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The following article is a translation and adaptation of the original one in Spanish language written by Raul Larroque.

Those rash men in the flying machines by Raul Larroque

The first steps of the world military aviations

The debuts

On December 17 1903, the Flyer 1 piloted by Orville Wright took off the ground for only 12 seconds, but it realized the millennial desire of the man to fly. That first aircraft and the followings built by the brothers Wright still had well little to do with what today we define airplane. They were biplanes, they had to be assisted with a catapult during the take-off and they possessed an intrinsic brittleness that made dangerous even the taxing, when a gust of wind would have been able easily to capsize the plane, hurting or killing the pilot.

Yet, from that fatidic day, thousand of persons grieved to the conquest of the air, starting a crazy rush toward the experimentation of new flying machines.
The enormous thankfulness that we owe to have to those men who have modified so deeply the world in which we live must not have been diminished by our today's awareness that the machines for them so marvelous have been also transformed in tools of death. As every invention, it is not the object itself to be wicked, but only the use that is done of it. The interest that the aircrafts, so they had called at those times, aroused in the military environments it was not immediate. The first samples were not anything else other than prototypes, difficult to pilot and as much insecure. It was only in 1909 that there was the first theoretical exposure of a military use of the airplanes. Italian Major Giulio Douhet did it one writing of his, expressing the enormous importance that in the future war events the dominion of the air (besides that of the seas) would have had.

After this farsighted forecast, it was really the Italian army to experiment the first operational employment of the airplanes, during the Italian-Lybian war in 1911. On October 23 of that year Captain Carlo Piazza completed the first tactical recognition and on following November 1 Lieutenant Giulio Guidotti effected the first bombardment at low quota. Already the preceding year, the pioneer of the American aviation Glenn Curtiss had even tried to take off from a war ship testing the difficulties owed by the continuous pitching. Nevertheless, these first attempts remained isolated.

The few available planes had been confined in some special units of the army and none of the members of the Head Quarters would ever have the courage to use that awkward and defenseless mechanical volatile affair for an employment in war period.

The long summer of 1914

Such situation didn't change even with the burst of World War 1. The reasons for such skepticism are easily explainable. Despite the flying machines had made enormous progress in the decade that had spent from the flight of the Flyer 1, they still preserved all the aboriginal defects. They had a scarce autonomy that penalized them enormously above the wide fronts of oriental Europe, while on the western front the minor ampleness of the fight lines allowed a relatively greater employment. They were even vulnerable to the ground fire and they needed constant attention during the long standstills due to the frequent mechanical breakdowns.

Also persisting all these difficulties at the beginning of the hostilities, every nation busy in the war was not unprovided of airplanes. The figures are rather varying if we considered in the number some prototypes that flew only above test fields. In every case, justifying a certain inaccuracy for the reasons exposed above, the strengths in field can be described in the following way:

Nation Airplanes
France from 136 up to138
Great Britain from 48 up to113
Germany from 180 up to 232
Italy (1915) from 130 up to 150
Austria-Hungary from 60 up to 86
Russia from 210 up to 244
Belgium 24
United States (1915) 55

The great variety of models available made in concrete impossible the job to the first mechanics that in many cases had to invent some spare parts that even the factories builders of the airplanes could not furnish. To overcome willingly these problems it was necessary to ascertain what indisputable advantages could offer the airplanes.

The first employments

Although slow and vulnerable, the first military aircrafts were revealed insuperable in the recognition. They were able to fly over the enemy with a certain impunity and subsequently to communicate its position through firstly the throwing of written messages and then with the radio. It was really thanks to the air recognition that the French army knew of the conversion toward east on the Marne of the German troops in contradiction of the aboriginal plain Schliffen, succeeding so to stop its advance and to do an effective counterattack. In a war of position as it was the first world conflict, the artillery constituted a weapon of vital importance and to discover which effectiveness its shoots had, it could have as many importance as possessing guns of large caliber. It was so that the aerial scouts were gifted with photographic apparatuses for the survey of the artillery shoots. The damages could be appraised with precision and the range of the guns calculated exactness till that moment unthinkable.

All the armies had realized that what was useful for oneself it was also for the adversary and therefore they started to search a solution to stop the scouts. It was so that the "fighter" airplane was born. Since the first days of war, all the pilots had thought about bringing with themselves some weapons for personal protection. At the beginning they had limited to guns and carbines that were weak against other airplanes. Therefore, the imagination of the aviators satisfied their fancy creating an incredible war hotchpotch. Some airplanes were gifted with steel darts that were launched against the wings of cloth of the enemy or with ropes to whose extremity was suspended a hook with which stopping the helixes of the other competing airplanes (this was the solution adopted by the Russian ace Alexander Alexandrovich Kazakov). Some pilots even thought to ram their antagonists, putting so in danger also their life.

