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In 1916 in the second year of World War I, Manfred von Richthofen, a former cavalry officer turned air pilot, joins Jagdstaffel 2, under the command of renowned flying ace Maj. Oswald Boelcke. The other pilots, including Ernst Udet, Werner Voss and Hermann Göring, are taken aback by the newcomer's steely arrogance and ambition. Soon after, Richthofen shoots down his first enemy plane, a French Nieuport. Exalted, Richthofen makes a wild dive in order to land quickly and drive a car out to the wreckage of the French plane where he inspects the dead pilot and cuts the French emblem out of the plane's canvas as a trophy. Later, Boelcke scolds Richthofen for reckless flying that might have damaged the plane and assures the younger pilot that he will never forget any of his victims. Noting Richthofen's genuine flying skills, Boelcke teaches him combat technique and soon Richthofen vies with his commander in ability and tactics. The Germans next fly against British squadron 24, led by Commander Owen and Victoria Cross winner Maj. Lanoe Hawker. After the mission, the British welcome a group of new pilots, which includes Canadian Arthur Roy Brown. Brown immediately offends Hawker the first evening by dismissing the traditional "gentleman's toast" to Richthofen. Brown declares the German their enemy and insists that he would rather salute Richthofen's noble victims. At Jagdstaffel 2, Richthofen's younger brother Lothar joins the squadron and admires his brother's growing collection of tiny silver trophies commemorating each downed enemy plane. A few weeks later during a mission, Richthofen makes an aggressive air attack, flying directly at a British craft, but accidentally clips Boelcke's plane's tail, sending it spinning out of control and crashing. Although initially shocked, Richthofen grows angry and quickly shoots down a British plane, then turns on Hawker's craft and shoots him in the head. On the ground, Göring furiously chastises Richthofen and suggests that his boldness is due to his upper class status. Meanwhile, at British squadron 24, Brown grimly salutes Hawker at the dining table as the other pilots remain seated. Soon after Boelcke's funeral, the twenty-three-year-old Richthofen is appointed the new commander of an elite squadron, Jasta 11. Over the next several weeks, Richthofen continues to build his reputation as a singular flying ace and receives the coveted Orden Pour le Mérite , or the Blue Max. Upon receiving an order to paint the squadron planes multi-colored to obscure the aircraft's style, Richthofen impulsively has the men paint their planes bright, vibrant colors and paints his own Albatros D.III bi-plane bright red. When the German High Command arrives at Jasta 11 with several journalists, they are shocked by the colored planes, but the press enthusiastically dubs Richthofen's squad The Flying Circus. Jasta 11 continues its successful campaign, making an unprecedented attack on British 24's camp during an afternoon cricket match. Soon after, Richthofen is summoned to Berlin to receive a decoration from Kaiser Wilhelm. During a party, Richthofen meets Dutch aircraft manufacturer Anthony Fokker, who shows him his latest design, a tri-plane. Meanwhile, Brown continues to anger Owen and his fellow pilots by insisting that the Germans are refusing to "play by the rules" and they should behave similarly. In the next air battle, Göring shoots down Brown, who manages to land safely and exit his plane before it explodes. While pausing to watch his friend Voss being shot down, Richthofen is caught unawares by a plane behind him and receives a grazing shot to the head, forcing him to crash-land near the front line. British infantry troops attempt to reach the famed red plane, but are held off by Germans and the injured Richthofen is rescued and later sent home for several weeks to recover. At Squadron 24, Brown, fellow Canadian Lt. Wilfred "Wop" May and Briton Murphy convince Owen to make a retaliatory raid against the Germans at the dinner hour. The raid is a success, destroying numerous grounded planes, personnel and an ammunition dump. Lothar is wounded in the leg while trying to take off in his plane. At the British debriefing, Owen is shocked when the men report the German infirmary was struck, but an officer from headquarters states that new orders have been issued for British flyers and troops to match the Germans in brutality. A little later, Richthofen returns to Jasta 11 to find a new group of Fokker planes, and his own tri-plane, the Fokker Dr.I, again painted bright red. Although Richthofen suffers some memory loss from his recent head wound, he appears strong and calls for an attack on the British camp. During the ensuing assault, Göring enrages the British by strafing a group of nurses fleeing the assault. Later, Richthofen takes Göring to task for the indiscriminate attack and threatens to shoot him if he repeats the behavior. The war proceeds over several months, with both sides incurring heavy losses and each group of pilots growing increasingly weary and bitter. When America enters the war, the British receive numerous American pilots as replacements, but their eagerness irritates Brown who promptly starts a fight with several. Meanwhile, Richthofen is stunned when the High Command summons him to confide that the war is lost for Germany and pressure him to accept a safe instructor's position. Outraged, Richthofen refuses. Returning to the airfield, Richthofen receives a letter from his private jeweler stating that as silver is no longer available in Germany, his future trophies will have to be made of tin. In April 1918, Jasta 11 and British 24 clash again in the air, flying near the Somme. When Richthofen forces May to land his damaged plane, Brown takes the opportunity to chase the low-flying Richthofen over the river and treetops, the pilots trading places back and forth as hunter and hunted. Brown doggedly stays with Richthofen and after swinging behind the German's plane, fires a burst, killing the famed ace. Returning to the British field, Brown is wildly congratulated for his victory, while Jasta 11 mourns the death of their most famed pilot and Göring is made the new commander.