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Gervais Raoul Victor Lufbery

pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille

Gervais Raoul Victor Lufbery (March 14, 1885 – May 19, 1918) a French-American pilot of World War I. Lufbery served in both the Aéronautique Militaire and later the United States Army Air Service in World War I, he is by some listed as a French ace and by others as an American ace, all but one of his 17 combat victories came while flying for the Aéronautique Militaire .

Raoul Lufbery was born in Chamalières, France to an American father, Edward Lufbery, and a French mother. His father, a chemist by trade, worked for rubber companys in France and the United States. He later opened a shop in Wallingford, Connecticut as a dealer in stamps. Raoul had two older brothers, one who later came to America, Charles Lufbery, and one that stayed in France. Raoul's mother died when he was an infant and his father, Edward, re-married several years later to another French woman. When Raoul was approximately six years old, his father and his new wife left France for the United States leaving the three brothers from his first marriage in France with the mother of his first wife. He and his second wife had several daughters and a son. Eventually Raoul's older brother Charles re-settled in Wallingford. The majority of the Lufbery descendants in Wallingford today are from the line of Charles.

As a teenager Raoul started traveling and made his way around France working in chocolate factorys in Blois and Clermont-Ferrand. He also ventured to Germany, the Bulkans and Great Britian, in England he worked making silver casket handles. In 1904, at the age of 19, he sailed for United States. Ironically, his father sailed for Europe on the same day, and they never saw each other again. He stayed in Wallingford no more than two years, living with his brother Charles and his wife. He worked in one of the silver factories in Wallingford during this time.

Raoul, again starting traveling, first to Cuba, then to New Orleans, in New Orleans he worked in a bakery and after a short period ventured to San Francisco, there he worked as a waiter. In 1907, while in San Francisco he enlisted in the United States Army for two years. He was shipped out, first to Hawaii, then the Philippines, where he fought in the conflict known as the "Philippine Insurrection". It was in this conflict that he was to develop especial expertise in marksmanship.That conflict officially ended on July 4, 1902. However, remnants of the Philippine Army, and other resistance groups continued hostilities against American authority until 1913. Lufbery was discharged from the army in 1910. For his service to the United States, Gervais Raoul Victor Lufbery; was granted American citizenship.

After his tour with the United States Army, he traveled to the " Far East ". It was in this period that he met the renowned French airman Marc Pourpe. History becomes fuzzy about where this meeting actually took place. By some accounts it took place in French Indo-China, by others Calcuta, regardless, Lufbery forged a friendship with Marc Pourpe and agreed to become the latter's mechanic. His flying career began in 1911 as the mechanic of Marc Pourpe. The pair, in a Blériot, barnstormed their way through China, Japan, India, and Egypt, In Africa in 1913, Pourpe made the first round-trip Cairo-to-Khartoum flight, with Lufbery arranging for fuel, maintenance, and spare parts. The two returned to Paris to obtain a new machine just as the war broke.

When World War I broke out in 1914, Marc Pourpe enlisted with the Aéronautique Militaire and served with Escadrille N.23. Raoul Lufbery on the other hand first joined the French Foreign Legion because, as an American, he was not allowed to join the regular French services. Lufbery spent several weeks in an aircraft depot repairing aircraft until Pourpe pulled some strings and had Lufbery re-assigned as his mechanic at the front.

Pourpe was killed in a flying accident, while landing in fog at night on 2 December 1914. Lufbery immediately applied to become a pilot and in the spring of 1915 started flight training. In the fall of 1915 he was assigned as a bomber pilot to the escadrille VB-106, and in early 1916 he started Nieuport Scout training until the following May. Scout was the name given to pursuit types later known as fighters. Despite his future success, Lufbery was not considered a naturally gifted pilot. His success was largely due to his preseverance and attention to mechanical detail.

In 1916, a group of American volunteers formed the Escadrille Américaine (shortly to be renamed N-124 Escadrille Lafayette) to aid France’s war effort against the Germans. The squadron was renamed at the request of the American Secretary of War after heavy protest from Germany that an American squadron was a violation of the United States' neutrality. The original enlistees in the Lafayette Escadrille were long on patriotism, idealism, and Ivy League education, but short on flying experience. The organizers of the American volunteer flying unit next recruited some American fliers. Lufbery fit the bill: he was an American citizen and he was an experienced combat pilot. He joined the Escadrille Américaine, N.124, on May 24, 1916 and was assigned a Nieuport Type11 C.1 nicknamed the Bébé.

His first encounters with his unit did not go smoothly. At first, he didn't quite fit in with the college boys at Luxeuil. He was several years older than most of them; he seemed crude and unfriendly at first. Lufbery spoke English with a thick French accent and had little in common with his comrades, most of whom were from wealthy families and were Ivy League educated. He was often harassed by his fellow pilots for working with the aerodrome's mechanics on his plane. He also inspected and polished each bullet in his guns drum to help avoid gun jams, a frequent problem of the Lewis gun. Once in combat, though, his dogged determination and success earned him the respect and admiration of his peers.

His first aerial victory came on July 30, 1916 over Verdun and his second later that same day. Lufbery had been with the Escadrille only six days. Apparently this success inspired him to log as many hours as possible aloft in his Nieuport, looking for enemy planes. By October 12, he had added three more victories to his credit; he was an ace - the leading flier of the Lafayette Escadrille, famous in France and America, the first U.S. citizen to achieve the statis. They continued flying through the snowy winter; Lufbery's earned his seventh victory in January, 1917.

