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The dawn of military aviation

Written by Sakhal

The First World War saw how the primitive exploration aircraft of the first years of the war passed, from shooting with pistols each other, to mount fast-firing machine guns that could fire through the arc of the propeller.

In the first decade of the 20th century, in the years that followed the historical flight of the Wright brothers in December 1903, it was seen an astonishing progress in the development of the "heavier than the air" flying machines and also significant steps in some techniques that would have an important part in the development of air combat. The role of the aircraft as a potential war machine was summarized in 1909 by an Italian officer, Commander Giulio Douhet. He wrote: "Nowadays, we are fully aware of the importance of sea. In a near future, it will not be less vital to achieve superiority in the air". The military potential of the aircraft was seen several times in 1910, only one year after the prophetic words by Douhet; for example, the 19th January, Lieutenant Paul Beck of the United States Army threw several sand bags, which represented bombs, from an airplane piloted by the pioneer of the aviation Louis Paulhan; the 30th June, Glenn H. Curtiss threw simulated bombs upon an area of the size of a battleship, marked with buoys in Lake Keuka, from an altitude of 15 meters; and, the 20th August, it was seen also that it was feasible to use firearms from an aircraft, when Lieutenant Jacob Earl Fickel of the United States Army fired a 7.62-millimeter rifle against a ground target in Sheepshead Bay, New York. More significatively, in terms of future development, a German called August Euler had registered a patent some weeks before for a new mechanism that allowed to fire a fixed machine gun from an aircraft.

The first mission

Considering the words by Douhet, it seems logical that they were the Italians who first demonstrated the usefulness of the aircraft in the war. The 22nd October 1911, after Italy having declared the war to Turkey because of a dispute related with the Italian occupation of Cirenaica and Tripolitania (Libya), Captain Carlo Piazza, commander of the Italian expeditionary air fleet, carried out a reconnaissance of the Turkish positions between Tripoli and Azizzia in an aircraft Bleriot XI; this was the first operative mission executed by a flying machine heavier than the air. In 1910, it was starting to take form the aerial weapon of the prime world powers. The 10th February, the French Army took possession of its first aircraft, a Wright biplane, in Satory, near Versailles; and General Roques, in charge of the military aviation, started a campaign to recruit pilots: the Artillery sent three men, the Infantry sent four and the Cavalry... refused with disdain the request. The first French military pilot who received his diploma was Lieutenant Felix Camerman, who subsequently was promoted to direct the aviation school at Chalons. In the late 1910, the recently created Aeronautique Militaire had 29 military aircraft - of the types Bleriot, Breguet, Farman, Antoinette and Voisin - and 39 pilots.

In October 1910, the German Army received the first one of the seven aircraft that it had ordered, all of them of the type "Etrich Taube" (Pigeon); some weeks before, a school for pilots had been established at Doberitz. The first German pilot who achieved his diploma was Lieutenant Richard von Tidemann, an officer of hussars who flew alone the 23rd July 1910. Now in Great Britain, the 1st April 1911 it was organized in Larkhill, Wiltshire, the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers, whose origin dated back from the School of Aerostation established in Aldershot in 1892. The Battalion was led by Commander Sir Alexander Bannerman and it comprised two companies: the first one of Dirigibles, Balloons and Kites and the second one of Airplanes. The Battalion had three dirigibles and an assortment of aircraft described like: "An old Wright that had initially belonged to C. S. Rolls; a somewhat old and very dangerous Bleriot; the "Paulhan" (a model that Paulhan did not sell), a De Havilland, a Henry Farman, four Bristol and a Howard Wright". In December 1911, it was established a flight school of the Royal Navy in Eastchurch, Kent, with six biplanes Short rented by Frank McLean, a pioneer of the Royal Aero Club. And, in April 1912, it was born the Royal Flying Corps, absorbing the Royal Engineers Air Battalion and the material owned by the Navy. This new aviation corps comprised a military wing, a naval wing and a central flight school, apart from the supporting logistic and technical units.

