World War One Aircraft

World War I saw the rise of airplanes as weapons of war. What was funny was that generals on both sides thought that airplanes would do nothing to change warfare at all. That is why in 1911 they agreed that armies would never use airplanes for war.

While the idea seems funny today, it made sense at the time. Airplanes in 1914 were not like airplanes today. They were not made of metal. The earliest airplanes had stitched canvas stretched over a wooden frame. The canvas was then painted to reduce drag and help pilots recognize planes from their own country. The pilots sat in a tiny seat just behind the propeller. Each plane had two wings, one above the pilot and one below, giving them the name Bi-planes.

Big German Anti-Aircraft Guns Firin...
Big German Anti-Aircraft Guns Firing, 1944

Planes were very dangerous to fly. Any spark would set the wood and canvas on fire. The pilots were so cramped that there was no room for a parachute. So if the plane went down, the pilot died. There were no radios at the time, so anything the pilot might have seen was gone if he went down. Because the pilot faced forward, he was always looking through the whirling propeller. There was no way for him to fight another pilot and fly his plane, much less use a gun to stop enemy pilots.

By 1914, most countries were starting to see the value of airplanes on the battlefield. They weren’t fighters. They were reconnaissance planes. That means that planes flew to see what the enemies were doing. Reconnaissance pilots flew over enemy lines and noted where they built trenches, placed guns and brought in supplies for the men. They would then fly back to their base and show the generals on the map. The general would then plan his attack to cause the most damage.

This was very dangerous work. The pilots had to fly low enough to see the ground. That meant that they were low enough for the enemy to shoot. Because there was only one seat, the pilot had to pay attention to the ground in addition to his flying. Many pilots lost their lives during these missions. To save their lives and their information, airplanes changed. First of all, they added a second seat. This allowed a “spotter” to ride behind the pilot. He was able to carry a camera and take pictures of the enemy position. As technology advanced, spotters were able to use early radios to report what they saw as they flew. As the role of the spotter grew, he moved to the front seat, while the pilot flew from behind. The pilot’s seat was higher, giving him a clear view over the spotter’s head.

Both sides recognized the danger of these flights. If the enemy knew where you camped, it would be easy to attack. So they tried to shoot enemy spotters whenever they saw them. Soon, spotters carried guns that allowed them to shoot enemy planes while in the sky. This presented a new problem. If the spotter shot a gun straight ahead, he would shoot the propeller, damaging and possibly causing the plane to crash. To fix that problem, planes were fit with special machine guns that connected to the propeller’s motor. The gun would advance and shoot bullets, but only when the propeller was out of the way.

Guns turned spotter planes into fighter planes. Germany, England and the United States all started training fighter pilots. Learning to be a fighter pilot was very dangerous. Armies lost more men during training then they did during combat. But the pilots that survived quickly became celebrities. Names like The Red Baron and The Sopwith Camel became household names. Fighter pilots became known as Flying Aces. They created whole new ways of fighting aerial battles, learning to fly in loops and circles and even upside down.

As the pilots created new ways of fighting, the military found new ways to use planes. Soon armies mounted guns below the pilot, letting the spotter shoot in any direction. The first bombers were spotters who sat in front of the pilot. The spotter would carry a bomb in his lap until the plane was over the target. Then he would hit a switch and drop the bomb over the side of the plane.

World War I saw the rise of airplanes as military weapons. They started the war as nothing more than spotters, and ended up turning the tide as pilots learned to dogfight in the air and bomb targets on the ground.