These occasional expedients became obsolete when the fighter airplanes were gifted with machine-guns, very effective weapons either in the aerial duels either for the ground interdiction. It remained to resolve the problem where putting them on the structure of the aircrafts. In the two-site plane, the pilot sat in front, while the scout and subsequently the gunner sat in the back. With such disposition, the line of fire was strongly limited from the presence of the structure of its own airplane forcing to attack sideways only. On the one-site plane, difficulties were even greater. A rotating machine-gun entirely similar to those in endowment to the infantry could not be used with effectiveness by the pilots that didn't succeed in handling it and contemporarily to hold in flight theirs heavy airplanes. Some technical changes were made that allowed the sure and precise use of this weapon. Firstly, It was positioned in fixed way above the wings, in a position that didn't interfere with the motion of the helix or secondarily, the helix itself had been moved in the back as in the case of the English Blackburn Triplane. In this way the pilot didn't have to do anything else other than aiming the face of the aircraft toward the enemy and then shooting.

However, the amelioration in the shooting efficiency didn't hide the decline of the performances that these remedies involved. Particularly the back-traction plans resulted sensitively slower than their front-traction contemporaries. It was thought that the only solution was to put the machine-gun just behind the helix looking for a method that allowed shooting at precise intervals avoiding striking the shovels in movement. The first mechanism of this type was contrived by the French factory Morane-Saulnier that on its Type L tried a synchronized machine-guns in February-March 1915. This prototype immediately revealed reliability problems so much that the society refused to send it in first line. It opted instead for the armoring of the inside part of the shovels in such way to divert the bullets that accidentally had struck it. With this change, on April 1 1915 the French pilot Roland Garros destroyed the first one of five German airplanes that on that day allowed him to earn the title of “ace.”

The amelioration adopted by the Morane-Saulnier also had its defects that consisted in a tiring of the mechanical parts of the motor, solicited by the rebound bullets. It is hypothesizes that it was really this the cause that forced Roland Garros to land behind the German lines, offering his airplane to the study of some flight technicians of the Kaiser.

They didn't spent much time to understand the operation mode of the mechanism and to improve it transforming it in a perfectly working synchronized machine-gun. The first models that used it were the Fokker E that for the whole autumn and winter 1915 conquered the air supremacy inflicting heavy losses to the Allies. Technically this Eindecker (monoplane), was not exceptional and his fame was due in maximum part to the superior armament that it had. Its summer production was rather low so much that the Allies realized their own technological delay only in the September 1915 when it was too late to make up within the end of the year.

1916-18: the period of glory of the fighters

Since the spring 1916, English and French were able to line up airplanes that outclassed the Fokker E. They are to remember the British F.E. 2b and D.H. 2, but above all the French Nieuport 11 and 17 that until the appearing of the Spad S.VII were the best fighters that flew on the western front. This latter valuable example of aerial engineering based its success on the revolutionary motor built by Louis Béchereauon a project of the Swiss Marc Birkigt.

He modified the rotating motion of the previous engines, disposing the eight cylinders in a “V” and armoring the part of fuselage that contained the motor. The new disposition of the cylinders allowed having a frontal radiator of circular section that improved notably the aerodynamics of the aircraft design. So planned the Spad S.VII could graze 200 km/h at sea level and to reach 3000 meters in less than a quarter of hour. Its success was so great that the aviations of other allied countries used this airplane that stayed in production until 1918. In Italy the ace Francesco Baracca got his initial victories with this machine.

Without air supremacy, the Germans didn't remain to look. The Germanic planners created some of the best fighters of the whole war period that were concretized in the biplane and triplane Albatros D. I, D.II, D.III additionally to the famous Fokker Dr.I. Besides regaining technical supremacy, the Germans imposed themselves in the winter period between 1916 and the 1917 for a revolutionary restructuring of the aerial corps. They decided to detach the air units from the army creating the Jagdstaffels, fighter squadrons, also said Jasta. The new independence conquered by the aviation allowed planning raids that were not conceived entirely for the support of the infantry. They originated so epic clashes between fighters that made sadly famous the month of April 1917, known in Great Britain as “Bloody April”. In that month, the Germans complained about 151 destructions of English airplanes.

If these victories, 88 were attributed to 11th Jasta. In that squadron two of the most famous heroes of the German aviation flew: the baron Manfred von Richtofen and Kurt Wolff. (both destroyed 21 airplanes during the month and the Allies' massacre finished only on May 1 when to the former one had a license period to celebrate his25th birthday). The ability of the pilots was added to the better technical quality of the German airplanes. The Fokker DR.I piloted by von Richtofen possessed two synchronized machine-guns and an intrinsic instability of the streamlining that made it better than whatever adversary aircraft under every point of view, yet only the enormous experience of the baron allowed the birth of a myth that last still today. The aristocrat was so sure of his own abilities to paint his airplane with a garish red color, easily recognizable, while many others pilots experimented some fanciful mimetic coloration made with more tonalities (some Germans used tonalities of purple and pink to better blend in the landscape of Northern France). From this fact he had the nickname of “Red Baron” with which became sadly famous for the widows of the adversary pilots.