Meanwhile, in 1911, the United States naval aviation was emerging and it had been established, in March, the first military aviation school of the Belgian Army. Even if in 1907 it had been created an Aeronautical Division of the Signal Corps of the Army, the progress of the military aviation had been slow in United States. Until the 5th March 1913, the Aeronautical Division did not create the first air squadron in Galveston Bay, Texas, under command by Captain Charles de Forest Chandler. To the only Wright biplane of the Aeronautical Division - in which a number of officers had learned to fly - were united a Curtiss D, a Burgess H and a seaplane Martin TT. It had been Chandler who, the 2nd June 1912, had took part in the first tests made in United States with an aircraft armed with a machine gun. The aircraft was the biplane Wright of the Signal Corps which in that occasion was piloted by Lieutenant Thomas DeWitt Milling, in College Park, Maryland; Chandler was manning the Lewis machine gun. Only some weeks later, the 3rd October, were made the first tests of a recoilless cannon designed by Commander Cleland Davis, in the Indian Head Naval Proving Ground; it was attempted to fire a grenade of large caliber with the weapon. In that moment, both British and French projectists were also very interested in the idea of the "combat airplane". One of the first companies that realized about the potential of an airplane for firing a machine gun and not only for observation was the British company Vickers Ltd. In the air festival of 1913 at Olympia, London, the company made a demonstration of its aircraft Type 18 "Destroyer", a two-seater biplane with an engine Wolseley cooled by air in the rear part and an orientable Maxim machine gun, fed by ammunition belts, in the nose. The aircraft was later denominated EFB.1 (Experimental Fighting Biplane number 1) and it was the progenitor of the FB.5 "Gunbus", with which would be equipped several British squadrons in France in 1915. Also in 1913, the pioneer aviator Claude Grahame-White made a demonstration with his aircraft Type XV, in which was onboard a gunner with a Lewis machine gun in a special platform beneath the pilot. Another British model that mounted a test machine gun in 1913 was the FE.3 of the Royal Aircraft Factory, projected as a two-seater aircraft for exploration and night bombing. As many other models of that time, this aircraft had the propeller "pushing" in the rear part to grant a nearly unlimited field of view to the observer/gunner placed in the fore cockpit. It was armed with a COW 1.5 pdr cannon in the fore part of the fuselage that fired through an opening in the nose. The aircraft worked well, but its structure was not strong, so the firing tests were made only from the ground.

The dawn of military aviation

The biplane BE 2a flew for the first time and was introduced in 1912, being one of the oldest models that served during the First World War. This particular aircraft belonged to the Eastchurch Squadron of the RNAS (Royal Naval Air Service) and it was piloted by Wing Commander Charles Rumney Samson in 1915.

The problem of the weight

In the early 1914, there was already no doubt that the machine gun was the most suitable weapon for a combat airplane. However, before turning this idea into a practical realization it was needed to solve several problems. Firstly, the machine guns could be mounted only in the most powerful models of aircraft that were in service then; in the rest the excess of weight was unacceptable. There was also the problem of aiming and firing any kind of weapon, for pilot and observer were surrounded by a large area of the wings along with the corresponding struts and strings and they sat after or before a large and vulnerable wooden propeller. However the British aviation soon adopted the American machine gun Lewis of 12 kilograms as standard armament for their reconnaissance aircraft, specially those with rear propeller, in which the observer sat in front of the pilot and had wide firing arcs upwards, downwards and sideways. In the beginning, the mounting of the machine gun was "tailor-made" by the observer. The French choose the Hotchkiss which like the Lewis was cooled by air; initially the feeding system by ammunition belt was used but it was unflexible for the gunners, so the drum magazine was adopted. The Germans choose the light Parabellum MG 14, a modification of the Maxim cooled by air and fed as well by a drum magazine. Even if it was understood that military aircraft needed an effective armament, almost all of the aircraft that were sent to the war in August 1914 carried no more weapons than the carbines and pistols of the observers and pilots. For this purpose it was ideal the German pistol "Military Mauser", with a long-range shot, a load of ten cartridges and the possibility to be used as carbine. So, the German attack over Belgium of the 4th August was supported by a small number of aircraft Etrich Taube, all of them unarmed and dedicated to reconnaissance; meanwhile, the Belgians also effectuated similar missions with unarmed aircraft in the area of Liege.

