John Herbert Hedley was born in northern England on 19 July 1887. After completing school, he found employment as an accounting clerk. In 1914, shortly after the beginning of World War I, he volunteered to serve with the British Army. He was assigned to an infantry regiment and later the Army Cyclist Corps, but eventually he was transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, where he served as an aerial observer and gunner.
As a Bristol F.2 Fighter airman, Hedley showed remarkable skill, shooting down as many as twelve enemy aircraft and one observation balloon. He achieved most of these ‘kills’ while flying with fighter ace Frank Johnson as his pilot. As with most observers, Hedley would stand up in his open cockpit while firing his machine gun. On one occasion, while flying another ace pilot, Reginald Makepeace, Hedley had an experience which would result in him being called ‘the luckiest man alive’. While in a ‘dogfight’, Makepeace pushed his control stick forward to enter a dive, with the resulting negative G-forces causing Hedley to fall out of the aircraft. He fell about 700 ft before somehow colliding with his own aircraft, grabbing its tail and pulling himself back into the cockpit.
Later, in March 1918, Hedley flew with yet another ace, Robert Kirkman. Their aircraft was shot down over enemy territory, but the two men survived and were captured as prisoners of war. Once the war had ended, Hedley immigrated to the USA, where he earned a living as a speaker, telling fascinated listeners about his wartime experiences. For most of his life, Hedley was known as ‘the luckiest man alive’.