Despite the large number of victims that he caused (80), his loyalty of gentleman of the German nobility let him earn a great respect near the enemy. On April 21 1918, day when he died, a fierce bagarre began to gain the honor to have contributed to his disappearance. Despite officially the victory was attributed to the Canadian Captain Roy Brown, from an official communication form of the 53rd AFA Battery (Australian Field Artillery) we can notice that very probably the shoot to the heart that resulted deadly, it had been shot from ground really by the artillerymen of that unit, saving so the myth of the great “Red Baron” that was not defeated by any aviator even in the moment of his death. The fame and the correctness of the German pilot was so great that his funerals had been organized from the Royal Air Force with a picket of honor and with the presence of all the most famous aces of the Allied aviation.The history of von Richtofen can serve for understanding as those brave men that fought in the air in the years of World War 1 were a lot more than simple military pilots. They were true pioneers and they showed courage and tenacity that it owes to allow us to call hero the last one among them.

The last year of war was characterized by the construction of the most advanced hunting airplanes either of the central Powers either of the Allies. Models as the Germans Fokker D. VII and D. VIII, Siemens-Schuckert D.III, Roland D.6b or the Anglo-American Sopwith 7F1 Snipe and Packard Le Père-Lusac 11 already possessed all the characteristics of the airplanes of the first post-war period. The great power emitted by the motors had also involved a change in the construction materials. The aboriginal wood and cloth structure had been quickly replaced firstly from coverings in compensated and then from prefabricated and ready to the use wood fuselage. The connecting rods and the support parts of the wings were built with aluminum and steel, guaranteeing a high reliability in the more hazardous maneuvers during the flight. To the side of this industrial amelioration, they were, however, preserved also some particular that let us understand as this era was still at the origins of the history of the human flight. For instance, on the German Roland CII, whose long operational life had already begun in 1916, the planners had predisposed on the fuselage the presence of two pairs of side windows with a so to say “panoramic” finality. Some of the more “coquettish” pilots adorned them with tendons embroidered by their wives or fiancées.

For the whole final period of the conflict, the Germans maintained a moderate advantage under the point of view of the technology, but the number of airplanes was clearly in favor of the Allies (over 10000 aircrafts against around 2300). The production of generic airplanes was seven times larger in Great Britain in comparison to Germany, but until the offensive late in the summer 1918 that brought to the final defeat of the Germanic troops, the fates of the war remained in equilibrium also for the ability of the pilots of the Kaiser's aviation.

The giants of the air: the bombers

As we have remembered in precedence the first operational employment of the airplanes was the recognition and the tactical support of the artillery. The two assignments were developed with a lot of diligence, rousing and signaling all the strategically important objectives. However the problem of the time that intervened between the signaling and the real destruction of the target remained.

so with the introduction of the radio for the communication with the ground artillery, the enemy always preserved a certain advantage that allowed moving the troops or strengthening and hiding the fixed installations. It was so natural that some of the scout pilots thought about bringing with themselves some bombs to drop without waiting for the intervention of the artillery. On the principle the payload was little thing: few bombs of a pair of kilos each that could be baited with convenience from the pilot himself or from his companion on the two-site planes.

It was immediately evident that an attack of this type was not effective at all. It was as clearer, however, that the light scouts could not be effective for the transport of bombs. It was planned the construction of airplanes from the enormous dimensions that were able to do long distances without landing and to bring some hundred kilos of bombs. Contrarily to what happened for the fighters, the first nations that were interested in the bombers were Russia and Italy.
Russia already in 1913 possessed the Bolshoi Baltisky B, a gigantic biplane of twenty meters length and twenty-seven of wing-span that however had some defects that prevented its war employment of it, first among them the miserable speed of only85 km/h. Surely better it was the Sykorsky Ilya Mourometz V, a four-engine with thirty meters wing-span and a speed of 125 km/h that could transport half ton of bombs.

It was, however, Italy to create the best bombers of the whole war, thanks to the series Caproni. The models Ca.30, Ca.32, Ca.40 and Ca.42 marked the evolution of this typology of airplane up to the planning and realization in the 1918 of the “definitive” bombers Ca.46, the true dominator of its category. It was a mighty three-engine biplane from 150 km/h with a defensive armament composed of two rotative machine-guns and with an offensive one of over 500 kgs of bombs. The bombers, including its variations Ca.44 and Ca.45, had so much success to be built in 225 samples and the license of construction was also granted to English, French and American societies that furnished their own products to the respective military aviations.

