First Flyers

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Dorand biplane – 1914
French military biplane designed and constructed at the military aircraft factory at Chalais-Meudon. – This machine is characterised by a very long and narrow fuselage, which carries at its rear end a biplane type elevator. The engine is a 200 h.p. horizontal Salmson (Canton-Unne system) driving through bevel reduction gearing a single tractor screw situated in front of the main planes and above the nose of the fuselage. Several seats are provided, and the machine is fitted with a complete set of instruments for wireless telegraphy.

Aerial Reconnaissance and Observation

One of the ironic results of the stalemate of trench warfare on the Western Front is that it breathed new life into the use of balloons. As demonstrated, balloons had been used for military observation as early as 1794, but their effectiveness had been limited by weather conditions and the difficulty of keeping up with marching forces. Although the introduction of kite-balloons prior to the turn of the century had effectively dealt with the first issue as far as high winds were concerned, the advent of the airplane had definitely solved the second issue to the point that armies had begun phasing out their balloon corps prior to the war-indeed, the French had abandoned balloons altogether in 1911. That changed, however, with the advent of trench warfare on the Western Front, which remained fairly stationary until the spring of 1918, by which time as many as 300 balloons could be found on both sides of the front. Although the Germans had an initial advantage with their drachen balloons, the Allies soon developed the Caquot balloon, which French engineer Albert Caquot had adapted from the drachen design. The Italians developed the Avorio-Prassone, which could reach altitudes of 7,000 ft, something that was necessitated by the mountainous terrain along the Italian Front. By war’s end the Allies had produced approximately 4,000 balloons, compared with approximately 2,000 for the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary).

Although balloons were effective along a stationary front, observers were limited in how far behind the lines they could see. This is where aircraft proved especially effective, as demonstrated early in the war, because observers could fly far behind enemy lines and take note of changes in troop and supply buildup, which might indicate a change in enemy plans. As early as February 1916, for example, German reconnaissance aircraft were observing signs of British plans for an offensive along the Somme. Likewise, in 1918 Italian reconnaissance aircraft detected the Austrian Army’s intention to launch an offensive along the Piave River by noting that the Austrians had increased the number of artillery pieces there and changed their disposition.

Because observers might be limited in understanding and remembering everything that they saw, the use of photography proved extremely important. By the end of 1914 the Germans were already using more than 100 aerial cameras, including a serial camera that allowed for continuous photographs along the front. By war’s end cameras were able to take detailed photographs at altitudes as high as 20,000 ft. Photography allowed military commanders to see the battlefront for themselves, which helped in assessing enemy activity and dispositions and the effectiveness of artillery bombardments on enemy positions. Aerial photography also played an important role in preparing battle plans. Prior to attacking the Germans at Neuve Chapelle on 10 March 1915, for example, the British took detailed photographs of the German trenches and distributed copies to unit commanders leading the assault. Photo-reconnaissance also contributed to strategic bombing in that it helped determine such targets as railroad junctions, ammunition depots, and artillery positions for bombers to attack.

Reconnaissance aircraft played a critical role in helping artillery find the range to its intended target. By early 1915 the use of the wireless transmitter enabled either the observer or pilot to report the location of hits to the target. The British introduced the “clock code” with 12:00 representing due North, 3:00 due East, 6:00 due South, and 9:00 due West. Imaginary circles from the center of the target were designated Y, Z, A, B, C, D, E, and F and represented distances of 10, 25, 50, 100, 200, 300, 400, and 500 yards, respectively. Thus, the pilot or observer noting that a shell burst fell 100 yards due East of the target would signal B3. The French used intersecting 90-degree lines at the center of the target and references to “over” or “short of” and/or “left” or “right” of center. The Germans, on the other hand, used a grid system, in which imaginary squares located about the target indicated where a shell fell. Because opposing guns were almost always out of the view of those stationed on the ground, aircraft came to play vital counterbattery roles, reporting the position of enemy artillery. Indeed, counterbattery work consumed as much as two-thirds of British activity on some days during the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

