Glen Curtiss
Alexander Graham Bell
Fort Meyer Trials
Louis Blériot
Reims air race
the first U.S. airshows
Santos Dumont
squaring up for war
the first bomb run
the amazing Dreadnought 1


Europe takes the lead and prepares for war

In 1908, the British writer H.G. Wells published War in the Air, a fantasy that depicted with frightening clarity the possibility of cities being bombarded from aircraft and wars being determined by air battles. As Europe felt itself lurching closer and closer to a major war, each of the possible combatants took stock of their preparedness in all areas of warfare, including air power. Even strategists who believed aviation in the decade before World War I was the province of cranks and adventurers, or useful only for reconnaissance, speculated on what role an air force might play in a war and how they would fare against an airborne enemy. In the years 1910 to 1914, the French were certainly the most advanced in aviation of all the European nations.

While Europe developed land-based planes for possible military use, the American designer Glenn Curtiss, with U.S. Navy support, was developing aircraft that could land on and take off from water.

The International Exposition of Aerial  Locomotion (known as the Aéro Exhibition) at the Grand Palais in Paris in October 1909, just weeks after the spectacle at Reims, made this abundantly clear. Organized by Robert Esnault-Pelterie, 333 exhibitors displayed their wares and aircraft, everything from balloons to airplanes to clothes and accessories; 318 of the exhibitors were French.

On display were the Blériot plane that had made history and Ader’s Avion of 1897 (which had not); Henry Farman’s aileron-equipped biplane; Santos-Dumont’s lightweight Demoiselle 20; and (in the most prominent position in the hall) Esnault-Pelterie’s R.E.P., with its revolutionary internally braced wing (doing away with the need for guide wires) and the first fully enclosed fuselage.

The French believed that their planes had developed nicely—the monoplanes they preferred were lighter and faster than the American biplanes. The Gnome engine, developed by the brothers Louis and Laurent Seguin in 1909, was quickly developing into the prototype of the next generation of airplane power plants, and between 1911 and 1913, French aviators owned virtually every aviation record on the books.

The two areas in which the French believed there was room for improvement were raw speed and manoeuvrability; the Wright aircraft had excelled n both these aspects of flight at Le Mans and even at Reims, and these were factors that would be important in military situations. The French answer in the first area was to develop flying techniques that took full advantage of Farman’s ailerons. In September 1913, one of Blériot’s test pilots, twenty-three-year-old Adolphe Pegoud, a flier so reckless the press nicknamed him “the fool,” demonstrated  manoeuvres that took flying to an entirely new level.

 In spite of the technical achievements of the Americans, the French influenced aircraft design profoundly. The graceful and elegant lines of the Levasseur-designed Antoinette and the Blériot planes (such as the Blériot XI shown here) set the course for future design and spelled the end of the Chanute-Wright box kite approach.

His techniques allowed him to fly upside-down and to perform all manner of loops, rolls, and turns that were thought to be impossible. One manoeuvre had the aircraft climb steeply until it stalled, then drop backwards tail-first, then recover and dive, and then level off, with the plane describing a Z in the sky. Pegoud became a celebrated flier in World War I and was shot down in 1915 after a flying career of only three years. Fighter pilots on both sides during the war openly acknowledged their debt to Pegoud.

The response to the speed question was to develop a new kind of airplane construction: the monocoque fuselage. “Monocoque” means “single shell” and refers to the fact that the stresses on the wings and fuselage of an airplane can be borne by the entire shell of the aircraft instead of by support struts and guy wires, as they were in the earlier airplanes. The result is a lighter plane with greater strength and structural integrity. The trail was blazed by two planes: the Deperdussin, designed by Louis Bechereau and built by the industrialist Armand Deperdussin; and the Nieuport, brainchild of engineer Edouard Nieuport. The Deperdussin, unveiled in 1912, was a sleek aircraft with a  single tractor propeller and was the first plane to have a monocoque fuselage.

