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The Red Baron: A Military Aviation Legend

Assigning historical importance to one date or another is always an arbitrary affair. But in the annals of military technology, Sept. 17 is a significant date. On this day in 1916, Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen, the legendary `Red Baron' of World War 1, shot down his first allied aircraft over France.

In what would be the first of a record 80 kills, Von Richthofen, flying an Albatross biplane, successfully engaged a plane piloted by British Second Lieutenant Lionel Morris.

Recalling the aerial duel later, he said:

My Englishman twisted and turned, flying in zig-zags. I was animated by a single thought: 'The man in front of me must come down, whatever happens.' At last a favorable moment arrived. My opponent had apparently lost sight of me. Instead of twisting and turning he flew straight along. In a fraction of a second I was at his back with my excellent machine. I gave a short burst of shots with my machine-gun. I had gone so close that I was afraid I might dash into the Englishman. Suddenly I nearly yelled with joy, for the propeller of the enemy machine had stopped turning. Hurrah! I had shot his engine to pieces; the enemy was compelled to land, for it was impossible for him to reach his own lines."

Morris' plane crashed close to the German lines and when Von Richthofen visited the crash site, he said he "honored the fallen enemy by placing a stone on his beautiful grave."

In the end, however, the Red Baron would not escape the carnage either.. On April 21, 1918, Von Richthofen was shot down somewhere over the Somme river on the Western Front. He was 25.

However, the Red Baron's exploits underscored how quickly the "flying machine," had matured since its inception just a decade earlier. As Air & Space notes, "by the end of the Great War, aviation had already adopted nearly every major feature that would characterize military and civil airplanes for the next three decades."