Aviation History

Did you know Luftwaffe Bf 109 pilot Erich Hartmann did not fire until the enemy was as close as 66 feet? How the most successful fighter ace in aviation history scored Air-to-Air Kills.

To give an idea how dangerous this is, Erich Hartmann would only have barely a second to get out of the way before colliding with the enemy.

Erich Hartmann (Apr. 19, 1922 – Sep. 20, 1993), nicknamed “Bubi” (“The Kid”) by his German comrades and “The Black Devil” by his Soviet adversaries, was a German fighter pilot during World War II and the most successful fighter ace in the history of aerial warfare.

While serving in Germany’s Luftwaffe during the Second World Conflict, Hartmann flew more than 1,400 missions in the Messerschmitt Bf 109, enabling him to score an astonishing 352 kills (he shot down 345 Soviet and seven American aircraft).

How did Hartmann get so good at dominating the skies?

Rodra Hascaryo, an aviation expert who studied Aerospace and Aeronautical Engineering, explains;

‘He has an unmatched record of 352 enemy planes shot down while never being shot down himself. It’s very likely that his record will never be surpassed.

‘The secret to his success was his technique. It’s deceptively simple, yet ridiculously effective, particularly against the Soviets.

‘Airplane guns in World War 2 were commonly mounted on the wings and they don’t shoot straight forward. They had to be converged or harmonized so that it is concentrated on a single point at a fixed distance.

‘Convergence can be set by the ground crew according to the pilot’s wishes. Unlike some, Hartmann chose to make his gun converge extremely close and he would not fire until the enemy is effectively right in front of him; as close as 20 m (65.62 feet). To give an idea how dangerous this is, he would only have barely a second to get out of the way before colliding with the enemy.

‘But by firing at the very last moment, he basically never missed. It is just impossible to miss when the target is that close. Also, the adversary would have no time to react.

‘After attacking, he wouldn’t stick around and dogfight like how pilots in movies do. He would flee the scene and attack again once the enemy lost him or lowered their guard. The Soviet airplanes and pilot training was particularly deficient to counter this.’

Hascaryo concludes;

‘It’s basically aerial hit-and-run, a tactic as old as humanity and is still nonetheless devastating in the modern era. It also doesn’t require the pilot to be exceptionally good at any one thing (like shooting or flying); an average pilot with above-average understanding of their machine and good planning could pull it off.’

Erich Hartmann, top scoring fighter ace of all time with 352 victories. Hartmann would survive the War, a Decade of Soviet Imprisonment and 12 years in the Postwar West German Luftwaffe before passing away from a heart attack in 1993.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force Wikimedia Commons via Military History Now


Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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