an instrument of war from a relatively new domain: the sky. Their research begins in the mid-1800s and takes the reader to the early 2000s. In their book Fighter Aces, Sadler and Serdiville look into why airplanes were initially used in warfare, the fighter pilots who operated the airplanes, and how the pilots’ experiences and preferences evolved the airplane to make it more efficient, which eventually changed the aviation profession.
What is gained by adding another dimension to the battlefield? The mission profile for aircraft initially was one of aerial reconnaissance and observation. The first recorded instance of aerial combat occurred circa 1913. In 1914, nations gained the ability to swoop down like birds of prey to dispense death from the skies by shooting enemy trenches and lumbering convoys. Pilots became the knights of the war, without fear and without reproach. The aircraft of the late 1800s were slow, flimsy, unreliable at best, and not suited as gun platforms. Through experimentation and determination, the operators of these machines worked with manufacturers to make improvements such as mounting armaments. Initially pilots used pistols, rifles, and grenades to attack ground targets and other aircraft, which proved to be less than favorable. As early aviation pioneers experimented with ground weapons mounted to the airframe, fixes had to be developed to prevent shooting off their own propellers. The timing of the firing of guns had to be synchronized to fire between the rotating blades of the aircraft. As gun and plane efficiency improved so did the ruggedness of the airframes. The Germans developed a monohull frame where the aircraft’s outer skin had hard points to support the stress of attaching other equipment to it.
When it comes to warfare, the traditionalist ventures to think of infantrymen, artillerymen, armor, or cavalrymen. The fighter ace distinguishes himself by the same air of devil-may-care recklessness as the cavalryman. He needed to be as skillful a pilot as the horseman was a rider. The authors state that “the ace has to look after his machine as he would a warhorse. If the mechanics fail, he dies.” One such notorious ace was the German pilot Manfried von Richthofen, the Red Baron. He was a world-renowned World War I pilot who shot down eighty aircraft. The all-time highest scoring ace was also German, Erich Hartmann. He flew over 1,400 sorties, fought in 825 air-to-air fights, and shot down over 352 enemy aircraft during World War II. So what qualifies one as an ace? Sadler and Serdiville state that, generally, a flyer who shoots down five enemy aircraft while in the air acquired the title of ace. This qualifier has evolved over time and was not constant among all nations. The stories in Fighter Aces cover 1911 through 1982 and span the globe. They paint pictures of ace pilots and their unique abilities to influence warfare through aerial bombardments.
As flying evolved from cloth winged biplanes with little to no armament to supersonic jets with large caliber guns and missiles, pilots became more effective and proficient in their skills. This, in turn, increased the proliferation of aerial bombardment. Fighter Aces provides a brief history of airplane usage from pre-World War I through the Iran–Iraq War. The book includes one story of three all-female Soviet aviation regiments, who the Germans loathed and feared. The most famous of these was the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, known as the “Night Witches.” The German high command automatically awarded an Iron Cross to any German pilot who downed a “witch.” This, along with other stories of aces from around the world, makes this book a good read for anyone seeking to gain insight into the fighter aces through the ages.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Calvin J. Owens, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Gordon, Georgia