The period leading to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 was one of rapid innovation in the field of aviation. Significant time, effort, and treasure was spent in learning about aeronautics. Testing new designs was often a trial-and-error process, with the highest stakes for the men at the controls of primitive flying machines.
by PARAAG SHUKLA
The world’s first powered and controlled flight in a fixed-wing airplane took place on the morning of December 17, 1903 near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The machine, built by brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright, traveled 120 feet in 12 seconds. It was an achievement that proved to be a launching point for both commercial and military development in the United States and in Europe. The aerial race was on.
As engineers developed and built new aircraft designs of their own, pioneering pilots tested the primitive machines and continuously pushed the limits of possibility. In some early concepts, for example, an aviator could only turn his machine by shifting his weight and therefore altering the aircraft’s balance. Later designs used a system of cables to pull the trailing edges of the wings and warp them to disrupt the airflow and roll the machine. As one can easily imagine, such efforts were quite dangerous. Accidents—often causing serious injury or death to the pilot—were common, but the experimentation did yield invaluable lessons that were applied to subsequent efforts. Eventually engineers implemented moveable control surfaces on the wings and tail assembly, quite similar to concepts in use today.
With the new technology came new challenges and pursuits. Aviation historian Charles Harvard Gibbs-Smith said that 1909 was the year in which aviation came of age. In June of that year a Frenchman named Louis Blériot successfully flew a monoplane (single-wing aircraft) across the English Channel in 36 minutes. Two large aviation events were held in France, in August at Reims and another in October near Paris. Progress continued in America as well, including two flights by Orville Wright over New York harbor and around the Statue of Liberty. Over the next few years, competitions were held and business interest continued to increase, and by 1912 Englishman Thomas Sopwith modified a Wright Model B biplane (flown by colleague Harry Hawker) that set a flight endurance record of 8 hours and 23 minutes.
For years, many shrugged off the enterprise as a “hobby” that lacked any serious application. The British army, however, was already brainstorming how to use aircraft in its operations. The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was officially established by royal warrant in April 1912, and Sopwith Aviation received its first aircraft order from the military that November. Military generals were far from unanimous in their support; the technology was new and unfamiliar, the equipment could be unreliable, and the aircraft were limited in their capabilities. However, as the RFC gained operational experience, military planners began to realize its potential above the battlefield.
In August 1914 the RFC deployed to France with four squadrons and a total roster of 860 personnel. By the following year, its strength was over 7,000 men. As for the young aviators at the forefront of this new technology, they would soon realize that with their unique and exciting lives came extreme peril and loss.
Point to Ponder: In a time when many people smoked (and quite often), it’s incredible that these fragile packages of wood, fabric, and petrol didn’t regularly burst into flame.
On a related note, I’m glad that Louis Blériot’s spectacular mustache never caught fire. Seriously, look at that thing–