The Nieuport might be looked at as the step between the Blériot-Voisin planes and the Deperdussin: it did not use monocoque construction, but it was designed to have a streamlined, fully enclosed fuselage and a revolutionary “cowling” or (thecover that enclosed the engine). These features, plus a flatter wing camber, gave the aircraft speed and permitted it to set a world speed record when introduced in 1911. The superiority of the Deperdussin was believed demonstrated in a race known as the Circuit of Anjou (after the county in which it was held), held in June 1912. However, the victory of the Deperdussin had more to do with the determination of its pilot, Roland Garros, to fly in stormy weather than with the quality of the aircraft. In England, aviation had a slow start.

The earliest British planes were built and flown by an expatriate American, Samuel E Cody, who seemed for some years to be the only one in England interested in developing a home-grown airplane. The British were content to rely on the Wright brothers’ invention, taking pride that it was based on the pioneering work of Sir George Cayley, an Englishman. The Short brothers, Oswald, Horace, and Eustace, became licensees of the Wright patents, and were soon the major supplier of Wright aircraft to Europe. Meanwhile, after a brief stint flying man-carrying kites  and dirigibles, “Papa” Cody, as he was called in the British press (when he first flew in 1908, he was forty seven years old), turned to aircraft. Cody was a showman in the tradition of Buffalo Bill Cody (to whom he was not related), Texas-born and bred and, to all appearances, a cowboy in a travelling rodeo show.

Yet Cody had an instinctive feel for airplane design and, with virtually no schooling, he designed some of England’s first flying machines. The first flight of an airplane in England was made in his British Army Airplane No. 1 on October 16, 1908. Ever the showman, Cody’s airplanes were huge for their time; they were called “Flying Cathedrals” because of their large wing spans and their angular shape and pointed canard elevator wing. Largely at the insistence of hawkish politicians like Winston Churchill, the British army finally held trials in April 19 12 at Larkhill for the purpose of evaluating and commissioning military aircraft.

In spite of the fact that several designers and builders were already producing noteworthy aircraft, Cody’s Flying Cathedrals won handily and were the first planes to be produced at the Royal Aircraft Factory (formerly a balloon factory) at Farnborough. Samuel Cody died in a crash on August 7, 1913, while testing one of his planes. Britain had lost someone as important in promoting flight in England as Ferber had been in France. Between 1907 and the outbreak of World War in 1914. three Englishmen entered the field of aviation, working in relative obscurity, but catching up year by year to the French and the Americans, and ultimately playing a vital role in both British aviation and the history of flight.

In 1907, Alliot Verdon Roe (or A.V. Roe, as he was known) began building small motorized model airplanes, and by 1 909 he had built the first aircraft made entirely in England (that is, without French engines in American designs), the Avro plane, a lightweight tri-plane that barely flew, powered by a 9-horsepower engine. (At this time, the Wrights were delivering planes to the U.S. Army that could fly ten miles [16km] and were powered by 32- horsepower engines.)

In 1912, Roe introduced the Avro Type F the first aircraft with a fully enclosed cockpit (an advance in design, but not a factor in World War I), and in 1913 he introduced the first of a series of staggered biplanes (where the upper wing is forward of the lower wing, streamlining the plane further as it flies) that led to the Avro 504, one of the most popular and durable planes of World War I. (Some ten thousand 504s were built and many remained in service till the mid-1930s.)

Two builders who worked independently before 1912, hut who made important design contributions at Farnborough, were Geoffrey de Havilland and Thomas Sopwith. De Havilland was a designer of buses when he turned to aviation. With the help of his brother-in-law, engineer Frank Hearle, and his grandfather’s fortune, de Havilland built and tested his first plane in 1909— it crashed—and the No. 2 in 1910, which flew well enough to interest the British War Office in 1911.

The plane was renamed the F.E.1, for “Farman Experimental 1” because it resembled a Farman biplane. De Havilland adopted this practice of naming his plane after its inspiration when he designed the B.E.1, which stood for “Blériot Experimental 1” and which led to the B.S.1 (the Blériot Scout 1), a staggered-wing biplane with a monocoque fuselage and powered by a 90- horsepower Gnome engine. The 13.5.1 became an important fighter in the war and inspired the design of another classic fighter plane, Tom Sopwith’s Tabloid, which in turn led to the design of the legendary Sopwith Camel.

