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An introduction to the development of military aircraft throughout the years

The large majority of military aircraft are fighters, followed by bombers, transporter-tankers, early-warning and patrol aircraft, and a variety of propeller- and jet-driven trainers.

  • Long-range flying boats so called because their fuselages were shaped like the hull of a boat were used extensively by the British;
  • It also made it more essential than ever for armies to gather information about enemy troops and weapons;
  • Airships were large self-propelled craft consisting of a rigid fabric-covered metal frame within which were gas bags containing a lighter-than-air gas such as hydrogen;
  • Machine guns were the obvious solution.

As is the case with commercial aircraft, the complexity of the technology and the immense capital requirements have narrowed… Early history When the first practical aircraft were produced, in the form of hot-air and hydrogen balloons in 1783, they were adopted quickly for military duties.

Two months later the first military reconnaissance from such a balloon was made before the city of Maubeuge. Similar reconnaissance balloons were used later by other armies, notably by both armies during the American Civil War and by the British in Africa from 1884 to 1901.

Hydrogen gas generator being used to inflate an observation balloon during the American Civil War, 1862. Department of Defense; Brady Collection True military aviation began with the perfection of the navigable airship in the late 19th century and the airplane in the first decade of the 20th century.

The brothers Wilbur and Orville Wrightwho made the first powered, sustained, and controlled flights in an airplane on Dec. When they received the first contract for a military airplane from the U. Army in 1909 by Orville Wright, shown here climbing into the pilot's seat. Wright and Lieutenant Frank Purdy Lahm are catapulted down a rail and launched into the air. The machine circles the field for 1 hour 12 minutes, setting a new world's record for time aloft with pilot and passenger.

The most formidable aircraft of the years before World War I were airships rather than airplanes. Airships were large self-propelled craft consisting of a rigid fabric-covered metal frame within which were gas bags containing a lighter-than-air gas such as hydrogen.

Early history

The most ambitious examples of this type of craft were the huge airships designed and built in Germany by Ferdinand, Count von Zeppelin. A typical zeppelin could carry five 50-kg 110-pound high-explosive bombs and 20 2. SchwabenThe airship Schwaben landing at Potsdam, Ger. Experiments with arming airplanes were made spasmodically after 1910, when August Euler took out a German patent on a machine-gun installation. Bombing techniques evolved simultaneously.

Dummy bombs were dropped on a target in the form of a ship by the American designer Glenn Curtiss on June 30, 1910. This test was followed by the dropping of a real bomb and the devising of the first bombsight.

Military aircraft

The pin was pulled out over the target by tugging on a string. It was primitive but it worked. The Naval Wing of the RFC subsequently attempted to drop torpedoes from Short and Sopwith seaplaneswith some success, and efforts were soon under way to develop means to launch and recover such craft on shipboard.

In 1910—11 a Curtiss biplane had been flown from and onto wooden platforms erected over the decks of anchored U. The following year the old cruiser Hermes was fitted with a short deck from which seaplanes took off on wheeled trolleys that were fitted under their floats and dropped away as the machines became airborne.

Thus, by 1914 reconnaissance, bomberand carrier-based aircraft all were evolving, and some had been used in combat. The first use of an airplane in war was on Oct. The first bombing raid came nine days later, when a pilot dropped four grenades on Turkish positions.

The first reconnaissance photographs of enemy positions were taken on Feb. World War I Airships At the start of World War I the German armed forces had 10 zeppelins and three smaller airshipsbut this impressive offensive capability was largely offset by the highly explosive nature of the hydrogen gas that gave the zeppelins their lifting power.

After losing three zeppelins in daylight raids over heavily defended areas in the first month of the war, the army abandoned airship operations, but the navy, with its battle fleet blockaded in port by the Royal Navymounted a night bombing offensive—the first aerial strategic bombardment campaign in history.

