17 December 2012
Aviation of the World Wars
A spitfire streaked through the sky, its pilot looking for an enemy. Suddenly, a red tri-plane appeared out of nowhere, and shot a missile, taking out the plane’s wing. As the spitfire plummeted to the ground, the pilot wondered why he had tried to take on the Red Baron. Suddenly he collided with a biplane bomber, taking it with him to a fiery end… Wait a moment. Wasn’t the Red Baron long before spitfires? And were there any biplane bombers? Did they really have missiles back then? Are you sure this story is accurate? Any of these questions can be answered by looking into history. Studying the airplanes of the World Wars will reveal their function, effectiveness, and inform about the pilots who flew them. The aircraft for World War I (WWI), and their purpose, greatly differed from those in World War II (WWII). Their value was defined by the author R. G. Grant, who said, “The principle role of aircraft in World War I was to support the armies in the trenches.” Basically, the army on the ground was viewed as the primary fighting force of the war, not airplanes. Neither the Allies nor the Axis powers could see how they could do any good. As always, the troop movements on the ground were considered the most important part of the army (Grant 68). No one really thought that airplanes would work as weapons, either. Many saw them as more of an annoyance than anything else. During some experimental observation tests, someone said that the airplanes were unnecessarily frightening the cavalry’s horses. Some relatively small bombing tests had been made, but airplane’s uses at the start of the war were still limited to reconnaissance and scouting (“Aviation”). A problem that came for many countries at the start of the war was gathering a sufficient number of airplanes to put to use. Germany was able to muster the most at 282, which was a lot for back in that time period. Austria-Hungry had the least, at only 40. Numbers of airplanes would diminish greatly over the course of the war, and quite a few countries would find themselves scrambling to build the precious machines as fast as possible (Almond 11). As the war progressed, a couple of main types of airplanes were revealed. The first were the monoplanes, or planes with a single horizontal wing. At this time, they were not preferred, due to less maneuverability. Many of these mono-wing planes at the time used a system of wing warping to steer, which involved cables spreading from a shaft above the cockpit to spots where they were anchored to the wing. By adjusting the joystick, the cables would warp and twist the wing, steering the airplane (Grant 92-93) Second were biplanes and tri-planes, those with one or two extra wings. These outclassed the mono-wing planes. An extra wing or two added more lift, which is essential for maintaining an edge against any aerial combatant. Without the feel of so much weight, these airplanes had increased maneuverability, and could almost literally fly circles around monoplanes. Tri-planes, though agile, were not produced in the same quantity as biplanes and monoplanes, due to the extra wing adding cost and effort to the construction (Grant 80).
Other than scouting, WWI airplanes had two main functions. The first is the fighter plane, the second the bomber. The fighter planes did not have a large role at the beginning of the war, as all they did was act as protection for the scout planes. The pilots had to use handheld guns to shoot at enemies. This was quite ineffectual, as there was little hope for the pilots to hit anything. Soon, though, the planes took part in larger roles, going into battle in tight formations as part of large tactical air battles (Grant 72-73).
The first official fighter plane was invented by Roland Garros, a pilot for the Allies and a Frenchman. He took a pair of machine guns and mounted them on top of the nose of the plane, behind...