The dawn of military aviation

The Hotchkiss 8-millimeter machine gun, of French origin, was one of the first models installed in aircraft. It was fed by ammunition belts, containing 25 cartridges, wrapped in a drum. This machine gun was the most used one in the French aviation during 1915-16, then it was replaced by the Lewis.

The dawn of military aviation

Lewis 7.7-millimeter machine gun, devised by Colonel Isaac Newton Lewis of the United States Army and adopted initially as the standard light machine gun for the Army and for the British Royal Flying Corps; shortly after it was adopted by the French and the Belgian. It was fed by drum magazines, firstly of 47 cartridges and later of 97. For use in aircraft it was fitted with a deflector and a device to gather the ejected cases and prevent these from damaging the aircraft; also electrical heaters were used to prevent the weapon from freezing at high altitudes. In 1918 its rate of fire reached 850 rounds per minute.

The dawn of military aviation

The Parabellum 7.92-millimeter machine gun was the most widely used model by the observers of the German Air Corps from the early 1915 to the end of the war. Being a lightweight version of the Maxim, the early models were refrigerated by water, and the latter ones cooled by air, as the one shown in the picture, whose weight was 10 kilograms and its rate of fire 700 rounds per minute.

The dawn of military aviation

The Villarperosa 9 millimeters was a twin-barrel machine gun devised by Italian Major B. A. Revelli mainly for use in aircraft; however it disappointed due to the low penetration of the projectiles, which was not compensated by the very high rate of fire: 900 rounds per minute on each barrel. This machine weighed 3.6 kilograms, had 90 centimeters in length and a muzzle speed of 381 meters/second.

Type XI of Louis Bleriot

Louis Bleriot made history, both as one of the most tenacious pioneers of the aviation in a generation of audacious sportsmen and as the first man who piloted a machine heavier than the air across the English Channel. Born in 1872, Bleriot had directed a prosperous business of manufacture of lamps for automobiles before designing a portable "ornithopter" in 1902. To this sort of aircraft followed several models more during the five following years and, albeit they were of rigid and conventional structure, none of them was able to hold a man in flight. In 1907 he produced an attractive monoplane with a single engine, totally coated fuselage and hinged ailerons and rudder. The success achieved, when being able to effectuate a "jump-flight" of somewhat more than 500 meters with this aircraft, convinced Bleriot that in this configuration resided the definitive formula to keep a sustained flight, in spite of the quasi unanimous preference that designers showed towards biplanes, specially the famous Wright brothers. The aircraft number eight made by Bleriot followed the previous models and with this one it was discarded the utilization of fabric for coating the fuselage; with this model Bleriot performed several public shows in 1908. But alarmed by the progress achieved by the Wright brothers, specially regarding the degree of control achieved in their biplane, Bleriot built three more aircraft before the end of that year, and he managed to effectuate a "cross-country flight" of 27 kilometers.

It was in the third of those airplanes, the one denominated Type XI, in which Bleriot decided to recover part of the expenses caused by his flying experiments. The prize of 1000 pound sterling offered by the Daily Mail to the first person that crossed the English Channel piloting an aircraft attracted, naturally, some of the most intrepid aviators. Among these were a French of British descent, Hubert Latham, a Russian of French descent, the Count Charles de Lambert, and of course Louis Bleriot. Latham was the first one in attempting the crossing. He took off aboard his airplane "Antoinette" near Calais in the early morning of the Monday 19th July 1909. However, a failure in the engine made him to crash in the sea after having covered about seven miles of the 22 to Dover. The pilot was rescued by a destroyer that followed the adventure. The 25th July at 4:35 AM, Louis Bleriot, who did not carry with him a map nor a sextant, took off onboard his Type XI from Calais after a brief check up of the weather. Despite losing the course during a while and suffering a momentary loss of power in the engine, the intrepid aviator arrived to Dover and landed his airplane in a field near the castle. But the stormy weather caused that during the landing the wheels and the propeller were broken. This happened at 5:13 AM.

The dawn of military aviation

The monoplane Type XI was propelled by an engine Anzani of 25 horsepower that could impulse the airplane at a maximum speed of about 72 kilometers/hour, while operational range was about 64 kilometers. The cylindrical element inside the fuselage was a flotation bag.

Categories: Aviation - World War One - 20th Century - [General] - [General]


Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2015-06-26

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