13 August 2008

Weapons and Armies: The War in the Sky

By Delia DeLeest

On the 17th of December, 1903, Orville Wright flew an airplane 120 and the history of motorized flight began. Men had been yearning to fly for thousands of years and the Wright brothers had made it a fact. What's really amazing is that within the next ten years, flight took on a life of its own.

In its early years, flying was considered a sport for extreme risk-takers and was considered unethical to use for war. The shooting or dropping of bombs from the air was considered immoral and illegal. This soon changed.

The French were the first to develop an air force, but it was only used for spying and reconnaissance and the planes were not equipped with weapons of any sort. There have been stories of enemy recon planes passing each other and merely exchanging grins and waves. This soon escalated into rivals tossing bricks, grenades and rope (in an attempt to tangle it in the propeller) at each other Though still not equipped with on board weapons, the first dogfight took place between a German and a British plane, the pilots shooting at each other using conventional pistols. The first downed plane as the result of a dogfight was when a Russian pilot rammed another plane, the Russian died in the attack.

Germany quickly came out on top in the air wars. Despite having a much smaller air force, they frequently defeated their enemies, sometimes being outnumbered as much as eight to one. They came up with many innovations, such as painting their crafts with luminescent paint to protect against collisions during night bombing raids and developing a timer on their front-mounted machine guns to prevent the bullets from hitting the propeller when firing. They also had one of the most famous pilots in history on their roster, Manfred von Richthofen, better known as The Red Baron of Peanuts fame. He's credited with shooting down 80 Allied planes before being shot down himself. His abilities were so respected that, at his death, the enemy even held a memorial service for him.

From being considered immoral and unethical at the beginning of the war, these Knights of the Sky soon became revered and respected for their abilities, resourcefulness and bravery. In those days, it was simply brave to even fly in an airplane, since parachutes were not standard issue equipment for pilots during World War One, when your plane went down, you had no choice, you went with it.

After the war, pilots were at loose ends. They'd experienced the thrill and freedom of the air and had a hard time going back to the staid stability of civilian life. With commercial air travel only just emerging, there were few jobs for pilots in peacetime 1920s. Unwilling to give up life in the sky, many pilots bought surplus warplanes rather cheaply and began life as barnstormers, an exciting topic for a future post.