On the eve of the World War I, no country was prepared for using
aircraft or had even admitted they would make an effective weapon of
war. Several had experimented with dropping bombs from aircraft, firing
guns, and taking off and landing from aircraft carriers, but no country
had designed or built aircraft specifically for war functions. Limited
bombing operations had been carried out before 1914, but most thought
that aircraft use was limited to reconnaissance or scouting missions. An
October 1910 editorial in Scientific American, a respected publication,
denigrated the airplane as a war weapon: "Outside of scouting duties, we
are inclined to think that the field of usefulness of the aeroplane will
be rather limited. Because of its small carrying capacity, and the
necessity for its operating at great altitude, if it is to escape
hostile fire, the amount of damage it will do by dropping explosives
upon cities, forts, hostile camps, or bodies of troops in the field to
say nothing of battleships at sea, will be so limited as to have no
material effects on the issues of a campaign...."
In 1912 the Wright Model B was
used to demonstrate the first use of a machine gun from a plane.
But some effort was made to use aircraft for military purposes. Some of
the earliest efforts took place in Italy. In April 1909, the newly
formed Italian aviation club, Club Aviatori, brought Wilbur Wright to
Italy to demonstrate his Military Flyer at the Centocelle military base
near Rome. Before leaving Rome, Wilbur trained the naval officer who
would become Italy’s first pilot, Lieutenant Mario Calderara. In 1910,
Italy set up its first military flying school at Centocelle.
The Curtiss Golden Flyer was used for bombing tests, June 30, 1910.
During the next few years, Italy’s military use of aviation increased.
At the start of the Turko-Italian War in 1911, Italy mobilized its
Italian Aviation Battalion and aircraft under the command of Captain
Carlo Piazza, a well-known racing pilot, and sent them by steamship to
Tripoli in Libya, then part of the Ottoman Empire. It sent two Blériot
XIs, three Nieuport monoplanes, two Farman biplanes, and two Etrich
Taube monoplanes. On October 23, 1911, Piazza made history’s first
reconnaissance flight near Benghazi in a Blériot XI. On November 1,
Second Lieutenant Giolio Gavotti carried out the first aerial
bombardment mission, dropping four bombs on two Turkish-held oases. In
March 1912, Captain Piazza made the first photo-reconnaissance flight in
The Bleriot XI was used to make the first reconnaissance flight near
Benghazi in the Ottoman Empire on October 23, 1911.
the same time, other European countries had begun developing military
aviation. The French army bought its first planes in 1910 and trained 60
pilots. It began to install armament in its reconnaissance craft in
1911. In Russia, Igor Sikorsky built the first "air giant," a
four-engine plane that was the forerunner of the multiengine strategic
bombers of World War I. The French military began experimenting with
aerial bombing in 1912, as did the British in 1913. Adolphe Pégoud in
France also experimented with a hook-and-cable system for landing a
plane on a ship at sea—following Eugene Ely in the United States who had
successfully taken off and landed on the deck of a ship.
When the U.S. Congress made its first appropriation for military
one plane that was ordered was the Curtiss Type IV Model D. Lt. Kelly
died when the plane crashed while landing..
The United States had also experimented on a limited basis with military
operations in aircraft. Glenn Curtiss experimented with the plane as a
means of bombardment in June 1910 with his Golden Flyer. On August 20,
1910, at Sheepshead Bay racetrack near New York City, Lieutenant James
Fickel fired the first shot from an airplane--a rifle at a target from
an altitude of 100 feet (30 meters) with Glenn Curtiss piloting. On
November 14, 1910, Eugene Ely made the first takeoff from a warship, the
cruiser Birmingham, anchored near Hampton Roads, Virginia, in the
Curtiss Hudson Flyer. On January 18, 1911, he made the first carrier
landing onto a 125-foot (38-meter) platform on the warship Pennsylvania,
anchored in San Francisco Bay. In 1912, an Army officer, Captain C.D.
Chandler, fired a 750-round-per-minute, air-cooled recoilless machine
gun successfully from a Wright B flyer over College Park, Maryland, near
Washington, D.C. But, in spite of these achievements, no country had
developed an air attack or bomber by this time.
