James Thomas Byford McCudden VC, DSO & Bar, MC & Bar, MM (28 March 1895 – 9 July 1918) was an British First World War flying ace and among the most highly decorated airmen in British military history.
Born in 1895 to a middle class family with military traditions, McCudden joined the Royal Engineers in 1910. Having an interest in mechanics he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in 1913 at which time he first came into regular contact with aircraft. Out the outbreak of war in 1914 he flew as an observer before training as a fighter pilot in 1916.
He claimed his first victory in September 1916. McCudden claimed his fifth victory—making him an ace—on 15 February 1917. For the next six months he served as an instructor and flew defensive patrols over London. He returned to the frontline in the summer, 1917. That same year he dispatched a further 31 enemy aircraft while claiming multiple victories in one day on 11 occasions.
With his six British medals and one French, McCudden received more awards for gallantry than any other airman of British nationality serving in the First World War. He was also one of the longest serving. By 1918, in part due to a campaign by the Daily Mail newspaper, McCudden became one of the most famous airmen in the British Isles.
At his death he had amassed 57 enemy aircraft placing him seventh on the list of the war's most successful aces. Just under two-thirds of his victims can be identified by name.[a] This degree of veracity was possible since unlike other Allied aces, a large amount of McCudden's claims were made over Allied-held territory. The majority of his successes were achieved with 56 Squadron RFC and all but five fell while flying the S.E.5a.
On 9 July 1918 McCudden was killed in a flying accident when his aircraft crashed following an engine fault. His rank at the time of his death was Major, a significant achievement for a man who had begun his career as a non-commissioned officer. McCudden is buried at the British war cemetery at Beauvoir-Wavans.
All three of McCudden's brothers served in the RFC and Royal Air Force (RAF). Along with James McCudden, one was killed in an accident and another in action during the war. The surviving fourth brother died in 1934 from an illness at 33, having briefly served in the RAF.