By 1910, Germany was convinced that it had made a terrible mistake in directing all its energies toward the development of airships at the expense of airplanes. As it turned out, airships played a more significant tactical role in World War I than airplanes, and the absence of native design and building talent made the Germans more prone to investigate and adapt foreign expertise— and this resulted in the Germans being very successful in its wartime air campaigns. The first heavier-than-air flight in Germany was made by a visiting Dane, J.C. Ellehammer, and Anthony Fokker. Fokker who was to become a central figure in German wartime aviation, was Dutch and had offered his services to the British first.

Völlmöller’s Taube, though it finished second in the German Circuit, was clearly a plane Germany would use if war broke out.

The Germans hastily organized an aeronautics industry and produced airplanes that owed a great deal (if not everything) to French planes. The one pre-war aircraft the Germans built and looked upon as their own was the Taube (German for “dove”), a 1910 monoplane designed and built by an Austrian, Igo Etrich, and originally used by Italy against the Ottoman Turks in Libya. The plane had a hopelessly outdated birdlike design with a complex wing-warping system of control. The Taube was clearly not going to lead to other, more advanced aircraft and was considered an interim solution at best.

Yet the Taube, outfitted with a Daimler-Mercedes engine, was light and allowed pilots to hone their flying skills, which would he tested in the war. In Russia, Igor Sikorsky, a naval academy graduate, designed, built, and tested the world’s first practical four- engine airplanes, culminating in the IIya Mouremetz, a biplane with an enormous wingspan of 113 feet (34.5m), a fully equipped and heated enclosed passenger cabin, and an odd but usable promenade deck. Eighty planes built along these lines were proud elements of Czar Nicholas's air force and were the basis for the Vityaz bombers, which were among the largest used in the war.

Russians were hard at work developing large bombers. Sikorsky (right, behind the searchlight) stands atop the observation deck of the Ilya Mouremetz.

The situation in the United States at this time was, to say the least, paradoxical. On the one hand, flight had been developed by Americans to a very advanced stage by the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss, and there was a clear notion among military leaders that this was a technology the country had to develop for the sake of national security. More than ever before, America felt a greater connection to the rest of the world, particularly to its own western states and Europe, and flight offered the best prospect of transporting people across oceans and continents. (And the entire rambunctious ethos of flight was perfectly suited to the American mentality and Yankee ingenuity.)

Eugene Ely, a Curtiss exhibition pilot, makes the first take-off from the deck of the U.S.S. Birmingham on November 14, 1910.

Ely’s first take-off from and landing on the deck of a ship (the U.S.S. Pennsylvania) took place at the San Francisco Air Meet on January 18, 1911.

On the other hand, President Wilson was determined to keep America out of the war, and one element in the strategy to do so was to keep American forces—forces that could be used to provoke America into entering the conflict—at minimum strength. The only branch of the American armed forces that was enlarged for defensive purposes was the navy. (Ironically, it was the sinking of a ship, the Lusitania, by a German U-boat, that brought America into war.)

While the U.S. government could control procurement and development, it could not halt progress in design and aviation. American planes developed, particularly sea- planes, which would play an important role both in the post-war development of civil aviation and in naval aviation, particularly in the development of the aircraft carrier, which would prove critical in World War II.

American inventors created the first bombsight (Riley Scott in 1911) and adapted the gyroscope to airplane stability (Lawrence Sperry installed the gyroscope developed by his father, Elmer, in a Curtiss seaplane in 1914). Americans had been first to use radio to communicate with the ground from an airplane (Baldwin and McCurdy n 1910), accumulating more experience than anyone else in using radio communication in flight. And Americans had done the most testing of aerial bombing and reconnaissance, beginning with Glenn Curtiss’ display on June 30, 1910, of the successful “sinking” of a dummy battleship on Lake Keuka by dummy chalk bombs (scoring fifteen direct hits out of seventeen passes).

It was clear as early as 1911 that, while Europe might momentarily take the lead in aviation, being confronted directly with the war, America was going to develop the airplane and its military capabilities at its own pace, to be used when necessary, either in this war or the next.