Incredibly 5% of pilots shot down 40% of German planes
Rookie RAF Pilots Often Killed In First Aerial Combat During Battle of Britain
It took time and luck to become a skilled fighter pilot.
Messerschmitt Bf 109 G-2. A deadly foe to RAF Fighter Command
5% of pilots shot down 40% of German planes
*90% of pilots had only a 50% chance of making it through their first combat sortie.
*After five combat encounters with enemy aircraft their survival chances increased by a factor of 20.
*5% of pilots scored five or more victories and became ‘aces’.
*Further, the aforementioned 5% shot down 40% of enemy aircraft downed in air-to-air combat.
The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain by Stephen Bungay is the best history of the Battle of Britain I have ever read and if you are going to read only one book about the battle I suggest this one.
Writes Bungay, “The sky contains two very different groups of pilots: a small group of hunter-killers and the majority who are the hunted. Amongst the hunted are the experienced who know how to get away from the hunter-killers, and who also hunt themselves without often killing. And there are the novices who either learn survival fast or provide the hunter-killers with targets.”
THE SECOND WORLD WAR 1939 – 1945: THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN JULY-SEPTEMBER 1940 (CH 740) Supermarine Spitfire Mark IAs, (N3289 ?DW-K and R6595 ?DW-O? nearest), of No 610 Squadron, Royal Air Force based at Biggin Hill, Kent, flying in three ‘vic‘ formations. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:
The ability to perform aerobatics and fancy flying did not help you survive. Four out of five fighter pilots shot down never saw their attacker. “Beware the Hun in the Sun,” advice from World War One, became standard in World War Two. As critical was what we now call “situational awareness. Either you were good at it or you weren’t. No one could train you in it since it had not been identified in that era as a specific mental capability.
Basically, the hunter-killers flew at a higher altitude while scouting for enemy planes. Once found, the hunter-killers would maneuver so they were coming at the enemy planes with the sun directly behind them which made them almost impossible to see. And then they dived on the other aircraft or “bounced” them as the expression went.
Spitfire pilots of No. 610 Squadron relaxing between sorties at ‘A’ Flight dispersal at Hawkinge, 29 July 1940. (IWM)
The hunter-killers got as close as possible, the optimum being about two hundred yards, opened fire for a few seconds on the enemy plane and it went down. Either the machine gun fire killed the pilot, or disabled the controls or in some cases hit the fuel tanks and the plane exploded.
Says Bungay, “the essence of air-fighting in the pre-electronic age was not the duel but the ambush. Sustained dogfighting was exhausting and rare. The large aerial melees which took place during the Battle of Britain consisted of numerous short engagements during which pilots would shoot at numerous different opponents.”
(statistics on Battle of Britain fighters from a statistical review of a sample of records of air combat in World War One, World War Two and Korea by From “Systems Analysis Problems of Limited War” by Herbert K. Weiss, a paper presented to the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in 1966 and cited in The Most Dangerous Enemy : A History of the Battle of Britain)