Airplanes : Spies in the Air


Airplanes were first used in war during the First World War.  At the outbreak of the first world war, airplanes were only 13 years old.  They were a relatively new technology, and up until the war, many people wondered exactly what they were good for.  Sure, they could fly, but what did you need to fly for?

The earliest uses for airplanes during war was as aerial reconisance units flying over enemy territory searching for enemy artillery or troops.  A pilot would fly the plane and take notes, or sometimes a photographer or observer would ride along with the pilot.  These early planes were unarmed, until recon pilots from opposing sides began to fly in the same airspace, and see each other flying by.  The earlies armaments were bricks, or heavy objects to try and throw at passing enemy planes.  Soon pilots carried sidearms, to try and shoot the other enemy pilot inside his plane.


Once the machine gun was invented, it was immediately adapted for use with airplanes.  There was just one problem.  The pilot needed a gun that he could aim by steering the plane, yet wouldn't block his view of the air ahead.  Airplanes, unlike tanks, have large propellers spinning in front of the pilot.  There was no room for a machine gun, unless it went over the propeller, and then the pilot couldn't see where he was flying.  Three designs came out to try and change this : One placed the gun in the center of the nosecone, firing through the center or the propeller, one design had metal deflectors on the propeller blades to ricochet any bullets that hit the propeller, and finally, the most popular, a machine gun mounted in the nose that timed its shots to fire so the bullet fired when a propeller blade was not in front of the gun.

Some airplanes were even built with a propeller at the back, allowing a clear view in front of the airplane.  This design has some stability problems, and was not very popular.  Also, any piece of the wooden frame or canvas skin that came off the plane would get sucked into he propeller.  (At the time, parachutes were not common in airplanes.  This was due partly tot he fact that there was no easy way to test them, and some pilots still considered death the more honorable choice.)

Still, however, most airplanes were used for recon missions only.  Sometimes blimps would also be used, tethered to the ground, relaying positions via telegraph, a practice in use since the Civil War using hot air balloons.  Blimps were, however, easier to shoot down, and were flammable, often a fatal flaw for the crew on board.

There is no doubt that the extensive use of airplanes in the Great War helped spur on modern aviation, both from the advances in airplane design (in WWI, it was still believed that two wings were really needed to get adequate lift, while today we have light and strong enough designers to use only one wing.)  Airplanes in war also suggested new uses for airplanes at home.  Shortly after the war ended, the first mail routes went into service, flying over mountainous and other hazardous terrain, to deliver mail faster than ever before.

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