In the summer of 1914, the airplane was less than eleven years old. Aviation was a fledgling technology that fascinated many but still generated skepticism when it came to practical applications. Most airplanes of the time were slow, flimsy contraptions with barely enough power to lift a single pilot and perhaps one passenger. While numerous countries had shown an interest in military aviation, the concept of using airplanes to wage war was still a fairly radical idea. All that changed during the course of World War I.
Early in the war, military strategists realized that aircraft could be very useful for spying on enemy troop movements. Thus, the reconnaissance plane was born—a tool that all sides in the war used to varying degrees. These aircraft typically carried a pilot and an observer with a camera, who would photograph troop positions on the ground. The use of aircraft for reconnaissance grew rapidly during the first few months of the war and played an increasingly crucial role in achieving victories. Such aircraft proved vital to the British and French forces during the Battle of Mons and the Battle of the Marne, for example.
As aerial reconnaissance became more common, so did the need for ways to stop enemy observation planes. One way was by firing upon them from the ground, which was ineffective until guns could be better adapted for the purpose. The other way was to develop a means for one aircraft to attack another. The first such attempts were made using the observation aircraft themselves, as pilots and observers attempted to shoot at other planes using rifles and even pistols—a method that quickly proved hopeless. Some pilots tried throwing hand grenades, bricks, or even long ropes with grappling hooks at planes below them. The ideal solution was the machine gun, which could fire a continuous stream of bullets, significantly increasing the chance of hitting a target.
Machine guns tended to be large and heavy, however, and only a few were small and light enough to be practicable for use on an airplane. Another problem was that firing sideways seriously decreased accuracy, while firing forward meant that the airplane’s propeller would be in the way. The problem was not solved until mid-1915, when a Dutch aircraft designer named Anton Fokker developed the “interrupter gear,” a timing mechanism that synchronized the machine gun with the moving propeller blades.
On August 1, 1915, German pilots Oswald Boelcke and Max Immelmann became the first pilots to shoot down another aircraft using Fokker’s new method. This development gave the Germans a strong advantage for several months until French and British designers succeeded in adapting the device for their own use about one year later.
Bombing was an obvious offensive tactic for use in air warfare, but different countries approached the concept in different ways. Russia was the first to develop an airplane specifically for this purpose: the Murometz, a large four-engine airplane that Igor Sikorsky had developed in 1913 as a passenger plane, was adapted for use as a bomber in 1914 and was used successfully throughout the war.
Germany took a different approach to bombing by using lighter-than-air dirigibles, or zeppelins, to drop bombs on targets as far away as London and Paris. The slow-moving zeppelins, which had a long range and could carry a relatively large cargo of explosives, reached the peak of their success early in the war, during 1915. As the war continued, the giant airships became increasingly vulnerable to the rapidly improving capabilities of fighter planes: the zeppelins were filled with hydrogen, so only a small spark was necessary to cause the entire ship to explode in flames. As a result, Germany turned more and more to using airplanes as bombers.
As the war went on and airplane technology improved, large battles in the sky became an ever more common occurrence, and fantastic legends and stories grew around great air aces, such as Manfred von Richthofen (the “Red Baron”) and Eddie Rickenbacker. These men came to be seen by the public as modern-day knights, fighting a more exotic and elegant war than the grotesque nightmare happening on the ground below.
The truth was quite different. Newly recruited pilots were often sent into the skies with only a crude understanding of how to fly (typically less than five hours training). As the war progressed, it actually became unusual for a new pilot to survive the first few weeks of his duty. Due to this lack of experience, pilots not only fell victim to enemy aces but also succumbed regularly to bad weather, mechanical problems, or loss of control due to pilot error. It was also common for pilots simply to become lost and then run out of fuel over enemy lines. Most of those who were shot down lost their lives not in spectacular dogfights but after being shot from behind without ever having even been aware of their attackers. Although parachutes had been invented decades before, pilots from some countries—Britain in particular—were not allowed to carry them, because military leaders believed their use to be cowardly.
On the whole, aerial warfare cannot be said to have played a fundamental role in World War I, as it did in World War II. Bombing served more as a psychological weapon than a practical one, and the technology necessary to cause the kind of massive damage that bombing would be able to inflict in the near future had not yet been developed.
On the other hand, World War I itself encouraged the rapid improvement of the airplane, both in general and specifically as a weapon. During the four years of conflict, the overall stability and safety of flying improved tremendously, as did the power, speed, and maneuverability of the newest designs. Moreover, the war fostered the general public’s respect for aviation and spawned a new generation of pilots and aircraft designers, who would go on to take human flight to the next level after the war.