Birth of a New Weapon

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.

Reconnaissance Planes

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.

Fighter Planes

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.

Popular pages: World War I (1914–1919)