World War I Flight

Aircraft Quality Advances

One of the most advanced aircraft of World War I was the German Junkers D1
One of the most advanced aircraft of World War I was the German Junkers D1
Peter M. Bowers Collection


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.