The first Spad VII's reached the Escadrille Lafayette, N.124 in October of 1916. Most of Lufbery's victories were made from the SPAD VII. By June of 1917 the escadrille had been redesignated as SPA.124.

By February 18, 1918, when the Lafayette Escadrille was re-organized into a unit of the United States Army, Lufbery was the leading American ace with 16 official victories to his credit while flying French colors. He added just one more while with the United States Army Air Service.

He was one of the first members of the Lafayette Escadrille to be selected for American service. He was commissioned in the United States Army Air Service in late 1917 at the rank of Major. In January 1918 he was sent to the Pursuit Organisation Center at Villeneuve-les-Vertus. Lufbery was subsequently reassigned to the U.S. 95th Aero Pursuit Squadron and then the 94th as a combat instructor. Assigned to the as-yet unformed 94th Aero Squadron, and he began "flying a desk" for U.S. aviation headquarters at Issoudun. In early March, 1918, when the Germans staged their last big offensive of the war, he and other experienced American pilots had nothing to do. (The 94th, the "Hat in the Ring" squadron, included Eddie Rickenbacker and became the leading American squadron of World War One.) The 94th had some Nieuports, but no machine guns for them. "It's nearly a year since the United States declared war," Lufbery complained, "And what do you suppose the 94th is doing? Waiting for machine guns." Tired of waiting around, Lufbery leading Rickenbacker and Doug Campbell flew the 94th's first (although unarmed) patrol on March 19, 1918.

It was during this time that the "Lufbery circle" maneuver became named for him, although most aviation scholars agree that Lufbery did not actually invent it, just popularized it among Allied flyers. The defensive aerial tactic of planes forming a circle, with each protecting the tail of the one in front, had been known since the earliest days of formation flying.

Raoul Lufbery is attributed with inventing the precursor to the modern airport flight pattern. Planes would fly in and land in any direction on the field, based on their needs and wind direction -- causing no end to the amount of confusion, near misses, and collisions. Lufbery, commander of the 94th APS, directed that all approaching aircraft would circle the field at least twice before landing, watching for others taking off or landing. This was quickly dubbed the "Lufbery Circle" and eventually became the "Down Wind, Base, and Final" standard airport pattern that pilots use every day in VFR flight

On the morning of May 19, 1918, a German reconnaissance plane flew a low level photographic mission over the airfield of the 94th Aero Squadron. An American flyer immediately took to the air to challenge the intruder. His attacks, however, were ineffective and he soon exhausted his ammunition as the German pilot made a run back to his own lines. Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, who would finish the war as America's top ace, described what happened next:

"In the meantime, Major Lufbery, who had been watching the whole show from his barracks, jumped on a motorcycle that was standing in the road and rushed to the hangars. His own plane was out of commission. Another Nieuport was standing on the field, apparently ready for use. It belonged to Lieutenant Davis. The mechanics admitted everything was ready and without another word Lufbery jumped into the machine and immediately took off. "

"With far greater speed than his heavier antagonist, Major Lufbery climbed in pursuit. In approximately five minutes after leaving the ground he had reached two thousand feet and had arrived within range of the Albatros six miles away. The first attack was witnessed by all the watchers. "

"Luf fired several short bursts as he dived in to the attack. Then he swerved away and appeared to busy himself with his gun, which evidently had jammed. Another circle over their heads and he had cleared the jam. Again he rushed the enemy from their rear, when suddenly old Luf's machine was seen to burst into flames. He passed the Albatros and proceeded for three or four seconds on a straight course. Then to the horrified watchers below there appeared the figure of their hero in a headlong leap from the cockpit of the burning aircraft! Lufbery had preferred a leap to certain death rather than endure the slow torture of burning to a crisp. His body fell in the garden of a peasant woman's house in a little town just north of Nancy. A small stream ran nearby and it was thought later that poor Lufbery seeing this small chance for life had jumped with the intention of striking this water. He had leaped from a height of two hundred feet and his machine was carrying him at a speed of 120 miles per hour! A hopeless but a heroic attempt to preserve his life for his country! "

"What an irony now to recall old Luf's suggestions! His machine had received a tracer bullet in the fuel tank. The same bullet evidently cut away the thumb of his right hand as it clasped the joystick. The next instant the little craft was but one mass of flame, from which there was no means of escape."

He was buried with full military honors at the Aviators Cemetery at Sebastapol, France. His remains were later removed to a place of honor at the Lafayette Memorial du Parc de Garches in Paris. Although he received credit for only 17 victories in his career, his fellow pilots related many instances when he shot down German planes that he was not credited for. His actual number of victories has been variously estimated at anywhere between 25 and 60. When asked about his feelings about the official records, he stated that he cared nothing for records, he knew if he had gotten the Hun.

Lufbery won the Légion d'Honneur, the Medaille Militaire, the Croix de Guerre with ten palms, and the British Military Medal. The US Air Force awarded Lufbery a Purple Heart in 2005 when it was discovered the US Army had never done so at the time of his death.

A sculpture of Lufbery and an airplane form the Harmon International Trophy, an award given annually beginning in 1926 to honor achievements in aviation. In 1998, Lufbery was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.