Why do we call an ace and ace?: It was all a mistake in translation

Have you ever wondered why the more successful fighter pilots are called aces?

It’s an odd story, which begins with a popular Frenchman of pre-World War I vintage.

Roland Garros was a Parisian bon vivant who became entranced by flying in 1909, after seeing Alberto Santos-Dumont skimming madly among the city’s chimney pots aboard a Demoiselle monoplane of his invention.

Garros immediately approached the dapper Santos-Dumont and declared his interest in becoming an “aeronaut.” Santos-Dumont took him on as a student and, before World War I had broken out, the younger man had competed in air races in the United States, won the Paris-to-Rome and Paris-to-Madrid air races, and led the pack in many other aerial events of the era.

Garros was one of the few men of his time who envisioned the airplane as a military weapon. During a visit to Mexico City, he demonstrated bombardment tactics by peppering a Mexican artillery battery with well-hurled oranges until the hapless gunners took cover. He was giving aerobatic exhibitions – and lectures on airplanes as weapons – in Germany during the eventful summer of 1914. When the Kaiser’s troops invaded his beloved France, he escaped dramatically by flying his plane first to Switzerland – at night, something few had done at the time – then to France, where he reported promptly for military duty.

The French Army, like armies from time immemorial, sent one of the world’s most qualified pilots to its military school at St. Cyr, where he was taught parade ground drill and the art of keeping uniform buttons shiny, but after he had mastered those basics he was assigned to Morane-Saulnier Escadrille No. 23, along with other pioneer pilots such as Armand Pinsard, Adolph Pegoud (who invented the loop), Jules Vedrines (a noted airplane designer), and a Connecticut Yankee named Raoul Lufbery, a name you aviation history buffs will recognize.

As artillery scouts, all of these thoroughly experienced pilots shared significantly in turning the German advance on Paris into a crushing defeat, but it was routine stuff to them, the only real dangers being engine failure behind enemy lines and bad weather. To counter the boredom, Garros suggested that the German command center at Thielt should be raided. He wanted to drop bombs.

Responsible officials yawned that Garros and Pinsard could try a few hand-dropped bombs on the Germans if they wished, perhaps hoping that would shut up the pesky Garros.

As it turned out, the day they chose for their raid also was the day Kaiser Wilhelm chose for his first visit to the front. When the two innocuous-looking Parasol monoplanes flew over, the German High Command simply gaped at them, until artillery shells with linen streamers for tails, set to detonate on impact, started falling. The Kaiser made a dash for his car and cleared out, never again to get anywhere near the battle lines.

While history doesn’t tell us what damage was done to the German HQ, the world’s first air raid was successful enough for the French to consider airplanes from a new angle. When Garros and another inventive pilot, Eugene Gilbert, started talking about arming airplanes with machine guns, nobody yawned.

In the spring of 1915, guns sometimes were mounted on the rims of rear cockpits, but the idea of mounting a gun to fire forward was just talk. A huge problem was firing through the propeller arc without destroying the propeller. Garros and Gilbert invented a wedge of armor plate as a deflector sleeve, bolted to the backs of propeller blades to deflect bullets. Then they mounted a Hotchkiss gun, which fired at 300 rounds a minute, directly behind the propeller. Voila! They had invented the fighter plane.

The Germans, too, were working on a way to fire through the propeller arc, but hadn’t achieved much by April Fools Day of 1915, when Garros revolutionized aerial combat by shooting down an early Albatros. On April 11, two Aviatik two-seaters went down in a hail of Hotchkiss lead, although one pilot tried to hold off Garros with a revolver. The following afternoon, Garros caught an L.V.G. two-seater in his sights and sent it to the ground.

On the morning of April 16, Garros was attacked by four Albatros two-seaters. Rifle bullets fired by the back-seaters hit his airplane, one zinging off the cowling and falling into his lap. Garros rolled in behind them to attack, and the moment the Hotchkiss muzzle started sparkling the four German pilots remembered important engagements elsewhere.

One, however, was slower than the others and lagged behind. Garros darted into range and his bullets tore away the straggler’s left wing.

Five victories in 16 days!

That night, Garros was cited for the Legion of Honor and every newspaper in Europe carried the news of his five victories. His fellow boulevardiers toasted him in the streets of Paris. “Oh, that Garros! That Garros is an ace!”

“Ace” was a popular catchword in the Paris of that day. Anyone who did anything notable was an ace. Winning cyclists and jockeys were aces. It was natural to apply the word to Garros.

That mighty outpouring of French enthusiasm was observed by a recently-arrived American newspaper correspondent. With but a limited understanding of the language, he concluded that “ace” must refer to any pilot who had downed five enemy planes, and so reported in his next dispatch to New York.

From that day on, it became the journalistic standard by which any fighter pilot in any air service is rated. The term has lasted to this day.

There we have it. Roland Garros became both the man who revolutionized aerial warfare and, thanks to a slight misunderstanding, the world’s first ace.

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