Gervais Raoul Lufbery (March 14, 1885 – May 19, 1918) was an French-American fighter pilot and flying ace in World War I. Because he served in both the French and later the American air services in World War I, he is sometimes listed as a French Ace and sometimes as a American Ace, though all but one of his 17 combat victories came while flying in French units.
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Gervais Raoul Lufbery was born in Chamalieres, France to an American father and a French mother. His father returned to America when Raoul was an infant and he was raised by his grandmother. He later came to America settling in Wallingford, Connecticut. He enlisted in the United States Army to gain American citizenship and saw service during the Philippine insurrection. Later, he traveled to French Indochina where he took a job as a mechanic for pioneer French aviator Marc Pourpe.
Early French Service
When World War I broke out in 1914, Lufbery enlisted in the French Foreign Legion. Originally trained as an infantryman, he was later transferred to an aviation squadron where he was reunited with his old mentor, Marc Pourpe, who had become a French aviator.
Late in 1914, Lufbery was accepted into the pilot training program and was assigned to fly reconnaissance missions with Escadrille VB 106. He later applied for a transfer to fighter planes and was trained on Nieuports. Despite his future success, Lufbery was not considered a naturally gifted pilot. His success was largely due to perseverance and sheer force of will rather than natural ability.
In 1916, a group of American volunteers formed the Escadrille Américaine (shortly to be renamed the Escadrille Lafayette) to aid Frances war effort against the Germans. The squadron was largely made up of upper class Americans with little flight experience. Lufbery, as an American citizen with combat experience, was recruited to held organize and train the unit. He joined the unit on May 24, 1916 and was assigned a Nieuport fighter.
His first encounters with his unit did not go smoothly. 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. Once in combat though, His dogged determination and success earned him the respect and admiration of his peers.
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.
By the time that the Escadrille Lafayette was placed under American command on February 18, 1918, Lufbery had downed seven enemy planes and had seen his Nieuport replaced by a newer, more capable Spad fighter. Although the escadrille was now under American command, it was still considered a French unit and the nine more planes he would shoot down while flying for the squadron were considered French victories.
In the spring of 1918, Lufbery was chosen to become an officer in the yet unformed 94th Aero Pursuit Squadron with the rank of major. Lufberys principle job was to instruct the new pilots such as Eddie Rickenbacker in combat techniques. The American flying corps was equipped with Nieuport 28 fighters, but due to supply problems, may lacked armament. The 94ths first combat patrol on March 19, 1918 saw Lufbery leading Rickenbacker and fellow flyer Doug Campbell in unarmed airplanes.
On May 19, 1918 several 94th aviators were patrolling an area north of Nancy when the encountered a group of German Albatros fighters over Saint-Mihiel. Lufbery, who witnessed the combat from the 94th's base, jumped into a borrowed airplane and joined the fight. He took off after an Albatros that had been damaged in combat and was attempting to return to German lines. He made one pass but in his recovery he was struck by machine gun fire from the Albatross rear machine gun and his plane caught fire.
What happened next has been a matter of considerable debate. At an altitude variously estimated between 200 and 600 feet, Lufbery either bailed out of the plane or was thrown from the cockpit after it flipped over above the village of Maron. Lufbery, who was not wearing a parachute, struck the ground and was killed. Some (most notably Eddie Rickenbacker, who witnessed the event) believe that he bailed out aiming for the nearby Moselle River hoping the water would break his fall, but there is no way to know for certain if this is true or not.
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.