Originally a cavalryman, Richthofen transferred to the Air Service in 1915, becoming one of the first members of fighter squadron Jagdstaffel 2 in 1916. He quickly distinguished himself as a fighter pilot, and during 1917 became leader of Jasta 11 and then the larger fighter wing unit Jagdgeschwader 1, better known as "The Flying Circus" or "Richthofen's Circus" because of the bright colours of its aircraft, and perhaps also because of the way the unit was transferred from one area of allied air activity to another - moving like a travelling circus, and frequently setting up in tents on improvised airfields. By 1918, Richthofen was regarded as a national hero in Germany, and respected by his enemies.
Richthofen was shot down and killed near Vaux-sur-Somme on 21 April 1918. There has been considerable discussion and debate regarding aspects of his career, especially the circumstances of his death. He remains one of the most widely known fighter pilots of all time, and has been the subject of many books, films and other media.
Richthofen was a Freiherr (literally "Free Lord"), a title of nobility often translated as "baron". This is not a given name nor strictly a hereditary title, since all male members of the family were entitled to it, even during the lifetime of their father.[a] Richthofen painted his aircraft red, and this combined with his title led to him being called "The Red Baron" ("der Rote Baron" (help·info)), both inside and outside Germany. During his lifetime, he was more frequently described in German as Der Rote Kampfflieger, variously translated as "The Red Battle Flyer" or "The Red Fighter Pilot". This name was used as the title of Richthofen's 1917 autobiography.