May 19: Wallingford’s World War I Flying Ace Killed In the Skies Over France

 

Today in 1918, one of America’s greatest and most colorful World War I flying aces was killed in France. Raoul Lufbery, a proud Franco-American and former Wallingford resident, died after his plane was fired on by a German triplane during an aerial dogfight.

Born in France in 1885 to a French mother and American father, Lufbery led an adventurous, itinerant life-on-the-move befitting the romantic stereotype of an early aviation ace. After traveling around Europe, the 21-year-old Raoul came to Connecticut, along with his brother, to rendezvous with relatives on their side of the family. Raoul settled in Wallingford, worked in a silver plating factory, and stayed in Connecticut for two years, perhaps his longest adult residence in one location. Because of his (for him) long Connecticut connection and subsequent record in World War I, Wallingford remembers him as 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 west and joined the U.S. Army in San Francisco. While in the service, he became a naturalized American citizen and did a tour of duty in the Pacific. Returning to civilian life, Lufbery embarked on a personal journey through Asia. While in India in 1912, he befriended the French aerial exhibitionist Marc Pourpe. It was a relationship that shaped, and ultimately ended, Lufbery’s life.

Pourpe trained Lufbery to serve as his airplane mechanic, and the two traveled the world for two years. The outbreak of the Great War in Europe, however, compelled 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 school, vowing to avenge the death of his best friend. He excelled in combat training, and in 1916 joined the famous Lafayette Escadrille, a French air squadron composed of American volunteer fighter pilots. There, Lufbery immediately gained a reputation as a daring and capable fighter, racking up enough aerial “kills” to qualify as an “ace” in only a few months.

After the United States officially entered the war in 1917, Lufbery joined the U.S. Army Air Service, where he was soon promoted to the rank of Major. There, he trained the first generation of American fighter pilots, including Eddie Rickenbacker, the man who became America’s most successful World War I ace with 26 confirmed victories. (When asked after the war to describe how he acquired his combat skill, Rickenbacker 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.

Lufbery’s legendary life as an aviation combat hero met a dramatic, if predictable, end. On May 19, 1918, after German planes were spotted over the American positions on the front near Maron, France, the flying ace climbed into the nearest available plane to pursue them. During their aerial dogfight, Lufbery’s plane caught fire, and he leaped from the burning fuselage in a desperate but failed attempt to land in a nearby body of water. Lufbery was buried with full honors in France, and two weeks later during Memorial Day services in Connecticut, was proudly remembered as a native son 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