After witnessing the flight of the Montgolfier balloon in Paris in 1783, Benjamin Franklin instantly remarked about the possible use of balloons in war. The Wright brothers knew from the start that their invention would have military uses, and they hoped that the flying machine might make war impossible by removing the element of surprise.
By 1913, aircraft had been used combat in Mexico, North Africa, and the Balkans. Although they scarcely removed all elements of surprise, they did give patriotic young men the chance to vent their wrath upon the enemy by dropping bombs and firing pistols.
When World War I began on August 1, 1914, every major nation--except the United States--had significant aerial components in their military forces. By 1914, Germany and France had each expended the equivalent of $26 million on their respective air services (measured in 1914 dollars). Russia had spent $12 million; Great Britain is estimated to have spent $9 million. The United States had spent only $400,000. U.S. spending exceeded only Austria-Hungary, which had expended just over $318,000.
France began the war with some 140 aircraft for 21 squadrons. Great Britain's Royal Flying Corps (RFC) had roughly 180 aircraft, about half of which were unfit for service. The Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) had 50 aircraft and fewer pilots. Germany went to aerial war with its characteristic efficiency. It could put 250 first-line aircraft in the field, with a pilot for each, along with no less than 9 dirigibles. Its Austro-Hungarian ally could field just under 50 aircraft. Imperial Russia had 250 ill-maintained aircraft and 14 dirigibles spread widely across the country.
These wood and fabric aircraft were derived from civil models, though some had been purchased to primitive military specifications in regard to equipment. They were almost evenly divided between monoplanes and biplanes, with approximately the same performance characteristics--a top speed of 60 or 70 miles per hour, a stall speed of 50 to 60 miles per hour, an endurance of an hour or two, and the capability to carry a pilot and an observer but little or no armament. They were fragile, cranky, unreliable, difficult to fly, and subject to structural failure if pressed too hard.
Within the first six months of the war, these aircraft, and their slightly more sophisticated descendants, demonstrated virtually every type of modern aerial combat, including strategic bombing, tactical bombing, close air support, reconnaissance, aerial photography, map-making, artillery spotting, aerial combat, clandestine spy missions, and the dropping of supplies to troops. More importantly, within the first two months of the war, reconnaissance reports from aerial observers resulted in decisive battles that directly affected the outcome of the war. In the East, it was the Battle of Tannenberg, which was possible only because German aerial reconnaissance teams detected the movement of the Russian Army. In the West, it was the Battle of the Marne, which came about only because both British and French aerial observers detected the right-wheel movement of the German Army. In both instances, perhaps the most remarkable thing was that the respective high commands believed the aerial reports and took action on them.
By January 1915, two facts emerged. The first was that loss of aircraft and human life was high--new industries were needed in the homelands to supply sufficient planes and crews. The second was that while aerial warfare could not be decisive in breaking the stalemate on the western front, it was nonetheless essential to the conduct of war. Having airpower did not necessarily mean that you would win the war, but not having it certainly meant you would lose it.
What followed was a race to create specialized aircraft and develop tactics for their use. By 1918, after four years of vicious fighting, there were fighters capable of 130 miles per hour while carrying two machine guns, bombers able to carry a ton of bombs over a distance of several hundred miles, and reconnaissance planes that could fly at altitudes above 20,000 feet. Where 1914 aircraft had been relatively fragile, fighters could now pull high-G loads in dogfights, dive at high speeds, and take a surprising amount of damage. The Germans had fielded giant bombers with huge 138-foot wingspans, and the British were preparing an aircraft to bomb Berlin.
As impressive as the improvements were, they paled in comparison to the speed at which the aircraft industry grew. More than 225,000 aircraft were produced during the war. In Great Britain, the total production for the first ten months of 1918 was 26,685 aircraft and 29,561 engines. The RFC had grown from 140 aircraft into the mighty Royal Air Force, with more than 22,000 planes in service around the world. Even Germany, hard-pressed by the long war and the Allied blockade, ended the war with an air force of more than 11,000 planes.
Aircraft Quality Advances
The four years of warfare spurred a revolution in quality as well. Before the war, planes were handmade, one or two at a time. By the middle of the war, aircraft and engines were produced using mass production. Aircraft engineering went from intuition to very sophisticated systems of design that developed whole families of aircraft. The more advanced aircraft required up-to-date systems of radio communication, bombsights, oxygen, heated flying clothes, synchronized guns, and more.
To support the advances, the entire industrial infrastructure of the major nations had to be revised. In the United States, for example, there was a mass recruitment of foresters to provide sufficient spruce from the Pacific Northwest. Acres of castor beans were planted to provide the essential castor oil for lubricating rotary engines. New industries were created to manufacture instruments, flying wires, radiators, and other essentials that thousands of aircraft demanded. These industries required a precision that exceeded any previous mass-manufactured object, and this in turn required new machinery and new techniques.
World War I was both the hammer and the anvil by which aviation was changed into a tempered tool that promised to revolutionize warfare and civilian life. The war advanced aviation at an amazing rate, achieving performance gains in 4 years that might have taken 20 in peacetime. When the war ended, there were dozens of new designs on the drawing boards in every country, with the exception of Russia, which was still racked by the Bolshevik revolution. There were thousands of pilots available to fly either surplus aircraft from the war or the few new aircraft that were being manufactured. And there were speed, altitude, distance, and duration records to be set; airline routes to be pioneered; new areas of the globe to be explored; and a new sector of the economy--aviation--to be exploited.
In the five years following the end of the war, aviation would be pushed to limits never dreamed of, and the aviator would become a mythic figure in the popular imagination. For more information on flight, check out the Golden Age of Flight.