An officer has to send out young pilots every day knowing that many of them will be killed.
In the fall of 1915 a plane is shot down in France. Major Brand (Neil Hamilton) waits nervously, and two new pilots are lost. Brand questions patrol leader Dick Courtney (Richard Barthelmess). The men drink, laugh, and sing, but the new man Hollister (Gardner James) is upset. Brand gives orders for a patrol at 4:30 a.m. Six new pilots arrive, and Courtney takes up two of them. Hollister tells Courtney that Scott was trying to help him; Scott and two others were lost. A German aviator is brought in. Courtney shot him down and offers him a drink. Hollister stops the singing and argues with Courtney. Scott (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) comes in with bottles, and they celebrate.
Only three planes from the B patrol return as four pilots were killed. The Germans now have Von Richter, who drops a message with boots. Brand forbids anyone to go up in response; but at night two planes take off and bomb a German airfield. Courtney has to land and destroy his plane, but Scott comes down and picks him up. The plane is hit, but Scott manages to land. They make it to the French trenches. When they get back, Brand reprimands Courtney. Brand gets a call and tells Courtney that he was promoted and that Courtney must replace him.
Courtney and Lt. Phipps (Edmund Breon) write a letter to the mother of a dead pilot. Scott welcomes new pilots and finds one is his brother Donny (William Janney). Courtney is ordered to send four patrols a day during a German push. All go up at dawn even though Scott complains about his brother going. Courtney advises Donny, who leaves a medal with him. Scott tells Donny to stay by him. Von Richter's patrol attacks them, and Donny is shot down. Courtney sees only two planes return. Scott blames Courtney for Donny's death.
Brand arrives in a car and gives Courtney a secret mission for one plane. Brand won't let Courtney go himself, and they asks for volunteers. Scott speaks first and is chosen. Courtney plots a course for Scott and tells him to fly low. Scott drinks and passes out. Courtney flies the plane at dusk and bombs a train and industrial targets. Three German planes attack him. Courtney is shot and killed. Scott waits at night, and a German plane drops a package. In the final scene Scott gives the orders.
This powerful drama portrays the tragedy and futility of war. Those pilots who survive to become commanders get the even worse job of sending the others to die.