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Looking Back on the Early Days of Aerial War

2014 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the beginning of World War One.  Millions of soldiers and untold numbers of civilians died on European battlefields during that conflict which was called "the war to end all wars," which, of course, it was not.

We tend to remember the trench warfare of World War One, but it was the first conflict in the history of the world that included an air war as well. Dan Patterson has some thoughts.

When World War I start, aviation was new.  Flight was more art than science back then.  Advances came as a result of trail and error, cause and effect.

Aerial observers had been used in warfare since the Civil War.  A hot air balloon, tethered to the ground, would be sent up and observers would get high enough to see over the horizon.  Powered flight meant they could see beyond the horizon and go behind the battle lines.  That's where air battles began.

In 1914, aircraft were slow and fragile.  Both the Allies and the Germans flew their observation planes behind enemy lines and soon found themselves in the same airspace.  The first aerial combat took place when opposing pilots shot it out with pistols at surprisingly close range.

Soon faster, more maneuverable pursuit planes were developed to attack to observers, which began falling from the sky at an alarming rate.  The life expectancy of an observation aircrew grew short, so pursuit planes because escorts.  Aerial tactics were being invented.

Before long, machine guns were mounted on the fuselage, but at first they wouldn't fire through the aircrafts' propellers so engines and propellers were moved to the rear.  These cumbersome aircraft carried names like 'Gun Bus.'

Credit Virginia Museum of Flight, Richmond, VA
The painting by Henri Ferre depicting a WWI rifleman on the lower wing of an attacking Fokker.

It was the German Air Force that created the first so-called fighter plane.  It was small and nimble, designed by Antony Fokker.  It had a gun that fired forward through the propeller using a gear that timed the firing of the gun so it missed the propeller.  The pilot could aim the aircraft and fire the gun at the same time.

There's a painting by Henri Ferre made early in the war.  It depicts a British observation plane being attacked by a Fokker from behind.  Out on the wing of the British plane, plying on his belly, is a rifleman, aiming at the approaching fighter with his bolt action rifle.  Desperate times called for desperate solutions.

Pursuit pilots developed tactics like: "get as close to your enemy as possible before firing" or "create formations that can overwhelm the foe" and "attack with the sun behind you."

Observation aircraft evolved into large bombers with the ability to attack the enemy far beyond the front.  They too learned to fly in formation, and soon legions of multi-engine bombers droned through the skies and explosives rained from the clouds.  Before the war was over, the ability to attack cities from above became a harsh reality.

Aviation advanced dramatically between 1914 and 1918.  When the war ended, the art had become a science.  Fifteen years after the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, men and women were climbing into cockpits all over the world.  They would soon fly across continents and oceans, engage in international speed races, carry mail and cargo and passengers, and capture the imagination of human beings everywhere.

Dan Patterson is an aviation historian and photographer. You can see more of his photos at his website, www.flyinghistory.com

Aviation programming on WYSO is supported in part by the National Aviation Heritage Alliance and The Air Force Museum Foundation.