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The Worst Way to Die: To Fall, or to Burn?

94th aero squadron doug campbell eddie rickenbacker lafayette escadrille luckiest man alive raoul lufbery

America's Greatest Ace Shot Down

Which is worse: to die in flames, or by a fall from hundreds or thousands of feet? That was a topic of discussion for WWI pilots, and not a theoretical topic, either.

Whether to Fall

Luckiest Man Alive bookJohn Hedley (the "Luckiest Man Alive") knew something about the fear of falling, as he had been bucked out of his plane, then caught on it again as it came out of its dive. A few days later, a friend of his fell all the way to the ground - but landed in a marsh and only suffered a broken toe. So falling was not an automatic death sentence.

Or to Burn

Hedley said the greatest scare of his life was the day he thought he would go down in flames. He described what led up to his being taken prisoner in March of 100 years ago.

As we climbed I noticed a cold numbing sensation starting at my toes and gradually creeping up my legs toward my waist. I thought my legs had been shot through but afterwards discovered that both gasoline tanks had been riddled and it was the gasoline soaking up my flying shoes which had caused the ice cold numbing sensation.
Then our propeller began to sputter and stopped. I glanced around to see if an enemy plane was still around and to my horror saw a cloud of black smoke and flames leaping up from the plane ten or twelve feet into the air. I had witnessed many ships brought down in flames during my period in France and dreaded that more than anything else. I believe I got the greatest scare of my life. The thing which I had dreaded most had come to pass. The ship was on fire. The engine had stopped.

Raoul LufberyAs it turned out, the plane was only a couple hundred feet up and they were able to side slip, land and get away from the plane before it was completely engulfed. Perhaps he should have given up the title of "luckiest man alive", but the German officer who captured him said he was lucky to be taken prisoner, "as the soldiers would surely have killed him for dropping bombs on them."

Lufbery's Choice

On May 19th, 1918, Raoul Lufbery's official victories totaled seventeen, but the unofficial total may have been close to the number the Red Baron scored. Lufbery had been an ace and commander of the Lafayette Escadrille, and was now the squadron commander of the 94th Aero Squadron. This former mechanic had insisted on high standards for maintaining the equipment that pilots' lives depended on, and had come up with the idea of landing patterns to stop the on-ground head-on collisions in aircraft that relied on friction to stop after landing. A world traveler with Connecticut connections, Lufbery was generally friendly but his fellow aviators said no one really knew him. Lufbery had counseled pilots that it was better to stay with a burning plane; it might be possible to put out the flames, or to sideslip, as Hedley's plane had, blowing the flames away from oneself. Yet on this date one hundred years ago, American Ace of Aces Raoul Lufbery fell (possibly jumped, possibly was tossed) from his burning aircraft and was killed.

Eddie Rickenbacker, who revered Lufbery, included the story of his death in Fighting the Flying Circus to correct "numerous false stories" that spread immediately afterward.

As Seen From the Ground

A Lieutenant Gude was sent up alone on his first combat flight to attack a German photography airplane reported headed their way. Everyone watched as Gude spent his ammunition too early and had to turn back. Lufbery headed to the hangars, where his own Nieuport was unflyable, but he took another one and went up. Rickenbacker suggested that since all of Lufbery's victories had been over German lines, he was eager to score a victory that would fall on the French side.

Those on the ground could still see him as he closed with the Albatros about six miles away and attacked. Then his gun appeared to jam (Lufbery had been very careful about gun maintenance for his own aircraft) and he swerved away. He cleared the jam, attacked again, but suddenly his plane burst into flames. 

He passed the Albatros and proceeded for three or four seconds on a straight course. Then to the horrified watchers below there appeared the figure of their gallant hero emerging in a headlong leap from the midst of the fiery furnace! Lufbery had preferred to leap to certain death rather than endure the slow torture of burning to a crisp. His body fell in the garden of a peasant woman's house in a little town just north of Nancy. A small stream ran by at about a hundred yards distant and it was thought later that poor Lufbery seeing this small chance for life had jumped with the intention of striking this water. He had leaped from a height of 200 feet and his machine was carrying him at a speed of 120 miles per hour! A hopeless but a heroic attempt to preserve his priceless life for his needy country!

Hero's Burial

It appeared the aircraft had been hit by a bullet in the gas tank, which also cut off Lufbery's right thumb as he held the joystick. Rickenbacker later had bitter comments about the Allied policy of not supplying aviators with parachutes, which might have saved America's best ace.

Appropriately for this American born in France, who had flown for the French in the American squadron before training, teaching, and commanding American pilots, it was a French ace and Doug Campbell (who would shortly become the first "all-American ace") who immediately went up to avenge Lufbery. The French ace was shot down in the same area as Lufbery, but the aircraft that did it was itself shortly shot down by another Frenchman. Campbell, meanwhile, scored a victory. "Stoically receiving our congratulations, Douglas assured us that this Rumpler was but one of many that the Huns would give us in the attempt to pay for the loss of Raoul Lufbery."

Lufbery was buried the next day in the "Airman's Cemetery," where those interred "were now to be joined by one whom all France and America considered preeminent in aviation." It was not quite one month after the Red Baron's death and ceremonious burial by his enemies, that America's Ace of Aces was laid to rest among a "huge pyramid" of flowers, with "hundreds of officers from all branches of the service" in attendance. 

Rickenbacker led a formation in flight twice across the grave, "then glided with closed engine down to fifty feet above the open grave. As his body was being slowly lowered I dropped my flowers, every pilot behind me following in my wake one by one."

Lufbery Remembrances

Lafayette Escadrille lion cubs Whiskey and SodaRaoul Lufbery news and websites: National Aviation Hall of Fame, four-minute video biography (including explanation of Lufbery Circle), Connecticut's recognition of the "hometown ace", Wallingford CT's recognition(grandnephew Raoul Lufbery III in the picture), La Montagne recognition of Lufbery (in French, but Americans should at least appreciate picture of lion cub as big as Lufbery), "Une Plaque Pour Raoul Lufbery", "Raoul Lufbery, the Tamer Red Baron" (good article, except how does a lion-wrestler get described as "tame"?), proposed Lufbery postage stamp article notes that "Lufbery III bears a striking resemblance to his great uncle" which we also have observed, and "Raoul Lufbery, un Americain dans le Grande Guerre", has another Lufbery-and-lion picture.


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