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7 Outstanding Qualities of World War 1 Pilots

pilot attributes

As World War 1 began, nobody had any personality type research to say where to find great fighter pilots.  In fact, at the beginning of the war, there wasn't even an obvious need for fighter pilots; that developed over the course of the war as planners realized the value of having control of airspace. But over four years, this previously nonexistent career field became the most enduring image of the Great War.

Vintage Aero Flying Museum director Andy Parks recognized certain special qualities in WWI pilots even as old men when he met them in the 1970s and 1980s: 

  1. Loved flying - well, obviously. But it's not actually so obvious. These men came of age along with flying. At the time people were asking them as small boys what they wanted to grow up to be, piloting was something you did with a ship, on the sea. This was the generation of aces and barnstormers who inspired the next generation of pilots, yet they themselves as young boys had the Wright Brothers, not the Red Baron, as their only inspiration. They learned the love of flying by doing it, and in the process created the daring hero pilot image.
  2. Forward thinkers and risk takers - if they were alive today they would be the people thinking about the potential of spaceflight, as in how can we use Mars? Many of them before getting into aviation wrote back and forth with their fathers about the possibilities of aviation, thinking about how after the war aviation experience could be useful in a career.
  3. Entrepreneurial spirit - what many WWI pilots, like German ace Ernst Udet, did with their aviation experience and (in many cases) celebrity status, was to start companies after the war. For many of them, businesses related to aviation allowed them to go on flying. Udet made a business of barnstorming with Fokker D.VIIs and DVIIIs, which both earned him money for other ventures and allowed him to travel. American top ace Eddie Rickenbacker developed Eastern Air Lines and was a pioneer of air mail and air transport systems.
  4. Kept returning to flying - in some cases to the detriment of business details such as whether the company was profitable. Rickenbacker did well at business, Udet not so much.
  5. Very patriotic - the desire to reenlist or otherwise help out later on in WWII was fairly universal. Being more the age of the generals than the privates at that point, many helped with training or volunteering their company's services instead of actually reentering the military.
  6. Feisty, independent, self-assured - they just didn't care what other people thought of them. This characteristic struck Andy Parks even when they were old men. Of course, at that point they'd had time to look back on WWI and realize what an influence they'd had on the war, on the development of air power, and on history. That knowledge would have been a boost to their already strong self-confidence.
  7. Highly promotable - if they stayed in the military and IF they had the self-discipline to keep their mouths shut. "Balloon Buster" Frank Luke, for instance, did what he thought was right whether anyone agreed or not, which made him both a top ace and quite unpopular with his superior officers.

These characteristics have been important for a hundred years. Andy Parks sees these characteristics even in the pilots of today, though somewhat hidden by a hundred years of regulations and restrictions on pilots. Yet even today in air combat the fighter pilot has a freedom to do his own thing. On the ground he is just a part of a team, but in combat nobody is there to tell him what to do. In the air everything happens so fast that military formality is impossible; one has to react at an intuitive level. Even in the squadron led by "Red Baron" Manfred von Richthofen, who was in many ways a typical Prussian officer, the teamwork was between pilot and pilot, not commander and subordinate. 

For more on how the military learned about the qualities needed in a pilot, War Bird Ace is a book that asks and answers the interesting question of how a high-school dropout and movie projectionist became one of America's top aces.



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