Monday, March 16, 2009

Great Moments in Aviation, Part IX

As I wrote earlier, the pioneering age of aviation ended at or around 1910, once the airplane had assumed its now-familiar form. A new chapter opens in the fall of 1914, as an assassination in Sarajevo plunges Europe into war.

But the story isn't quite the one you'd expect. Conventional wisdom has it that wartime is a great spur for technology. This is mostly true. It does tend to focus the mind, and you get more immediate feedback as to what works and what doesn't. An active enemy is the harshest critic of performance that you'll ever find. But by and large, although the airplanes of 1918 were substantially faster and more powerful, they still employed the same basic ideas that they had in 1914. Granted, you do see the first all-metal frames used during WWI. But the most striking innovations were in the uses of the airplanes themselves.

You see, going into WWI, no one had the remotest idea what these newfangled contraptions were good for at all, if indeed they were good for anything.

But there was one immediately obvious application. Flying high above the trenches, a pilot could see for miles. He could see the disposition of the enemy forces in a way that no ground-based scout could. Almost overnight, aviation co-opted cavalry's centuries-old job of scouting and finding the enemy. Airplanes with camera-equipped observers became a common sight over the front. For the first time, generals had something close to a God's-eye view of the battlefield. Not that it did them a whole lot of good, since they had no real notion how to go about attacking a prepared position defended with machine guns. They tried, both sides, with the result being appalling slaughter and stalemate. But still, the observers flew above it all, capturing it on film.

Enemy planes flying overhead are never a good thing. Immediately, people began to talk about how to keep that from happening. You want your guy to be able to do it, but you want to deny that capability to your enemy. So, one fine day, a pilot took a pistol aloft with him, and tried to do something about it. Or so the story goes. I think it had to have been an observer. With a pilot, one hand and both feet are pretty much busy full-time; a pistol-waving pilot is either shooting left-handed or trying to fly left-handed. Neither one is liable to end well. Anyway, the pistols-aloft experiment pulled up a big fat zero, but the basic idea was thought fairly sound.

The next iteration was to mount actual machine-guns on the airplanes. Two variations were tried, with varying degrees of success. Two-place scouts were modified such that the observer had a swiveling machine-gun mount. In theory, this would give him a wide field of fire. In practice, he was as likely to shoot his own tail off as hit an enemy airplane. The more successful configuration involved taking a fast single-seater, and mounting one or two machine-guns facing forward. The pilot aimed his guns with the nose of his airplane. This was the configuration adopted as standard for pursuit airplanes. Pursuit airplanes' primary mission was to interdict enemy scouts, but quite often pursuit airplanes ended up skirmishing with each other. The best of these pilots became famous: Richthofen, Voss, Foch, Rickenbacker.

Another idea that was tried out early on was dropping explosives out of airplanes. The first bombing experiments were shockingly crude. Basically, the observer carried a few up with him, and then held them out over the side to drop them. They hit the ground every time. Beyond that, the system's accuracy left much to be desired. Then someone hit on the idea of carrying the bombs underneath, with a release mechanism, so that they could be aimed somewhat better. This was a distinct improvement. The early bombers couldn't hit as hard as artillery could, not even close, but the crew could see the target in real time. Meager as their bomb load was, they played a non-trivial part in the Saint-Mihiel offensive late in the war.

Although both sides went into WWI not knowing what to do with aviation, by the time the war was over, the basics of air war doctrine had been set. Three of the basic four functions of airpower had been defined: reconnaissance, air superiority, ground attack. Only transportation hadn't been seriously attempted yet. But it would be, and soon. The 1920s would bring a series of innovations that would make the airplane a lasting part of the civil economy.

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