A zeppelin flying over the harbour at Kiel, Ger. The finest of the zeppelins was the LZ-70; this craft was 220 metres 720 feet long, was able to fly above 4,900 metres 16,000 feetand had a range of 12,000 km 7,500 miles. The LZ-70 was shot down late in the war, however, and large rigid metal-framed airships were never again employed as combat aircraft.

Smaller, nonrigid airships were used throughout World War I by the British for antisubmarine patrol, convoy escort, and coastal reconnaissance, achieving a remarkable record of protecting coastal convoys from German submarines. They were revived by the U. Navy during World War II for the same use.

Unpowered, captive balloons also were used extensively for observation and artillery spotting in World War I, but by World War II they had become so vulnerable that they were used only as unmanned antiaircraft barrage balloons.

World War I is remembered for its terrible combination of technological ingenuity and strategic indecisiveness. The growth of army sizes, and the introduction of new weapons like long-range heavy artillery and chemical gas, turned combat into mechanized carnage on an unprecedented scale. It also made it more essential than ever for armies an introduction to the development of military aircraft throughout the years gather information about enemy troops and weapons. Stationary balloons were used for observation and artillery spotting as early as the American Civil War but found widespread use in World War I.

This video shows the view from a balloon over the Western Front. Reconnaissance aircraft At the outbreak of World War I, heavier-than-air craft were used only for visual reconnaissance, since their feeble engines could carry little more than a pilot and, in some cases, an observer aloft.

They soon proved their worth in this mission, however, and RFC aviators provided reconnaissance that enabled the British and French armies to counterattack in the decisive Battle of the Marne on Sept. More powerful engines and better aircraft designs soon made possible specialized reconnaissance aircraft that could fly at high altitudes to avoid interception. The Germans, for example, had Rumpler two-seaters in service by 1917 that could operate as high as 24,000 feet 7,300 metres.

Radios were carried aloft to permit aerial observers to spot and adjust artillery fire, at first with transmitters only and then, as radios became lighter, with receivers for two-way communication. Fighters The importance of aerial reconnaissance and artillery spotting particularly the latter made it clear that the belligerent able to deny the enemy use of airspaces above the battlefield would enjoy enormous advantages. This realization led to the emergence of fighters as a distinct category of aircraft.

In the early days of the war, pilots and observers blazed away at enemy aircraft with pistols, rifles, and even shotguns, but to little effect. Machine guns were the obvious solution.

  • Similar reconnaissance balloons were used later by other armies, notably by both armies during the American Civil War and by the British in Africa from 1884 to 1901;
  • Experiments with arming airplanes were made spasmodically after 1910, when August Euler took out a German patent on a machine-gun installation;
  • Radios were carried aloft to permit aerial observers to spot and adjust artillery fire, at first with transmitters only and then, as radios became lighter, with receivers for two-way communication;
  • Va, a German fighter plane of World War I.

In 1913 the Vickers company in Britain had exhibited a two-seat biplane of pusher configuration i. A development of this machine, the Vickers F. The French armed similarly configured Voisin pushers with machine guns one had shot down a German aircraft as early as Oct. Light single-seat aircraft of tractor configuration i. Taylor The solution to the problem emerged in the spring of 1915 in the form of an interrupter gear, or gun-synchronizing device, designed by the French engineer Raymond Saulnier.

The interrupter itself was not new: The real breakthrough was made by Roland Garrosa famous sporting pilot before the war and a friend of Saulnier, who perceived that a machine gun fitted with such a device and mounted rigidly atop the fuselage could be aimed accurately simply by pointing the airplane in the desired direction.

With this machine, Garros shot down three German aircraft on April 1, 13, and 18. Then, on April 19, Garros himself force-landed with a ruptured fuel line and was taken prisoner. The Germans reacted quickly, putting the designer Anthony Fokker to work on a similar device. Though a superb flying machine, the Nieuport was limited by its light armament, while the two British machines had taken the aerodynamically inefficient pusher configuration to its limit and were soon outclassed.