Built in Russia, the Sikorsky LeGrand was the forerunner of the
multiengine strategic bomber of World War I.
Some countries had also formed small "air forces" that were connected to
their other military operations. Great Britain formed the Royal Flying
Corps on April 13, 1912. In June 1914, the Naval Wing of this formation
was removed to form the basis of the Royal Naval Air Service. The United
States also established the Aeronautical Division of the U.S. Army
Signal Corps in 1907 and created the Aviation Section of the Signal
Corps in July 1914.
The U.S. government generally lagged behind its European counterparts in
these efforts and was much later in supporting aviation than Europe had
been. Back in 1890, the French had ordered an aircraft from the aviator
Clement Ader and had appropriated $100,000 for that purpose, even though
the aircraft he developed never flew in a controlled flight. But the
Wright brothers, who had developed and demonstrated a fully controllable
aircraft in 1903 that could take off, land, bank, turn, climb, and
descend, did so with their own funds. Not until 1909 did the Signal
Corps purchase an aircraft for military purposes. The U.S. Navy
purchased its first plane, a derivative of the Curtiss Golden Flyer, in
March 31, 1911, Congress first appropriated funds for military aviation,
$125,000. The U.S. Signal Corps immediately ordered five new airplanes.
Two of these--a Curtiss Type IV Model D "Military," and a Wright Model
B--were accepted at Fort Sam Houston on April 27, 1911. With these new
planes, flight training of volunteers began. Lieutenant G.E.M. Kelly was
among the first group of twenty-one. On May 10, 1911, during a landing
attempt at Fort Sam Houston using a Curtiss Type IV Model D, Kelly
crashed into the ground. He was first man to lose his life while
piloting an airplane.
Countries that considered themselves more vulnerable to attack tried
harder to develop their military aircraft than more isolated countries
such as the United States. Thus, the countries of Europe had more
pilots, more aircraft, and outspent the United States on military
aviation. In 1910, the United States had only 18 licensed pilots and 193
in 1912. But in much less populous France, there were 339 licensed
pilots in 1910 and 968 in 1912. Both Germany and Great Britain had many
more pilots than the United States. In 1912, the militaries in France,
Germany, Russia, Great Britain, and Italy had more aircraft than the
United States (France had 25 times as many). In 1913, France spent more
than 60 times the aviation budget of the United States, Russia and
Germany 40 times, and Great Britain 24 times as much. But even so, no
country had any aircraft that were specifically designed for combat.
None were equipped to drop bombs or had any type of gun, let alone a
Aircraft and Trained Pilots in 1914
Source: Holley, Ideas and Weapons, p. 29.
*There were also many untrained aviators flying by 1914. The total
number approximated 2,000.
Why did the United States trail so far behind the rest of the industrial
world? One reason was its feeling of invulnerability. A second was the
official military doctrine that was in place in 1914 and which remained
until 1923. Military doctrine defines the roles, missions, and equipment
of an armed service. If the doctrine doesn’t state that aircraft are to
be used for bombing, fighting, and other military purposes, then
aircraft with military capabilities will not be constructed. The U.S.
military doctrine, as expressed in a 1914 Field Service Regulation, did
not mention bombing, strafing, or air-to-air fighting. The only military
aircraft missions mentioned were strategic and tactical reconnaissance.
One other factor that hindered the private development of aviation in
the United States was the often-prohibitive amount of money that had to
be paid to the Wright brothers for use of their patented technology.
general, military leaders, technologists, government officials--even
airplane inventors--displayed a lack of imagination. Military aircraft
development was retarded because civilian and military leaders, by and
large, could not conceive of aircraft as a war machine, not because
airplanes could not perform war missions. Not until World War I actually
began did the countries of Europe begin to seriously increase production
of military aircraft. And not until even later did the United States
join the effort.
The first plane to strafe troops on the ground, it was also the
first British plane to be shot down by enemy ground fire. Better
aircraft soon replaced the Avro 504 in combat, but it remained the
standard British trainer for the duration of the war.