Hall of Fame

René Fonck (1894-1953)

SP's Aviation - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - — 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.”

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