René Fonck (1894-1953)

With immense skill as a fighter pilot, René Fonck hunted his prey fearlessly and ruthlessly, patiently stalking the enemy before mounting a quick and decisive attack

Issue: 8 / 2017By Joseph Noronha

A search for aviation heroes of past air campaigns more often than not, unearths pilots mainly from the English speaking world. However, there were several French aviators too who distinguished themselves in combat. One such hero was Colonel René Fonck who emerged as the top Allied fighter ace of the First World War. Indeed, his confirmed 75 victories qualify him for the title of “All-time Allied Ace of Aces” even when every conflict till date is considered. He was a Commander of the prestigious French Legion of Honour.

René Paul Fonck was born in Vosges, France on March 27, 1894. As a boy he loved to hear tales about flying; but it seems rather strange that he preferred to join the French Army rather than the Air Service. When the First World War was in full swing, he had a change of heart and in February 1915, he joined basic flight training at Saint-Cyr. He had no trouble learning to fly on the Blériot Penguin aircraft. In May he was posted to a reconnaissance unit, Escadrille C-47. His Caudron GIII aircraft was initially unarmed, but in time it was fitted with a machine gun. Fonck claimed his first aerial victory in July 1916; but the kill could not be confirmed. He was rather hurt by this seeming lack of trust in his word and resolved to make every effort to provide proof of his exploits in future. Indeed, he validated his next victory with irrefutable evidence. In early August, when he spotted a German Rumpler C-III reconnaissance plane, he immediately engaged it in combat and by skilfully manoeuvring in its close vicinity, while staying clear of its line of fire, he forced it to keep descending. Finally, the hapless crew gave up and landed in French territory. It was a prize catch of an undamaged German reconnaissance aircraft which the allies could study at leisure. And Fonck was awarded the “Médaille Militaire”. As if to rub it in, the following month he went over to the wreckage of an enemy observation aircraft he had shot down, ripped out the barograph, and presented it to his superiors.

With his reputation as a military pilot growing, in April 1917, René Fonck was asked to join the Escadrille les Cigognes of Group de Combat 12, the world’s first fighter wing. He started with the SPAD SVII — the first of the series of highly successful French biplane fighters. The renowned ace Georges Guynemer was also a member of this wing. In May 1917, Fonck’s unit converted to the SPAD SXIII. This was a rather heavy aircraft, but powered by a Hispano-Suiza 235 HP engine, it could fly at a top speed of 220 kmph, making it the fastest aircraft of World War I. It was also very rugged and was fitted with two synchronised Vickers machine guns. The high esteem the French Air Service held the SXIII in, can be gauged by the fact that they built almost 8,500 aircraft in the remaining 18 months of the War. Fonck took to the SXIII right away and became an ace in less than two weeks. By the end of 1917, he had accounted for 19 German aircraft and become a commissioned officer.

May 9, 1918, proved to be a remarkable day for Fonck. It began on a dull note since persistent thick fog did not permit flying. However, by afternoon the fog began to lift and he was able to get airborne. In the next six hours, he shot down no less than six enemy twoseater reconnaissance planes. On July 18, he reached 54 kills, thus exceeding the score of the legendary Guynemer, who had been the leading French ace at the time of his death in September 1917. Fonck’s final victory was on October 31, 1918, when he attained 75 confirmed kills. This figure comfortably beat the tally of 72 recorded by the Canadian ace Major William Avery Bishop. A truly remarkable feature of Fonck’s record is that only a single enemy bullet ever hit his aircraft, causing only minor damage and he remained unwounded till the War ended on November 11, 1918.

After the War, Fonck teamed up with Igor Sikorsky to try and win the Orteig Prize for the first nonstop flight between New York and Paris. Sikorsky built an aircraft, the S-35, specifically for the purpose. However the aircraft was grossly overloaded and on September 21, 1926, as Fonck was attempting to takeoff, it crashed in flames. Fonck survived, but two of his three crew members were killed. From 1937 to 1939 Fonck served as Inspector of the French fighter forces. Fonck was keen of eye and had immense skill as a fighter pilot. He hunted his prey fearlessly and ruthlessly, patiently stalking the enemy before mounting a quick and decisive attack with the least amount of ammunition. He once said, “I put my bullets into the target as if by hand” — a remark that also placed him squarely in the stereotypical mould of the bragging fighter pilot.

René Fonck died in Paris on June 18. His spectacular record should have made him a hero for the French people, but that did not happen. For one thing, he was usually remote and withdrawn. He didn’t drink or socialise. And he didn’t know how to relate to other people. His associates usually described him as distant, arrogant and abrasive. He never tired of telling others about his feats and there were unproven suspicions that some of his kill claims were figments of his imagination. That is why even his best friend was quoted as saying, “He is not a truthful man. He is a tiresome braggart and even a bore, but in the air, a slashing rapier, a steel blade tempered with unblemished courage and priceless skill…. But afterwards he can’t forget how he rescued you, nor let you forget it. He can almost make you wish he hadn’t helped you in the first place.”