New Delhi: For a fighter pilot, an aerial dogfight is the ultimate test of his flying skill to outwit and shoot down an enemy aircraft. That skill may soon be lost due to the evolution of advanced weapon systems, says Air Marshal Anil Chopra (retd), who has authored a path-breaking book on 25 Air Aces from around the world who have left an indelible mark on the history of air warfare.
"Special fighter aircraft were developed and employed to achieve aerial superiority. While the opposing fighters almost matched in performance, it was the skill of the men in the fighter cockpits that made the difference in the outcome of aerial engagements. Aerial combat involved attacking the adversary by achieving surprise and skilfully manoeuvring the aircraft to its limits to achieve a 'kill'. Only exceptionally skilled pilots could win the battle in the skies," Chopra told IANS in an interview of his book, "Greatest Air Aces Of All Time" (Pentagon Press).
"A few dare-devil aces among combat aviators have historically accounted for the majority of air-to-air victories in military history. These pilots had great situational awareness, aggressive spirit and aerial shooting skills. Fighter aviation is agog with heroic deeds of pilots who exploited the extreme envelopes of their machines in order to impinge severe blow on their adversaries, occasionally falling during the call of their duty," he added.
Sadly, combat engagements would reduce in the present era of Beyond Visual Range (BVR) weapons. "Also the future is unmanned, and therefore era of Air Aces may gradually fade away," Chopra said.
The term Air Ace emerged in 1915 during World War I, at the same time as aerial dog fighting - a term intended to provide the home population with a cult of the hero in what was otherwise a war of attrition.
"The combat duels of Aces were widely reported and an image created of a chivalrous knight reminiscent of the bygone era. For a brief early period in the initial years, the exceptionally skilled pilot could shape the battle in the skies. Over the years, many books have been written on the lives and exploits of Air Aces. There are authorized biographies written with the permission, cooperation, and at times, participation of a subject or a subject's heirs. There are autobiographies written by the person himself or herself, sometimes with the assistance of a collaborator or ghostwriter. Being a fighter pilot, the stories of great air aces always enamoured me," Chopra explained of the research that went into the book, which features Aces from 12 nations -- nine from Germany, four from the US, two each from the UK and the Soviet Union, and one each from India, Vietnam, Japan, Israel, Iran, Finland, France and Canada..
Lieutenant Indra Lal Roy was the only Indian Air Ace who flew as a pilot in the British Royal Flying Corps in WW I. He achieved 10 air victories in just 3 months and was shot and killed at a young age of 21. Manfred von Richthofen, the "Red Baron", is generally considered one of the top air aces ever, though he had only 80 air victories.
British Air Ace Douglas Bader (22 victories) flew the entire WW II with both artificial legs. Hans Joachim Marseille, also famously known as the "Star of Africa" achieved 17 kills in a single day, the highest by any pilot in a day.
The Soviets had dedicated all-women fighter and bomber squadrons. Lydia Lityak "White Lily" was the high (estimates vary from seven to 16 victories) .
Gerhard Barkhorn (302 victories), the second highest scoring German Ace, was the best man for the wedding of the leading Air Ace, Eric Hartmann (352 victories).
"They had unique exploits. They had operated across the globe in different wars, which includes the two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Arab-Israeli, and Iran-Iraq wars. There are Air Aces who have operated in different sectors, such as Western Europe, the Eastern front, North Africa, South East Asia, Pacific Ocean, West Asia, China among others," Chopra explained.
"A few famous Air Aces continued to fly and score aerial victories even after losing their limbs. Some of the dogfight tactics and firing solutions evolved by them continue to be followed even today. All the Air Aces were dare-devil pilots, and they were highly decorated and were national heroes," he added.
Was it by accident or design that no Indian pilots served on the Western front and were confined to the Eastern sector during World War II?
"India was threatened by the Japanese when they came from South East Asia through Burma (later Myanmar). Therefore, the Indian Air Force was deployed to thwart Japanese advance. After the Japanese had been neutralised, some Indian pilots were sent to Europe to fight along with allied forces. Jumbo Majumdar was one such pilot. He initially was part of No.1 Squadron flying bombing missions. Majumdar was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, in November 1942. In 1943, Majumdar volunteered for a role in the European War. He flew the North American Mustang aircraft and flew reconnaissance missions. He was awarded the Bar to his DFC in January 1945. He thus became the most highly decorated Indian pilot of World War II," Chopra said.
What next? What's his next project?
"Writing is a passion for me. I have over 600 published articles. Just ten months earlier, my book "China, The Rising Aerospace Power" was published. As Director-General of Centre for Air Power Studies, I am already writing extensively on air power and national security subjects. I plan to write a book on "Indo-Pacific -- The Emerging Theatre of Great Power Rivalry", Chopra concluded.