May 19: America’s World War I Flying Ace Killed In Action

 

Today in 1918, one of America’s greatest and most colorful World War I flying aces was killed in action after being shot down over France by a German triplane.  Raoul Lufbery, a proud Franco-American who had lived in Connecticut before joining the Allied war effort, was only 33 years old at the time.

Born in France in 1885 to a French mother and American father, Lufbery led an adventurous, itinerant life befitting the romantic stereotype of a early 20th century flying ace.  At the age of 21, after working in a French factory for years and traveling around Europe, Raoul and his brother traveled to Connecticut to rendezvous with relatives on their father’s side of the family.  Raoul settled in the town of Wallingford, where he worked in a silver-plating factory.  Even though Lufbery’s stay in Connecticut lasted only two years — although that was a relatively long time for him to stay in one place — the town of Wallingford remembers him a favorite son, naming a street, a park, and a local Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter after the daring pilot.

After leaving Connecticut, Lufbery traveled westward and joined the U.S. Army in San Francisco, where he became a naturalized American citizen and served in the Pacific theater.  After his enlistment expired, Lufbery traveled throughout Asia, and in 1912 befriended the French aerial exhibitionist Marc Pourpe during a visit to India.  Pourpe trained Lufbery to serve as his mechanic, and the two traveled around the world for two years until the outbreak of the Great War in Europe drove Pourpe, with Lufbery in tow, to join the French Air Service in 1914.

The Lafayette Escadrille, July 1917. Raoul Lufbery is the fourth seated figure from the right; one of the squadron’s mascots, a lion named Whiskey, is in his lap.

After Pourpe died in a plane crash in December 1914, Lufbery enlisted in flight training school, avowedly to avenge the death of his best friend.  He excelled in combat-related flight scenarios, and in 1916 joined the famous Lafayette Escadrille, a French air squadron composed of American volunteer fighter pilots.  There, Lufbery quickly gained a reputation as a daring fighter, racking up enough aerial “kills” to officially qualify as an “ace” in the span of a few months.

In 1917, after the United States had officially entered World War I, Lufbery joined the U.S. Army Air Service, where he was quickly promoted to Major.  There, he trained the latest generation of American fighter pilots, including Eddie Rickenbacker, who would become America’s most successful World War I ace with 26 confirmed victories and later wrote, “Everything I learned, I learned from Lufbery.”

Raoul Lufbery standing next to the popular Nieuport 28 fighter plane as a member of the U.S. Army Air Service.

On May 19, 1918, after enemy German planes were spotted over the American positions on the front near Maron, France, Lufbery climbed into the nearest available plane to pursue them.  During the course of their aerial dogfight, Lufbery’s plane caught fire, and he leaped from the burning fuselage in a failed attempt to land in a nearby body of water: a legendary life meeting a dramatic end.  Lufbery was buried with full honors in France, and two weeks later during Memorial Day services in Connecticut, was fondly remembered in his onetime hometown of Wallingford.

Further Reading

David Drury, “World War I Flying Ace Raoul Lufbery,” connecticuthistory.org

The Lafayette Escadrille: Raoul Lufbery,” New England Air Museum online exhibit