World War I Flight

Aerial Advantage

Vickers Vimy
Vickers Vimy
Warren M. Bodie Collection

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.