The giant enemy plane, a German reconnaissance craft, appeared early in the morning on May 19, 1918, in the skies above France. Several fighter pilots with the United States’ 94th Aero Squadron took to the air to fight it but proved little match for it.
“The scene, in full view for many miles, looked like a lot of swallows pecking at a giant bird of prey,” The New York Times reported.
After running out of bullets, one of the Americans landed and reported the obvious: they weren’t able to damage the heavily armored plane. Even so, one of the United States’ most experienced pilots decided to join the fight. His name was Raoul Lufbery and he was already a legend.
Officially hailing from Wallingford, though he never stayed in one place for long, Lufbery had served with France’s foreign service since the outbreak of World War I. In 1916 he joined the Lafayette Escadrille, a French command volunteer group of mostly American fighter pilots that was named in honor of the French hero of the American Revolution, Marquis de Lafayette. After the U.S. entered the war in 1917, Lufbery became the commanding officer of the 94th Aero Squadron.
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Known as the “knights of the sky,” the fighter pilots of World War I were hailed for their bravery and grace. Lufbery embodied their devil-may-care spirit as much as anyone. He had already garnered 17 confirmed kills, with some modern observers putting his true tally closer to twice that number.
Lufbery steered his aircraft above the German plane and swept headfirst at the enemy craft, riddling it with bullets. Then he swerved off suddenly. Most likely his gun had jammed. In a few minutes, he attacked again. Contemporary accounts say that on this final pass, a thin line of flame shot from his plane. The craft seemed to hang in the air for a moment before darting downward, and as the plane fell, Lufbery jumped from it either to avoid a fiery death or in the desperate hope of landing in a nearby river. Other research suggests he was thrown from his plane when it capsized. Regardless, his body flew into the morning sky and started to fall.
Thirty-three years earlier Lufbery was born in France. His French mother died when he was young and his American father left him in the care of relatives and moved to Wallingford. Lufbery left France at 19, embarking on the first of the many globe-trotting trips that would dominate his life. He traveled through North Africa and Europe, doing odd jobs before arriving in Wallingford in 1906, only to learn that his father had just left on a business trip for Europe. Lufbery spent the next two years living with family in Wallingford before his wanderlust took over again. He traveled to Cuba and New Orleans, then to San Francisco where he enlisted in the U.S. Army and went on to fight in the Philippines, becoming an expert marksman.
After his service ended, he resumed his globe-trotting. In India in 1912 he met a pioneering French aviator named Marc Pourpe. The two became fast friends and Lufbery served as Pourpe’s chief mechanic. The duo demonstrated manned flight for crowds in places like India, China and Egypt before returning to France in the summer of 1914 as the Great War loomed. Pourpe enlisted in the French Air Service and Lufbery joined the French Foreign Legion. Before the year had ended, Pourpe was killed. Heartbroken, Lufbery became a fighter pilot, vowing to avenge his fallen friend.
And avenge him he did.
Though not a naturally gifted pilot, Lufbery’s skill as a marksman, obsessive attention to mechanical detail and determination allowed him to become America’s first World War I ace. He racked up kills with daring aerial attacks, and the “Lufbery circle,” an effective fighter formation, was named for him, though he did not originate it.
Between missions he’d play with the Lafayette Escadrille’s mascots, two real lion cubs named Whiskey and Soda; explore nearby woods, and sometimes pose for photos next to his plane, holding a cigarette with the type of laid-back cool Hollywood would soon immortalize.
But even heroes are not free from the horrors of war.
On May 19, 1918, separated from his airplane, Lufbery plummeted to earth. He struck a metal garden fence and died on impact. As he had vowed vengeance for his friend, others vowed vengeance for him, and the plane that had taken down Lufbery was soon shot down.
While he only spent two years of his life in Wallingford, it was longer than he spent in most places, and the Connecticut town was his official home address. On Memorial Day 1918 he was remembered by relatives and others in the community there. In Wallingford today, you will find a Lufbery Avenue and Lufbery Park. The town’s VFW is named, quite fittingly, the Major Raoul Lufbery Post.