A celebrity in an era before celebrities, Albert Ball was the very picture of the dashing, fearless flying ace - feted in newspapers and cheered as a British hero. Even the Red Baron had to sing his enemy's praises, saying that Ball was "by far the best English flying man". Handsome but modest, lethal but compassionate, Ball had deep respect for the men he had in his cross-hairs. "I only scrap because it is my duty," he said, "but I do not think anything bad about the Hun. Nothing makes me feel more rotten than to see them go down."
Ball developed his own special tactic for destroying the enemy - he'd fly underneath a German plane, aim his gun upwards and blast holes in the fuselage. He was a lone wolf in the air and on the ground, preferring to spend his off-hours playing the violin rather than socialising with other pilots. Utterly unconcerned about being shot down himself, asking his parents to "take it well" if he died, because "men tons better than I go in hundreds every day". When Ball eventually did perish, his plane crashing behind enemy lines, the Germans buried him with full military honours. On his grave they wrote admiringly, "Fallen in air combat for his fatherland, English pilot Captain Albert Ball".
James McCudden was always destined for military glory. The son of a celebrated soldier father, he was an avid aviation buff who devoured technical manuals as a young man, eager to learn all about the physics of flying and the mechanism of planes. When war broke out, he wasted no time signing up for the Royal Flying Corps, and was mentored by celebrity flying ace Albert Ball, who taught him his technique of attacking enemy planes from beneath. There was a big difference between the two heroes, though.
While Albert Ball always felt gloomy about shooting down enemy pilots, thinking of himself as a murderer, McCudden had a much more pragmatic, battle-hardened view of things. Talking about his fallen targets, he said they "deserved to die, because they had no notion whatever of how to defend themselves, which showed that during their training they must have been slack, and lazy, and probably liked going to Berlin too often instead of sticking to their training." McCudden himself survived the most frantic dogfights, only to die when a freak engine malfunction caused his plane to crash during an ordinary flight between bases.
EDWARD "MICK" MANNOCK
Born to an Irish mother and English father, Edward "Mick" Mannock wasn't your typical flying ace. For one thing, he was a fiery political radical, being passionate about Irish nationalism and the prospect of Irish home rule. Mannock also felt a very human emotion which the gung-ho likes of Ball and McCudden seemingly didn't: fear. Far from a natural flyer, Mannoch originally had the jitters about whooshing into combat, and had to use his intellect to put his emotions in check, drawing up a set of personal guidelines on air combat.
If anything, Mannock got TOO cocky. A fellow pilot recalled that he "seemed a boorish know-all" and that "we all felt the quicker he got amongst the Huns the better; that would show him how little he knew." Despite rubbing people up the wrong way, Mannoch proved he wasn't all talk, and became known as a deadly and brilliant flying ace. So good, in fact, that he was awarded the Victoria Cross after his death, which came when Mannock broke one of his own rules for combat by flying down to an enemy's crash site to inspect the wreck, putting him within range of enemy fire.
Many flying aces lived fast and died young, achieving glory and perishing within a few years or less. But one major exception was Billy Bishop, the great Canadian ace who survived the war to become a national hero and military icon. At age 15 he already had his eyes on the sky, cobbling together his own makeshift "plane" out of wooden crates, cardboard and string. He flew his contraption off his roof, and somehow survived the plummet to the ground.
Years later, in World War One, he quickly sickened of the filth of trench warfare, envying the lives of the flying aces. "It's clean up there!" he said. "If you die, at least it would be a clean death." And a clean death was almost certainly assured - the average life expectancy for new pilots in his sector was 11 days. But Billy Bishop beat the odds, even though one mission left 210 bullet holes in his plane. The Germans grew so fearful of his exploits, they gave him a nickname: Hell's Handmaiden. Not only did Bishop survive, but he excelled again in the next world war, becoming a senior air marshal in the battle against Hitler.