The other Allies, besides building airplanes on license, knew to create also some good machines alone, as the British Handley Page V/1500 that could reach Berlin departing from England and it had a war payload of 3500 Kgs. This airplane didn't enter in production in time to have operational roles in the conflict and also after the end of the war it had a brief and limited life during some missions in India. French never knew to get so resounding results and their bombers remained of small dimensions, inadequate for the assignment that had been entrusted them.

Entirely different it was the situation in Germany. Already in 1914 the German army and navy possessed some flying machines for long range bombardment, but they weren't airplanes! They were the airship of the note factory Zeppelin. The technology of the light-than-air airships was notably older and more reliable in comparison to the heavy-than-air bombers. Besides, the characteristic silence with which the airships moved seemed done just for the bombardment. The airships of the Navy and the Army differed between them for the type of materials used for the construction. Those of the army were in wood, while those of the Navy in aluminum, therefore lighter, faster and with longer range of action. In 1916, the German Head Quarter decided to launch a vast aerial offensive on London and the neighboring cities.

To carry out the missions they were available two series of airships of the Navy. One including the airships denominated class L from 13 to 24 that were older and less reliable and the second series composed from airships of the most recent class L30 on which the hopes of success of the Germans were founded. The first nighttime raids on the English capital city, performed in the summer of 1916 were a full success. The terror provoked by the air bombardment compensated the scarce precision of the bombs that dropped from high height with difficulty approached to the pre-arranged target. Besides, the impunity of these attacks was nearly total. In fact, none of the airships had been destroyed because of the incapability of the English fighters to shoot them. The only way to do would have been to set fire to the gaseous hydrogen contained in the big wraps that formed the more vulnerability part of the airships but the normal bullets of which were endowed the machine-guns of the fighters didn't succeed in the intent.

The formidable successes had in that period pushed the Germans to a great audacity. In the September of 1916, together with the Airships of the Navy they were also sent those of the army that on day 2 of that month would have originated the most numerous raid on England. English, however, had worked for a long time for opposing the offensive and they had invented a combined weapon very powerful. It was constituted by a mix of two types of bullets: the explosive “Pomeroy-Brock” that served for perforating the covering of the airships and the “Buckingham” at the phosphorus that set fire to the hydrogen.

The demolition of an airship of the army was so possible, the first one to have been destroyed by direct attack after two years of war! The causes of that first disaster were not understood by the Germans. Considering the machines of the army as obsolete, they thought normal the loss of one of them and on September 23 and on October 1 they made the last raids to which also participated the new models of the class L30, one of which was commanded by the ace of the aviation Heinreich Mathy.

The enormous underevaluation of the progress done by the English cost very dear to the Germans. Three airships of the series L30 were destroyed including that of Captain Mathy that was found deceased on the ground from farmers of the low Norfolk after having preferred to jump from his airship (at a height of some thousand of meters) rather than to die burnt alive inside the fuselage. The shock was enormous in Germany. Some commanders of airships were estranged from the command for the prudent behavior that they held during those missions, aware of the dangers. In the continuing of the war, the airships made other raids over England, but without that safety that they had had in the summer 1916. The airships had been improved raising the operational quota above that of the English airplanes. This guaranteed little danger for the crews, but it eliminated whatever precision in the bombardment. The military use of the airships had ended its days.

Conclusive considerations

The use of the airplanes as weapons during World War 1 destroyed every certainty of the Head Quarters. The front understood as line of fight didn't exist anymore. Every part of the nations in war could be struck by air. If the population started to understand what the aerial threat was, it cannot be denied that the development of the aeronautical technique during the war had immense repercussions in civil field in the twenties. The factories in their reconversion to the civil economy didn't forget the innovations gotten with war purposes, but they modified them for a pacific employment. It was so that the civil aviation affirmed itself either in the transport of passengers either in that of commodities. Adventures as the crossing of the Atlantic of Lindbergh or the flight across on the inverse rout completed by Italo Balbo in 1933 they allowed preserving that sense of heroic amazement that the people had every time that they spoke about aviation. The distances had shortened soon and the advantages were greater in those countries that for first understood the importance of airplanes as the United States. Also Germany developed important novelty for the civil transport, but unfortunately those improvements would have been used for originating the superb war airplanes of the Luftwaffe during World War 2 remembering to the world how terrible the bad use of a good invention could be.

Sources: “Encyclopedic atlas of the military airplanes of the world from 1914 until today” edited by Enzo Angelucci (Mondadori), “History of the aviation” by John Batchelor and Chris Chant (De Agostini), “Combat Airplanes” (Aerospace Publishing), “Fire over England” by H.G. Castle (Secker & Warburg), “Manchester Guardian History of the War” (John Heywood LTD)

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