The need to maintain contact between troops at the front and commanders in the rear was another important role of reconnaissance aircraft in the First World War because infantry more often than not became bogged down in no-man’s-land without effective lines of communication with the rear. Thus, the contact patrol, involving flight at low altitude, which was a risky endeavor, was crucial to infantry attacks. By the Festubert Offensive in May 1915 the RFC was using three wireless-equipped Maurice Farmans to report on the progress of ground forces, which were to communicate with white cloth strips placed on the ground. (The noise of aircraft at the time prevented two-way wireless communication.) Although viewing conditions greatly limited communication with ground forces in this manner, contact patrols became a standard feature of future offensives, allowing commanders to monitor the progress of their troops. This was especially crucial because staff officers who planned attacks often had no concept of conditions at the front and devised timelines for advances that were utterly impossible to meet. Contact patrols could also help prevent “friendly artillery fire” by informing commanders in the rear that their guns were shelling their own troops. In addition, contact patrols were often the first to report enemy counterattacks and provide information for directing artillery fire to oppose them.

The Rise of Fighters and their Role in the War

Although the primary danger pilots faced at first was from enemy (and friendly) ground fire, the need to prevent the enemy from carrying out reconnaissance became just as important as carrying out one’s own reconnaissance after a few weeks of war. As a result, the days of opposing pilots waving at each other in the air came to a quick end, as both sides resorted to a variety of weapons (e. g., bricks, large steel darts, grenades, pistols, rifles, and even grappling hooks) in an effort to drive the enemy from the skies. On 25 August 1914 pilots and observers in Royal Flying Corps No. 2 Squadron armed themselves with rifles and pistols. Within three days the British had forced three German Taubes to land. Although Germans would achieve similar successes of their own, the odds of hitting a moving target with a rifle or pistol were extremely small. Of all the weapons available, the most practical one was the machine gun. 5 The idea of firing a machine gun from an airplane actually predated the war. Early aircraft, however, lacked the power to carry a water-cooled machine gun, a pilot, and an observer. By 1912, however, technology was beginning to change as lighter-weight machine guns became available. On 7 and 8 June 1912 Captain Charles De- Forest Chandler of the U. S. Army Signal Corps fired a new air-cooled machine gun, designed by Colonel Issac Newton Lewis, from the air in his Wright Type B airplane, placing 14 of 45 rounds into a 6-ft-tall, 18-in.-wide target from an altitude of 500 ft. Although the U. S. War Department failed to appreciate the significance of the demonstration, because it continued to see the airplane’s role as providing the eyes of the army, other European powers took notice. Well before the outbreak of the war, aircraft designers had recognized that the most practical method of firing a machine gun from an airplane would be to fire through the arc of the propeller, thereby allowing the pilot to use the airplane to aim the gun. German designer Franz Schneider and French designer Raymond Saulnier had both independently developed an interrupter gear prior to 1914, but like the American War Department, the German and French General Staffs did not see any role for aircraft other than reconnaissance. In addition, the French War Ministry failed to adopt Saulnier’s design because the added weight of the water-cooled Hotchkiss gun-the French stubbornly refused to consider the aircooled Lewis gun-adversely affected aircraft performance.

Joseph Frantz & Louis Quenault
It was on the 5th of October, 1914, that French Sergeant Joseph Frantz and Corporal Louis Quenault managed to achieve the honour of being the first aviators to shoot down an enemy aircraft with gunfire. Frantz was piloting the aircraft, while his mecanician and gunner, Quenault, was shooting the enemy. Onboard of their Voisin III, they engaged the German Aviatik I on their way back after taking off from Lhéry and bombarding enemy troops over Fort Brimont with six 90mm hand-dropped shells.

