A critical failure but a popular success, the movie “Top Gun” illustrates what seems to be an undeniable truth, fighter pilots are a separate breed. They are exceedingly driven risk-takers, with athletic prowess and quick intelligence. Often, they are Tom Cruise cocky. (If you’re a fan, these are Tom Cruise’s biggest and best movies.)
And they win wars. 24/7 Tempo reviewed various historical sources to determine who were the greatest fighter pilots of all, considering only the top ace for each country in each war. Our ranking is based on the number of “kills” or “victories” – the recorded number of aircraft shot down, and an ace is a pilot who achieves at least five kills in one day.
Because these numbers were sometimes exaggerated by either the pilots or their hero-worshippers, or otherwise were undocumented, we relied exclusively on official estimates from government sources.
Of the 25 fighter pilots in this ranking, each had a distinctive style of attack – and often a distinctive look. Manfred von Richthofen, the legendary “Red Baron,” for instance, had the planes in his fighter wing painted in bright colors, making his team famous as “the Flying Circus.”
Some of the aces here returned to the sky undaunted after being shot down, and others managed to avoid getting hit at all in their hundreds of missions. Six of them died in the war, including the Red Baron. Most of the surviving aces could not stay out of the sky after their wars ended. Seven continued their military careers and four flew planes for a living – more, including those that continued to fly after retiring from the military. Tragically, seven out of the 25 died in plane crashes after their war service. (These are 50 of the most decorated war heroes in American history.)
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