Today we cannot imagine war without the airplane, but there was a time when the airplane's military potential was not yet apparent. By the time Europe plunged into World War I in the summer of 1914, the military potential of the airplane was becoming clear. Eventually, the military became a major user of aeronautical technology. 

The Wrights Get an Early Start 

In the United States, the Wright brothers saw the military as an obvious customer for their invention. Balloons had been used to observe enemy movements during the American Civil War, the Spanish-American War and in several late 19th-century European conflicts. The airplane offered a natural extension of these reconnaissance capabilities.  

When the Wrights were ready to sell their invention in 1905, their first move was to contact the U.S. government, but initial talks went nowhere. In 1907 the U.S. Army established the Aeronautical Division within the Signal Corps and later that year, showed renewed interest in the Wright brothers. Rather than directly offering them a contract, the Army Board of Ordnance and Fortification and the Signal Corps advertised for bids to build an airplane. However, the design and performance specifications were such that the Wrights were the only viable bidder. A price of $25,000 was set for the brothers’ airplane if they could meet the performance criteria in actual flight trials. 

The Wright brothers ready the 1909 Military Flyer for flight. Here Wilbur (in white shirt and derby) watches as brother Orville (between skids) makes final adjustments to the aircraft before takeoff. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

There was a tragic setback during the 1908 trials when a propeller malfunction caused the airplane to crash, severely injuring Orville Wright and killing Army observer Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge. Nevertheless, the Wrights eventually fulfilled each of the Army’s requirements in Signal Corps Specification No. 486 during trials in 1909. The final trial was a flight of 10 miles (16 kilometers) with a passenger. This flight also served as the official speed trial. The contract offered a 10% bonus for every full mile per hour (mph) above 40. Their average speed was 42.5mph (68.4km/h), which earned them a $5,000 bonus and brought the final purchase price of the airplane to $30,000. Wilbur Wright trained the Army’s first three aviators using the Wright Military Flyer—known as the world’s first military plane because it was the first aircraft purchased by any military.

The Aircraft Finds New Uses in the Military 

Observation was a natural use of aircraft in the military from the beginning. But as the military gained more experience with the airplane, new missions were developed which had not been envisioned just a few years before. 

While the U.S. Navy was quick to follow the Army in acquiring aircraft the limited performance of the early machines presented problems for a service that operated largely at a distance from land. An expanded role for naval aircraft became a possibility on November 14, 1910, when Eugene Ely, a Curtiss company demonstration pilot, made the first airplane takeoff from the deck of a ship, the USS Birmingham. On January 18, 1911, Ely made the first ship-board landing on a special platform on the deck of the USS Pennsylvania, pointing the way to the possibility of an aircraft carrier. 

Eugene B. Ely piloting his Curtiss Model D biplane for an imminent landing on platform constructed (note sandbags on either side of platform) on the stern of US Navy ship USS Pennsylvania (Armored Cruiser # 4, later CA-4), anchored in San Francisco Bay, California on January 18, 1911. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

In the lead up to World War I, armed aircraft were rare but not unheard of. A rifle was first fired from an airplane in 1910 and a machine gun followed in 1912. The device that allowed a machine gun to be fired straight ahead without hitting the propeller paved the way for the first specialized fighter aircraft. This first successful synchronizer is credited to aircraft designer Anthony Fokker in 1915 during World War I. But the idea was not new and was developed before the war.  French aircraft builder Raymond Saulnier designed and built the first practical gun synchronization system in early 1914. While the device worked, limitations in the machine gun he used kept it from being adopted.  It was World War I, however, which provided the impetus for this and many new innovations that improved the airplane's military effectiveness. 

Captain Charles Chandler (left, with Lieutenant Roy Kirtland), commander of the U.S. Army aviation school at College Park, Maryland, fired the first machine gun from an aircraft on June 7, 1912.

The War with Wings 

As war clouds gathered on the eve of World War I, European nations decided to invest heavily in this mostly untried weapon. For many countries, the Wright Military Flyer trials became an echo in the distant past—the marker of an important starting point for military aviation. The U.S. however—feeling safe an ocean away—did not invest the same amount of capital into aviation that many of its European allies did at the onset of the war. This lack of government investment put the U.S. far behind Europe in military aviation during this period. In 1913, the U.S. ranked 14th in spending on aeronautics, behind Brazil, Spain, Bulgaria, Greece, Chile, and Japan. 

Total Government Expenditures on Aviation, 1908-1913

Country Amount (in U.S. dollars, 1913)
Germany $28,000,000
France  $22,000,000
Russia $12,000,000
Italy $8,000,000
Austria $5,000,000
Britain $3,000,000
Belgium $2,000,000
Japan $1,500,000
Chile $700,000
Greece $660,000
Bulgaria $600,000
Spain $550,000
Brazil $500,000
United States $435,000

The real-life military potential of the airplane was first demonstrated in small conflicts in Europe, North Africa, and America in the years before World War I. On November 1, 1911, Italian aviator Giulio Gavotti dropped bombs from an Etrich Taube monoplane on Turkish troops in Libya, becoming history’s first aerial bomber. Over the next several years, armies fighting in the Balkan states of Eastern Europe used aircraft for both reconnaissance and bombing. 

Ailes glorieuses 1917, or “Glorious Wings,” depicting one biplane with German markings on fire, losing altitude, with two ejected figures falling. A biplane with red, white, and blue fin flash flies past. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

The use of aircraft in World War I would change how wars would be fought in the future. Although the airplane could not really claim to have affected the outcome of the war, many of the combat missions we associate with aircraft today had their beginnings during the war  

By World War II, the United States had heavily invested in aircraft technology. Things such as aircraft carriers became normal tools of war. In many ways, the use of aircraft in times of war helped to define what we now know as modern warfare. 


Related Topics Aircraft Records and Firsts War and Conflict World War I
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