The airmen of the United States have always been at the fore of airpower. But that didn’t start with the world wars or even the test pilots of the Cold War. The U.S. is the original home of powered flight, of naval aviation, and of aircraft innovation. It all dates back to the turn of the 20th Century – before the world wars. And it was two Americans who went head to head in the air.
If the Civil War taught us anything, it’s that no one kills Americans like Americans kill Americans.
But these Americans weren’t fighting for America. In fact, the United States had seen relative peace since the Spanish-American and the Philippine-American Wars at the turn of the 20th Century. But there was (and always will be) a fight somewhere for anyone who’s looking for it. In the Mexican Revolution, two American aviators were looking for such a fight, using airpower to level the playing field. These airmen of fortune – mercenaries – were hired by either side of the war who wanted the upper hand but knew nothing about flying.
On one side was Dean Ivan Lamb, who was hired by General Benjamin G. Hill, fighting for the Carranzista faction of the war in Mexico. Hill gave Lamb a Curtiss D biplane and took him on as an aerial reconnaissance pilot. Lamb soon learned that his good friend and fellow aviator Phil Rader was hired by the opposing force under General Victoriano Huerta.
This is what the two pilots were flying in 1913.
While any airman today might be mortified that his good friend was flying for the opposing air force, you should know that in the early days of aviation, airplanes going up against each other was not something that happened. Airplanes were fragile and valuable, so they were used for recon mostly and maybe to drop the occasional bomb or grenade on the opposing side. The two friends weren’t worried. Until Hill ordered Lamb to use his pistol on the opposing pilot. Since there was only one other plane in the area, the Pusher Lamb came upon on Nov. 30, 1913, could only have been that of his good friend. He took out his pistol and prepared to fulfill the letter of his orders.
But not the spirit. This was still his friend and fellow American at the stick of the plane. He made the first interception of one aircraft to another, almost locking wings with Rader. Rader veered off and shook his fist, then pulled his own pistol and fired at his friend. Lamb was shocked… until he realized Rader had fired below him, not at him. Lamb decided to do the same, firing his pistol but purposely aiming wide.
Dean Ivan Lamb in the service of the U.S. Air Force in the 1950s.
The world’s first dogfight turned into a show of force between two friends – literally. As they fired, the opposing airman turned his plane away from the other in reaction, looking like the round may have hit home, but neither did. The two flew in a circle and reloaded their weapons. So long as they used all their ammunition, no one on the ground would know any better. How could they, when the only two qualified pilots were the men making the combat airshow? When the ammo was done, they waved to one another and went home.
Back on earth, they received a hero’s welcome. The men below watched the aerial “duel” with great interest. Eventually, Lamb left the Mexican service when he stopped getting paid. Rader left when his plane was damaged beyond repair from normal use. Lamb would go on to fight in both world wars, shooting down as many as eight German fighters in WWI.