The Biplane Period, 1917 to 1932
The Role of the Combat Plane: The First Generation
A Modest Beginning
When the first military airplane was purchased by the American government, no combat future was envisioned. The specification issued called for no weapons, just a two-place aircraft with a speed of 40 mph, a range of 125 miles, “and the ability to steer in all directions without difficulty.” A contract was signed February 10, 1908, with the Wright brothers, who began testing the 30-hp biplane that September. The first fatal airplane crash of history delayed acceptance of the rebuilt aircraft until August 2, 1909.
That $25,000 “flying machine” had no blood-thirsty intentions. Its only use was to train the first Army aviators to fly its kite-like successors. Only gradually did the Army try such missions as message-carrying, scouting, and spotting for coast artillery. The Wright brothers themselves, “the bishop’s boys”, had no interest in weapons.
The Army gradually experimented with airborne weapons, firing a rifle from an aircraft on August 20, 1910, and dropping live bombs in January 1911. A prototype of the new Lewis machine gun was fired at a ground target from a Wright biplane by Capt. Charles D. Chandler on June 7, 1912, (a week after Wilbur Wright died) but the Army was not yet ready to purchase the Lewis gun. The inventor took his weapon to Europe, where it won rapid acceptance by Belgium, Great Britain, and France.
European countries faced an immediate threat of invasion by powerful nations on their immediate borders. Even the most conservative military leaders had to notice aviation’s wartime potential. France began developing an aircraft industry with military funding, because the lack of practical commercial application discouraged private investment. Britain, Germany, and Russia were also rivals in producing aircraft useful to their armed forces.
The First War in the Air
When World War I began in 1914, Europe’s airplanes were as bare of weapons as America’s, but existed in much larger numbers. The initial mission of these aircraft was reconnaissance, and however violent the ground fighting, the soldiers of the skies found their flights across the lines relatively peaceful. For such purposes unarmed, single-
engine, two-place aircraft were adequate.
But the temptation to use the advantage of flight for attack purposes was too strong. On August 14, 1914, a pair of French biplanes dropped artillery shells on hangars at Metz, and on November 21, three British Avros bombed Zeppelin sheds. A German plane dropped the first bomb on English soil on December 24, 1914. Zeppelins began raids in January 1915, and warfare had truly entered a new dimension.
Later chapters of this book will describe how the “military aeroplane” became the combat plane by developing a series of specialties. Single-engine, two-seat observation biplanes were fitted with bomb racks under the wings and became light bombers. Smaller single-seaters with a machine gun became avions de chasse, or pursuit ships, for attacking enemy aircraft, while larger multi-engine machines were built for long-range bombing.
Flying these early open-cockpit combat planes was very different than today’s missions. Without radar location, fighter patrols cruised over the trench lines until encountering an enemy. Since there was no radio talk between aviators, hand signals were used to direct action. There were no parachutes to escape a burning plane.
The airplane as a scout had developed into the airplane as a bomber and as a destroyer of other aircraft, but this development was European, not American, and happened without comparable activity on this side of the Atlantic. New fighters often made sensational appearances over the front and disappeared from battle in only a few months. America missed the rapid technological advances that produced five generations of fighters in four years.
Although the United States had produced the world’s first successful powered plane, and purchased the first military plane, it had not participated in the air weapon’s wartime development. Not even a prototype of up-to-date pattern was available when we entered the war.
Aircraft had been used by the U.S. Army in Mexico in 1916, when the 1st Aero Squadron’s eight Curtiss JN-3 two-seaters had searched for Pancho Villa’s cavalry. While much more serviceable aircraft than the Wright B, and later developed into the famous JN-4 primary trainer, these biplanes had no combat capability.
American weakness in military aviation was due not only to reluctance to arm, but to the military posture of the day. The specific missions of the armed forces were defense of the continental United States, its overseas possessions, and its maritime commerce. For these purposes a strong Navy was needed, but mass armies of the European type were unnecessary, since only Mexico’s small army presented any possible threat on land.
The pride of American military technology was the giant cannon; the 14-inch rifles installed in coastal fortifications and battleship turrets that could fire a 1,560-pound projectile over 13 miles. Compared to such destructive power, little airplanes seemed properly limited to the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps.
When the United States Army prepared its first three specifications for military aircraft in 1916, the aircraft envisioned were first: Aeronautical Specification No. 1000 for a 90-hp primary trainer, and second, Specification No. 1001 for an advanced trainer. Third was Specification No. 1002 dated October 1, 1916, for a “Hydroplane” adapted to coast defense reconnaissance. This two-place, twin-engine “aeroplane” should carry up to 500 pounds for two men, accessories, and instruments, and enough fuel to sustain five hours of flight at full power, with a stalling speed of 45 mph. No mention was made of top speed or armament.
Such a seaplane “designed especially for coast defense” was first built by the New York Aero Construction Company at Newark, New Jersey. Designed by Warren S. Eaton (1891-1966), this biplane had two long floats under two 100-hp Hall-Scott water-cooled engines, and supported a biplane tail with three rudders on outrigger struts. The pilot sat in the back of a center nacelle with fuel tanks between him and a front cockpit for an observer, who could be provided with a Lewis gun.
After the Eaton AI seaplane was launched on September 4, 1916, it accidentally overturned, delaying flight tests until November. But the Army preferred to deal with more established aircraft builders and on December 9, 1916, ordered 96 “Twin Hydro” seaplanes spread among designs by Aeromarine, Burgess, Standard, and later, Thomas-Morse. None of these were ever built, because the whole program was canceled in 1917 to clear the way for aircraft more necessary for the war in Europe.
When the United States declared war on April 6, 1917, there were no specific plans to use airpower on a mass basis, but it was realized how far the United States had fallen behind Europe. There were no guns or bomb racks on any of the 130 Army aircraft in commission at that time. Most of these were the famous Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” trainers.
The 1st Aero Squadron at Columbus, New Mexico, and the 3rd, at San Antonio, Texas, faced the Mexican border with eleven Curtiss R-2 and six Curtiss R-4s between them. These were heavier two-seaters than the “Jenny”, using 160-hp (R-2) and 200-hp (R-4) engines, but there is no evidence that guns or bombs were ever carried, except perhaps for a test. The only other Aero Squadron was the 2nd, at Manila with only three Martin floatplanes to spot for coast artillery.
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