Thereafter, the pace of fighter development began to be set by improvements in engine design—a phenomenon that was to persist well into the jet age. Most Allied fighters at that time were powered by rotary radial engines i.

These engines were relatively powerful in relation to their weight, but their large frontal areas produced a great deal of drag, and the gyroscopic forces induced by their whirling mass posed serious aircraft-control problems.

In mid-1916 Germany took the lead in fighter design on the basis of its superb Daimler and Benz water-cooled in-line engines, such as those that powered the streamlined Albatros D. III series of fighters. These were faster than their Allied opponents and, most important, could carry two machine guns without sacrificing performance.

I pioneered a fighter configuration that was to prevail into the 1930s: Prominent among these were the French Spad fighters and the British S.

A 1917 Albatros D. Va, a German fighter plane of World War I. Typically powered by a 160-horsepower Mercedes engine, the D. VII was a fabric-covered biplane that differed from others in having a sturdy fuselage structure of welded steel tubing.

Armed with two machine guns, it had a top speed of 188 km 117 miles per hour. Even more powerful engines made two-seat fighters possible. The best of these was the British Bristol F. Ground attack The Allies fielded specialized aircraft for ground attack only at the very end of the war.

Notable among these was the Sopwith Salamander, a development of the Sopwith Camel with an armoured cockpit and two machine guns firing downward through the floor at a fixed angle to rake enemy trenches while flying low over them.

The Germans produced a number of specialized two-seat aircraft for this purpose—notably the Halberstadt CL. III of 1917, which was armed with a forward-firing synchronized machine gun as well as a flexible gun and racks of grenades for the observer. At the Battle of Cambrai in November and December 1917, the Germans sent large formations of such aircraft over the British trenches and into the rear areas with devastating effect.

By the end of the war, they were using numbers of armoured all-metal Junkers J-1 ground-attack aircraft, one of the most advanced machines to see combat during the war. German Junkers J-1 monoplane fighter prototype, 1915.

  • Some of these, notably Hansa-Brandenburg machines designed by Ernst Heinkel , rivaled their land-based equivalents in performance;
  • The Germans produced a number of specialized two-seat aircraft for this purpose—notably the Halberstadt CL;
  • Long-range flying boats so called because their fuselages were shaped like the hull of a boat were used extensively by the British;
  • This test was followed by the dropping of a real bomb and the devising of the first bombsight;
  • The first reconnaissance photographs of enemy positions were taken on Feb;
  • Dummy bombs were dropped on a target in the form of a ship by the American designer Glenn Curtiss on June 30, 1910.

The first bombing raids to achieve significant success and the first to cross national boundaries were mounted against the Zeppelin works at Friedrichshafen from Belgian bases by airmen of the Royal Naval Air Service RNAS on Oct.

However, their spectacular success owed more to the highly flammable nature of the zeppelins themselves than to the destructive power of the 20-pound 9-kg bombs used.

These raids prompted the Admiralty to commission the development of the first specialized heavy night bomber, the Handley Page H.

Meanwhile, other air forces began building and putting into service strategic day bombers. Among the first were French Voisins. The type L was used in early 1915 to carry about 60 kg 130 pounds of small bombs that simply lay in the bottom of the cockpit until the time came for the observer to drop them overboard.

Later models had more powerful engines and were equipped alternatively as attack aircraftcarrying up to 300 kg 660 pounds of bombs or having a 37-mm 1. None flew faster than 135 km 85 miles per hour, so the Voisins operated mainly under cover of darkness in the last year of the war.

Italy too was quick to appreciate the value of bombing attacks on enemy targets. Its big three-engined, twin-tailboom Capronis were among the finest bombers of World War I. About 80 were built, and they made 400 raids on German targets with the loss of only one plane. The German air force also operated a family of giant four-engined metal bombers known as Riesenflugzeug, or R-planes. Typical of these was the Staaken R. This had a takeoff weight of 11,372 kg 25,269 poundswhich included a crew of seven and a bomb load of up to 1,800 kg 4,000 pounds.