An ace pilot is a fighter pilot with at least 5 confirmed aerial victories.

The term ace dates back to the First World War, when it was first popularized.

The number of victories needed to be an ace was initially 10. But it was reduced to 5 once the United States entered the war. It’s mostly remained five since due to American influence.

All the wars of the twentieth century, the First and Second World Wars the Korean War, and the Vietnam War all produced many ace pilots.

The American Aces Association recognizes 1,442 U.S. pilots as ace pilots as of 2022. 

How Who Qualifies as an Ace Pilot Has Changed

The ace label was first popularized during WWI when French newspapers titled Adolphe Pegoud as “l’as” for downing multiple German planes.

The term ace wasn’t officially recognized by any of the combatants of WW1. 

But it was popularly used to refer to fighter pilots with ten confirmed aerial victories.

When the United States entered the war, the Americans christened pilots with five confirmed aerial victories as ‘aces.’

The standard has been globally used since. 

But confusingly, the United States itself changed the requirements for ‘ace status’ from one war to another.

During WW2 and the Korean War, combatants received fractions of credit for taking down enemy aircraft. 

For example, if an F-4 crew in the Vietnam War shot down an enemy plane, both the pilot and the weapon’s system officer received a fraction of the credit. 

Number of Ace Pilots in the World

These are the number of U.S. aces each major war produced: 

  • World War I: 119 
  • World War II: 1,285 
  • Korean War: 43 
  • Vietnam War: 22 

As of 2022, the American Fighter Aces Association has recognized 1,442 fighter pilots as aces. 

Many aces were also produced by other countries between World War One and the present day.

For example, there were 28 Soviet aces in the second Sino-Japanese war.

The Arab-Israeli wars, Iran-Iraq war, and Indo-Pakistani wars have also produced numerous aces.

But the loss of records, mishandling of information, and disinterest from other militaries of the world make it difficult to compile the exact number of non-US aces. 

The First, Most Recent, and Last Ace Pilot

French aviator Adolphe Celestin Pegoud became the world’s first ace during WWI. 

An unidentified Ukrainian pilot shot down five Shaheed-136s and two cruise missiles in October 2022, making him the most recent ace as of late 2022.

Steve Ritchie is recognized as the last U.S. ace pilot. He shot down five MiG-21s during the Vietnam War. 

Number of Female Ace Pilots

There are two female ace pilots, Lydia Litvyak and Yekaterina Budanova.

Both were from the Soviet Union. 

The 5 Most Famous Ace Pilots

There are the most famous ace pilots:

1. Manfred von Richthofen – World War I

Known as the ‘Red Baron,’ Manfred Von Richthofen was a German pilot during World War I who scored the most aerial victories of any pilot during the war.

2. Erich Hartmann – World War II

Erich Hartman was a German pilot who amassed an absurdly high 352 kills during WWII. 

3. James Jabara – Korean War

James Jabara was a U.S. fighter pilot who fought in WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.

He scored 16.5 aerial victories over his career. 

4. Muhammad Mahmood Alam – Indo-Pakistani War

Muhammad Mahmood Alam was a Pakistani air force pilot.

He participated in the 1965 Indo-Pakistani war and achieved 5 aerial victories against Indian fighter jets. 

5. Charles B. DeBellevue – Vietnam Wa

Charles B. DeBellevue was an American fighter pilot during the Vietnam War.

He shot down six enemy aircraft and was the first Air Force Weapons Systems Officer (WSO) to earn this status. 

How Many Aviators Have Become Aces in a Day?

The U.S. currently recognizes 68 pilots who became aces in a day.

Of these, 43 were part of the Air Force, 18 belonged to the Navy, and the remaining 7 were Marine Corps pilots. 

There Are Non-Pilot Aces Too

The gunners on bombers and reconnaissance aircraft have earned ace status before.

They are the only non-pilots to receive the ace status.

They’re awarded this status despite not being pilots, since they directly contribute to taking down an enemy aircraft.

Observer aces even form a sizable minority of aces.

In conclusion:

  • Ace status is typically given to fighter pilots who’ve taken down at least five enemy aircraft.
  • The term goes all the way back to the First World War.
  • The number of kills needed to qualify as an ace has changed over time.
  • Initially, ten confirmed kills were required. But the United States, during the First World War, set the requirement to 5, and most use this convention.
  • The American Aces Association reports that there have been 1,442 ace fighter pilots since World War One.
  • Not all aces are necessarily fighter pilots.
  • A large minority of aces were gunners on planes instead of fighter pilots. They were also awarded ace status because they directly took down enemy aircraft.

Helen Krasner holds a PPL(A), with 15 years experience flying fixed-wing aircraft; a PPL(H), with 13 years experience flying helicopters; and a CPL(H), Helicopter Instructor Rating, with 12 years working as a helicopter instructor.

Helen is an accomplished aviation writer with 12 years of experience, having authored several books and published numerous articles while also serving as the Editor of the BWPA (British Women Pilots Association) newsletter, with her excellent work having been recognized with her nomination of the “Aviation Journalist of the Year” award.

Helen has won the “Dawn to Dusk” International Flying Competition, along with the best all-female competitors, three times with her copilot.