15 years after the Wright brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk, airplanes were weapons. The 12 horsepower motor and the frailties of the first airplane gave way to powerful engines. We tend to think of WWI as soldiers stuck in muddy trenches, but there was also fierce fighting in the sky. WWI airplanes flew much faster than early aircraft and soon were armed with guns and bombs.
Flying warfare began with slow and basic airplanes sent up to see what the enemy was doing beyond the horizon. Pilots came close to enemy airplanes and even shot at each other with pistols, wild west style.
The pilots became the knights of the air with chivalry and honor, leather jackets and silk scarves. But the conditions in the cockpit were grim, cold and freezing. There were no parachutes; in fact the British Army prevented pilots wearing a parachute because they worried that the pilots would abandon government property. The aircraft were made of fuel soaked wood and fabric; any fire was disastrous.
The immediacy of life and death for the Great War pilots was often lost on the soldiers trapped in the trenches. In their eyes, the flyers were operating in the clear blue sky, flew their missions and returned to an airfield, a dry place to sleep, a cooked meal and a glass of wine. In the book, 1914, Jean Eicholz wrote this description of death from the air, “ . . . a Nieuport biplane, one of their own, picks that moment to crash and explode . . . hurling wreckage all over the trench . . . through which they could see the incineration of two airmen, killed on impact and still strapped in, transformed into sizzling skeletons hanging by their seat straps.”
Before the U.S. entered the war, the Allies lost a generation of young men. The Americans soon learned that the cost of war was high. Between September 26 and November 11,1918, The Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the losses were staggering. In those few weeks that led to the German surrender, the American First Army had over 26,000 soldiers killed; that is half the number lost in Vietnam and in only seven weeks.
It is important to remember that the airplanes of the Great War were the cutting edge of aviation technology; they were the F-22s of the day. While now they appear to be slow and fragile, think about this: At most air shows, with fast jets and agile airplanes, the scene in front of you is over in an instant.
Enjoy the airplanes of the Great War at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force and realize that you have the chance to consider what is flying across your field of vision, and really see it. They are colorful and make a wonderful sound. In 1918, the entire concept of flying machines was very new; the invention of the Wrights’ had, in 15 years, become the latest weapon of war.
The National Museum of the United States Air Force is hosting the 2018 World War I Dawn Patrol Rendezvous is September 22 and 23. Learn more at: https://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/Upcoming/WWI-Dawn-Patrol/
Dan Patterson is an aviation historian and photographer. You can see more of his photos at his website, www.flyinghistory.com