Pictures of World War I

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Airplane or Aeroplane as Weapons in WW1

The Weaponization of Airplanes in World War I

It was during WWI that airplanes made their first grand debut as deadly and offensive weapons in warfare. Prior to this, only zeppelins and tethered hot air balloons had been used in battle, and even then they were designed strictly for reconnaissance and artillery spotting missions.

The Wright Brothers

Although aviation research, outside of war and reconnaissance, had been around for centuries, the first airplane didn’t take off until 1903 when American brothers, Wilber and Orville Wright, introduced their first powered-flight vehicle to the world. Shortly after the brothers’ initial success, aviation development began taking off, with many individuals inspired to produce aircraft designs of their own.

In an effort to protect their invention, the Wright brothers would spend the next three years trying to find a buyer for their aviation technology. The United States Government was a prime focus for their campaigns, as they initially attempted to market their airplanes as vital tools to the U.S. military.

While these first attempts proved to be unsuccessful, the brothers’ aviation designs were met with much more enthusiasm from the European governments—in particular France—and thus, they were able to achieve some credibility for their work overseas.

With hindsight, it can be surprising to learn that the U.S. was so hesitant to capitalize on the warfare potential of airplanes and aircraft. As we know now, once airplanes were unleashed on the battlefield, they gradually changed the entire way the world participated in warfare. Perhaps it was just a matter of unmasking the utility and realizing the military advantages airplanes could provide, but the U.S. did finally reconsider purchasing the Wright Brothers’ patented aviation technology in 1907.

Airplanes as Military Tools

After signing a contract with the Wrights in 1908, the United States army purchased the world’s first military airplane, the Wright Military Flyer. Despite the specific militant design of this flyer, and others, most countries were hesitant to use planes as weapons at the beginning of the First World War. Many airplanes, instead, were used alongside zeppelins and balloons for reconnaissance because of their unpredictability and fragile construction.

Air Raids

Not everyone was so cautious though; some countries were willing to take on more risk if it meant they could have a chance at leveraging technology for a tactical dvantage. For example, from the very beginnings of the war, experimentation with airplanes and small load bombs (squibs) was very much present.

In fact, strategic squib bombing was actually one of the first ways planes were used as military weapons in war. Most notably, the French launched their first bomber planes in the summer of 1914, with intent to drop small explosives on German Zeppelin hangers. Witnessing the French’s relative success, other countries, like England and Germany, began following suit to partake in this new type of warfare.

A few short months later, some pilots tried experimenting with the collision approach to air warfare. The first documented take-down happened to an Austrian plane when it was rammed out of the sky by a Russian aircraft. While both planes ended up crashing, and all passengers were killed, it still marks an interesting shift in the utility of aircraft as actual weapons instead of passive vehicles.

Aircraft Artillery

Given the unpredictability and ineffectiveness of air collisions as an offensive strategy, it wasn’t long before some pilots began adopting a different approach. The first accounts of firearm usage on airplanes are from October 1914, but the idea had been in development for a few years before the start of the war. Prototypes of machine gun-mounted airplanes started cropping up as early as 1912, but they wouldn’t make their official appearance in warfare until 1915.

Initially, pilots began shooting pistols and other handheld guns at enemy airplanes in an attempt to knock their planes out of the sky. While this approach was popular, it was somewhat discarded with the introduction of aircraft machine guns and, finally, with the invention of planes with forward-firing machine guns which were synchronized with the aircraft propellers.

Flying Aces

Now equipped with automatic artillery, the first true fighter pilots were able to make a name for themselves during the war. Even today these military aviators are still portrayed as romantic heroes of the first world war despite their actual influence being questionable. In fact, most scholars seem to assert that air warfare did not play a huge role in the outcome of WWI. This is mainly do the fact that aviation technology was still unfamiliar for all parties involved, and the actual utility of these planes had not been fully realized yet.

Regardless, it is hard to ignore the impact air warfare had on the overall public image and perception of war. Gone were the days of simple trench-style stalemates and battlefield stand-offs–the war had taken off into the skies, and it was going to stay there.


World War 1 Airplanes Photographs