Articles

This is why it's actually illegal to shoot at pilots who've bailed out

Okay, you're relieving some stress by playing some video games and you just downed an enemy plane.


The pilot bails out.

You've got him in your sights — one less bad guy to deal with later, right?

Wrong.

According to the law of war, it is a crime to gun down a pilot who's bailed out of his plane. While the video game world might give some allowances on this, in the real world it's a major no-no.

Field Manual 27-10, "The Law Of Land Warfare,"  says that a pilot who has bailed out of his plane is a non-combatant. That's different from a paratrooper who's notionally armed on his way down and is technically engaged in combat while under canopy.

Don't do it Fritz! (Photo from Wikimedia Commons).

Here is the exact quote: "The law of war does not prohibit firing upon paratroops or other persons who are or appear to be bound upon hostile missions while such persons are descending by parachute. Persons other than those mentioned in the preceding sentence who are descending by parachute from disabled aircraft may not be fired upon."

This was formalized in 1977, in Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions.

But even before all that legalese was codified in the Geneva Conventions, some militaries had already adopted a similar code of conduct. During World War II, the Nazis — whose crimes against humanity were legion — generally forbade its pilots from shooting downed enemy airmen.

One German commander, famously told his pilots, "You are fighter pilots first, last, always. If I ever hear of any of you shooting at someone in a parachute, I'll shoot you myself." Even Hermann Goering found potential orders from Hitler to carry out such acts as distasteful, approving of Adolf Galland's characterization of such an act as "murder."

On the American side, General Dwight D. Eisenhower issued orders that shooting at enemy aircrew who had bailed out as forbidden.

These guys are fair game. (Photo by Elena Baladelli/US Army)

Pilots on the Japanese side had no such hesitation, partially stemming from a code that viewed surrender as dishonorable. Many Allied airmen in the Pacific found that bailing out from a crippled plane was sometimes like going from the frying pan into the fire.

One airman, though, was able to shoot a Japanese pilot trying to machine gun him with his M1911!

In short, if you're even playing a video game and you're tempted to shoot at the folks who bailed out, don't do it.

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