Brief History of Aviation in WWI

Image Credit: USAF 28th Bomb Wing
A painting of a dog fight against the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen.

Michael Weinhoffer/Staff Reporter

Planes were first used in combat in WWI, which started just eleven years after the Wright brothers made the first sustained and controlled flight of a heavier-than-air aircraft. The combination of the rapid invention of new technology and aviators who flew with supreme pride for their country makes this story worth telling. WWI matched man and machine like never before, and it is there in the heat of battle where we can find the greatest heroes.

The aviation heroes of WWI were sent into the sky in clunky flying machines that were incredibly unreliable and frail. Planes were originally used for reconnaissance, where a pilot and a co-pilot would fly and look for enemy movements, with no protection whatsoever. As the war ramped up, physical protection for the pilot was warranted. The upgrades began with installing heavy machine guns in the rear seat; however, with even the slightest center of mass change, the planes could not take off! Designers then decided to make all planes one seated to reduce the weight of the aircraft and install the machine guns at the front next to the propeller.

Although only having one pilot allowed for lighter and more maneuverable aircraft, the machine guns created new problems. Whenever a pilot would shoot at an enemy, bullets would always strike the propeller, which was rotating right in front of the gun. This destroyed the propeller and quickly sent the pilot to his death. To avoid this, German engineers designed a “synchronization gear.” This was a special mechanism designed only to fire the machine gun when the bullets would not hit the rotating propeller. Since the propeller was always moving very fast, this was a difficult technology to perfect, but wars always reward those with an edge over the enemy. Soon enough, German planes were equipped with these new gears and quickly gained the upper hand in the sky. Eventually, the Allies caught on, and soon intense dogfights took place over the countryside, usually near the borders of Allied and Central Power territory.

The aircraft used the most by the U.S. during the war was the SPAD S. XIII. Close to 8,500 of these biplane fighter aircraft were built during the war and were equipped with two machines guns and a powerful engine. The top U.S. ace, Eddie Rickenbacker, used the SPAD to shoot down twenty-six planes between May and October of 1918. The Frenchman Rene Fonck used the SPAD S. VII to shoot down seventy-five planes between August 1915 and November 1918, making him the top Allied ace of WWI.

But without a doubt, the top ace of WWI was the German Manfred von Richthofen, who shot down eighty planes between September 1916 and April 1918, and is popularly known as the “Red Baron.” Richthofen was recruited in August 1916 to join one of the first German fighter squadrons by Oswald Boelcke, who is known as the “father of the dogfight.” Boelcke taught Richthofen his famous list of dogfighting tactics, the Dicta Boelke, and Richthofen quickly became an aggressive hunter and feared pilot. Even Snoopy from Peanuts in his Sopwith Camel could never defeat the Great Red Baron! Richthofen flew firetruck-red Albatross D.III and Fokker Dr.I planes with Jagdstaffel (“fighter squadron”) 11 of the German Air Service. Along with his brother, Lothar von Richthofen, and nine other pilots, the squadron was the most successful unit of the Air Service. The most resounding victory for the squadron came in April 1917, with the squadron largely contributing to the defeat of 275 aircraft of the British Royal Flying Corps in a single month. Manfred eventually became commander of the Jagdgeschwader 1, which was the German’s first fighter wing, comprising of four squadrons. However, his successes came to an end when he was shot down and killed on April 21, 1918, in northeastern France, near the German empire border. As expected, there is a large amount of controversy over who fired the fatal shots, but his legacy continues to permeate throughout the aviation culture today.

The story of WWI aviation serves as a perfect example of the amount of innovation that can occur when the heat of battle is on. It took just eleven years for a peaceful flying innovation to be turned into a war machine. Soldiers used whatever technology they could get their hands on to gain an advantage over the enemy, and the aces flew with immense pride for their nation despite the extreme dangers presented to them.

At Embry-Riddle, we can use this example to make the Wright brothers and  WWI aces proud by being resilient during fearful or stressful times and showing grit and aggressiveness during our academic tenure.