As mentioned earlier, the need to prevent enemy reconnaissance aircraft from conducting their missions would quickly lead to the incorporation of the machine gun on aircraft by the end of 1914. Pusher aircraft, which had the propeller in the rear, had an initial advantage in that the machine gun could be placed in the nose and used to fire forward. On 5 October, for example, French Corporal Louis Quénault downed a German Aviatik while firing a Hotchkiss gun from the observer’s seat in a Voisin III pusher piloted by Sergeant Joseph Frantz. The British would introduce a similarly designed pusher, the Vickers F. B. 5 Gunbus, in February 1915. Although pusher aircraft allowed observers to fire forward, they left the rear of the airplane vulnerable to attack and they were not as fast or maneuverable as tractor-driven aircraft (propeller in the front). It was for these reasons that the Germans opted for tractordriven aircraft and began installing their ring-mounted Parabellum gun in the observer’s seat. This offered a greater range of fire and the Parabellum’s drum had twice the capacity of the Lewis gun and four times the capacity of the Hotchkiss. The German ace, Oswald Boelcke, would get his first kill in such an aircraft. A few enterprising pilots mounted a Lewis gun on the top wing of their aircraft in order to fire over the arc of the propeller, but this presented its own hazards, as British pilot Louis Strange discovered on 10 May 1915 when his Martinsyde Scout turned upside down while he was attempting to change the drum on his Lewis gun, which was mounted on his upper wing. Strange somehow managed to hang on while the plane plummeted from 9,000 ft down to 1,500 ft before he was able to get back into the cockpit and right his plane.

As indicated earlier, the techniques improvised for using machine guns had their limitations, but this was soon to change. In March 1915 Roland Garros, a French pilot who had obtained fame for crossing the Mediterranean prior to the war, had been sent from the front to work with Saulnier in trying to perfect the process of firing through the propeller’s arc. Because the Hotchkiss gun was notorious for firing irregularly, Saulnier’s interrupter gear could not guarantee that a bullet would not strike the wooden propeller. After many experiments, Garros and Saulnier affixed wedge-shaped metal deflectors on the propeller and found that on average five in six shots passed through the propeller with the wedges deflecting the other. Although this presented some danger in that a deflected bullet could damage the engine or strike the pilot, Garros was undaunted and returned to the front in late March with a Hotchkiss gun affixed to his Morane-Saulnier monoplane. Beginning on 1 April 1915, Garros shot down five German planes in less than 3 weeks. On 18 April, however, he was forced down by ground fire behind enemy lines. Able to examine Garros’s plane, the Germans had the propeller at the Fokker factory within 24 hours.

After inspecting Garros’s plane, Dutch aircraft designer Anthony Fokker, who had begun aircraft construction in Germany just prior to the war, determined that the deflector shields provided only a partial solution. In any event, he had already been experimenting with Franz Schneider’s prewar interrupter design, and by late Spring 1915 had perfected it by synchronizing the interrupter gear with the camshaft of his new Fokker E. I monoplane, the Eindecker. In this way the interrupter gear could be timed to prevent the gun from firing when a bullet would otherwise strike a propeller blade. Although German authorities were impressed with Fokker’s demonstration of the mechanism at the factory, they demanded that he personally demonstrate it in flight against an Allied aircraft before they would adopt it, even though this would violate his status as a neutral noncombatant. After making several flights over the next 8 days, Fokker refused to fly further. German officials finally relented and allowed Fokker to instruct Lieutenant Oswald Boelcke how to operate the gun.

The introduction of the Eindecker with its synchronized machine gun in late July 1915 transformed air combat. Although the E. I had a relatively slow speed at 81 mph compared with the Morane- Saulnier Type N’s 90 mph and took 7 minutes to climb to 3,000 ft, it had good maneuverability and its round fuselage and thin wings made it hard to detect. The first two Eindeckers were sent to Feldfliegerabteilung 62 at Douai, where both Boelcke and Max Immelmann were based. Although the Germans had eleven Eindeckers in service by the end of July, they made a tactical error of distributing two to each Abteilung rather than concentrate them in a single squadron, which would have had a more devastating impact upon the Allied air forces.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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