Aerial warfare dates back to the days of kites in the sky over China. In Chinese history, manned kites are referenced as being used for reconnaissance missions. From there, aerial combat has evolved to include sophisticated aircraft and artillery.
How Planes in War Time Evolved
A brief look at the evolution of aircraft can be seen on FLT Academy’s blog HERE, and below we’ll take a look at some of the specific advancements made to allow for safer and more efficient aerial combat throughout the years.
Dogfights in the 1900s
Aerial combat has been referred to as “dogfighting” since the 1900s. In 1913, the first recorded dogfight occurred over Mexico, in which two planes attempted to duke it out in the skies with handheld, short-range weapons.
In early instances of aerial combat, pilots would simply shoot back and forth at each other with their pistols. Or, pilots would threaten each other by dropping bundles of aerial darts, throwing bricks, or attempting to entangle each other’s propellers with rope. It was rudimentary, but all that the airplanes could handle due to their weight restrictions.
Machine Guns Enter the Arena
However, as planes expanded their in weight limit capabilities, thoughts of adding heavier artillery were more seriously entertained. But, how could a gun be safely fired from an airplane with a propeller on its nose?
During World War I, it’s reported that a British plane attempted to gain 1,000 feet of altitude with a machine gun on board. The extra weight of the weapon was such a challenge, it took 30 minutes for the plane to reach altitude.
Not to be deterred, engineers kept working on the problem of mounting forward-facing machine guns on fighter planes. In order to make it safer for a pilot to shoot without risk of bullets ricocheting back into the cockpit, something had to be done. In 1913 a “pusher” plane was debuted. It featured a biplane with a propeller behind the engine at the back of the plane. The machine gun could be fired forward by one of two pilots without risk of hitting the propeller.
Another solution was revealed in 1915 by French pilot Roland Garros. Garros engineered the idea to mount steel wedges to the front propeller of his plane. If a bullet hit one of these wedges, it was successfully deflected away from the cockpit.
In 1915, Dutch engineer Anthony Fokker offered a design to the Germans, based on wreckage from one of Garros’ downed planes. Fokker’s invention was an interrupter gear, also known as a synchronization gear. When the machine gun was fired, it was timed with the plane’s front propeller. If a blade was in front of the barrel of the gun, firing was delayed. Thanks to these two developments, the wedge and the interrupter gear, the nature of dog fights changed forever. By World War II in the mid-1900s, fighter planes would have machine guns mounted on their wings and bombs in underbelly compartments.
Planes Flown in WWI
Initially, aircraft in the first world war were used for reconnaissance, much like the kites in ancient China. Eventually, the job of the airplane was upgraded. Here are some of the aircraft used in WWI.
- E.2 – Britain
- Bristol Type 22 – Britain
- Fokker Eindecker – Germany
- Siemens-Schuckert – Germany
- Sopwith Camel – Britain
- Gotha GV – Germany
- Handley Page 0/400 – Britain
- Nieuport 23 C.1 – France
- Albatros D.1 – Germany
- Zeppelins – hydrogen blimps
Advancements Between World Wars
Between the conclusion of WWI in 1918 and the beginning of WWII in 1939, aerial advancements continued. Monoplanes with metal bodies replaced biplanes with canvas skins. Liquid-cooled engines could reach speeds and altitudes double what early WWI-era planes achieved. Additionally, the range of aerial projectiles increased as well.
Sleeker planes with multiple engines and radar made it possible to carry heavier artillery through the skies. WWII was ignited when Germany dropped aerial bombs on England in 1939, a far cry from the improvised “bombings” of the early 1900s (which were just hand grenades tossed out by pilots). Strategic bombing was seen as a way to advance on the enemy, so specialized bombers were developed.
In 1915, the French designed Voisins type L that could carry 130 pounds of small bombs in the cockpit. When the aircraft reached its designated attack area, the handheld bombs could be dropped from the aircraft by the observer onboard. By WWII, planes were designed to carry between to 660 and 4,000 pounds of bombs, a far cry from the Voisins of WWI.
Pioneers of Precision
Much credit is given to the German and American air forces for pioneering precision-guided artillery in WWII. Armor-piercing and guided munitions made a big difference in advancing on enemy lines.
- Fritz X – German guided anti-ship glide bomb
- Henschel Hs 293 – German radio-guided glide bomb
- Azon – US guided bomb
Guided munitions allowed for successful hits with less risk to the person piloting the missive. Enhancing firepower was not a concept unique to wartime; mankind has been advancing explosives for centuries. Whether in the pursuit of liberty or on the hunt, modern guns represent a desire to improve speed, precision and, ultimately, results.
Planes Flown in WWII
The fighter aircraft used in WWII range from single-engined and single-seated to multi-engined and multi-seated. From heavy fighters to jet-propelled, we see advancements from the beginning of the war to its end. The Smithsonian reports that the war opened with about 2,500 planes, and concluded with almost 300,000. As far as the types of planes flown, here are some of the most commonly produced aircraft.
- Vought F4U Corsair – United States
- Curtiss P40-Kittyhawk – United States
- Hawker Hurricane – United Kingdom
- Junkers Ju-88 – Germany
- North American P-51 Mustang – United States
- Supermarine Spitfire – United Kingdom
- Focke-Wulf Fw-190 – Germany
- Yakovlev Yak-3 – USSR (present-day Russia)
- Messerschmitt Bf-109 – Germany
- Ilyushin IL2 Sturmovik – USSR (present-day Russia)
- Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress – United States
- Mitsubishi A6M Zero – Japan
WWII craft included not just day fighters, but night fighters as well. Pilots performed recon missions, strategic bombing missions, and transported cargo and troops around the world. This was a huge advancement compared to the WWI planes that could only handle a single pilot armed with a pistol.
Features of WWII planes that improved their performance included things we take for granted today: increased horsepower, retractable landing gear, and enclosed cockpits with oxygen. It’s amazing what a few simple changes could do for the advancement of firearms and flight in a single century.