When Erich “Bubi” Hartmann died in 1993, he was still the most successful fighter pilot in the history of aerial warfare. With an astonishing 352 kills, his record is all but assured until World War III comes around. He’s not the only former Nazi Luftwaffe pilot whose name is at the top of the list. In fact, the top ten pilots on that list all have German names, including Gerhard Barkhorn (301 kills), Günther Rall (275), and Otto Kittel (267).
How did one of the most notably absent air forces in history rack up such impressive kill counts?
Hint: They had to be good because their bosses were so bad at their jobs.
The reason German pilots scored so high is a combination of skill and time in the air. There’s probably also a dash of luck in there, if they managed to survive the war. Since the Luftwaffe saw its best successes at the beginning of the war, taking on obsolete and unprepared air forces in enemy countries, Nazi pilots were fighting for years before American pilots. When the war came home, the number of German pilots dwindled, and enemy targets over Germany rose.
A skilled pilot could rack up quite a kill count in that time, especially if they had to fight until the whole war was over, or they were killed or captured.
And they did.
In contrast, American pilots would be sent home, or rotated out after a certain amount of time spent in the air. At the height of World War II, allied fighter pilots were required to spend at least 200 hours behind the stick of a fighter aircraft before being eligible to be rotated home. American pilots dutifully fought the required amount of time and went home for some RR.
Even Richard Bong, the Army Air Forces’ highest-scoring ace – the “Ace of Aces” – scored 40 kills in the Pacific Theater from September 1942 until December 1944. His stay was extended because he was also training pilots in the Philippines. He ended up spending much longer in the area, leading missions and training pilots. Even though he wasn’t allowed to seek combat opportunities, Bong still racked up an astonishing 40 kills against the Japanese.
It seems being one the top aces of any war is just a matter of time… and not getting shot down.