How Did Aviation Evolve During WWI Essay

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Aviation could be said to be the design,development,manufacture and operation of heavier-than-air craft. The dramatic advances made in airplane designs since the Wright Flyer of 1903 are the result of technological gains in such engineering fields like aerodynamics,propulsion systems,structures and materials,control systems and avionics. Contributions to technology have come from research conducted by many private individuals, and from research laboratories operated mainly by the industrial firms and governments.

The manned airplane first flown by Wilbur and Oliver Wright near Kitty Hawk,North Carolina(N. C), on Dec. 17,1903 was to be the vehicle of developing air warfare(Crabtree,1994,pg13). Only a decade before the Great War began, airplanes did not exist. The First Air Campaign recounts the remarkable development of the airplane as a weapon of war in an entirely new battlefield”the sky. And, while the airplane was revolutionized, so too did the airplane revolutionize war. The technology of flight evolved dynamically.

New types of aircraft reached the front, tipped the balance of air power in their favor, and were obsolete within a month. In the course of the First World War airspeeds doubled, maximum altitudes and climb rates tripled, typical engine horsepower increased fivefold, machine gun fire rates went up ten times, and bomb loads increased a hundredfold. (p11) At the start of World War I, the Allies on the Western Front,with just over two hundred aircraft,faced the Germans equipped with two hundred and ninety aircraft.

Neither side had forseen much use for airplanes beyond reconnaissance. Slow,unarmed machines reported to their headquarters enemy troop movement and concetration. Early in the war,British observers,by reporting the path of the advancing German troops through Belgium, saved the channel ports from capture. Throughout the war,the observation planes performed important services to their respective sides. Later aerial photography became a valuable addition to visual observation. Both sides attempted to defend their territory from from enemy observation planes.

Initially, the observation planes fired ineffective pistols and rifles at one another. Machine guns were tried but were hazardous because of the danger of hitting the propeller. On April 1, 1915, the air war took a new dimension when Roland Garros of France fired a fixed machine gun through the arc of the propeller and shot down a German Albatross. Garros had fastened metal plates to the propeller of his Morane-Saulnier L, to deflect the bullets that would have harmed the blades (Lawson,1996,pg 64). It was the true fighter plane,since the pilot aimed the machine gun by aiming the airplane.

After three victories,Garros was captured by the Germans who studied his method and developed a system of synchronizing the machine gun with the propeller so that the blades would not be hit. Anthony H. G. Fokker installed fixed machine guns in his fast Fokker Eindeckers and for the next eight months ,the Fokkers were dominant on the Western Front. Over the front lines,the appearance of Fokker pursuit planes in June 1915,gave temporary air superiority to the Central Powers and spurred the Allies into developing pursuit services.

The chief duty of pursuit aviation continued to be the protection of observation planes and balloons. By the end of April 1916,French Nieuports, with a fixed machine gun on the upper wing and later a synchronized gun, had, along with British pushers,neutralized the Fokker threat. The air war settled into a pattern. Flights of fighters from both sides patrolled over and behind the front lines to deny airspace to the enemy. This lead to fighter-vs-fighter combat,called dogfights,in which agile fighters maneuvered to shoot down opponents(Lawson, 1996, pg 11).

As the war progressed, new methods of using the airplane as a weapon was devised. Some planes were armoured and equipped with machine guns, and special types were developed for pursuit,bombing, and reconnaissance. Light bombers,usually single engine two-seaters, were used to bomb tactical targets near the front lines, while other aircraft were used for very effective, direct machine gun strafing attacks on ground troops. Strategic bombing began when the Germans,employing Zeppelins,bombed Egland.

But the airship fleet suffered great losses and was replaced by heavy bombers. At the front, all nations struggled for aerial supremacy. The balance of power swung wildly from side to side during the air campaign. Industrialism, technology, and doctrine played as great a role as the military tactics and materiel. Theories of air power affected the structure of the air forces of the First World War (Morrow Jnr,2003, pg 220). By the wars end,thousand of aircrafts were engaged in combat.

Aircraft power plants had grown from 80hp rotaries such as Gnome to the 400hp V-12 Liberty engine. Aircraft speeds had almost doubled . In 1914, aircraft on combat missions generally flew at altitudes of a few thousand feet. By 1918, reconnaissance flights were flown regularly at more than twenty thousand feet,and much of aerial combat was near that altitude. The aircrews suffered from the extreme cold and lack of oxygen at such heights, even though crude oxygen equipment were installed in many of the reconnaissance airplanes.

It had been estimated that 100,000 planes were used by the Allies and Central Powers during World War I. A dozen of these squadrons flew U. S built De Havilland DH-4 planes, but the others were equipped with Salsom,Spad,Brequet, and Sopwith Camel planes purchased from Britain and France. Essentially,the last year of the war in the air demonstrated the best abilities of all nations involved. The air services played a valuable and necessary role in every action. Their presence significantly affected the successes of the ground troops both materially and morale-wise.

Offensives were planned with information obtained by the airplane, attacks were supported and sustained with a significant measure of air supremacy, and defensive action was not secured without aerial support. Air forces gained respect and autonomy as military leaders and civilian authorities realized the importance of air power. Great Britain was the first nation to officially form an independent military arm, the Royal Air Force. All the nations air services matured and developed distinct qualities and characteristics during the Great War(WW1).

The Allies ultimately won the campaign in the air by taking advantage of all of these elements to tip the balance of power in their favor. The offensive policies of innovative leaders like Trenchard and Mitchell, the superior numbers of trained men and machines eventually available, the superior output of Allied industrial capacity, the inter-allied cooperation to share resources and strengths, the development of competitive to superior equipment, and aggressive strategies and tactics, all peaked in the closing battles which ended the first campaign in the sky. At the close of World War I, France possesed the worlds largest airforce.

In the two decades that following 1918, world powers shared the technological advances that resulted from improved aviation techniques and equipments(Nardo, 2004,pg 53). The First World War was as much a war of attrition in the air as it was on the ground. Losses in the air placed great stresses on the aircraft manufacturing industry and on the training of flyers.. World War I was a watershed for the development of airpower and the history of aerial warfare. The airplane and its uses in war evolved more in the fifty two months of World War I than in the fifty two years that followed it.

The basic concepts, technologies, organizations, strategies and tactics devised in World War I became the dogma of air power today. Historys first air campaign dramatically changed the face of war forever(Lawson, 1996, pg 223).


Crabtree, J. D. (1994). On Air Defense. Westport, CT: Praeger. Lawson, E. , & Lawson, J. (1996). The First Air Campaign, August 1914-November 1918. Conshohocken, PA: Combined Books. Morrow, J. H. (2003). The Great War: An Imperial History. New York: Routledge. Nardo, W. A. (2004). Imagining Flight: Aviation and the Popular Culture. Air Power History, 51(3), 54+.

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