The First Military Planes
In one of America’s least-remembered conflicts, in April 1914, President Woodrow Wilson ordered navy seaplanes into action in a military dust-up with Mexico. The planes were lowered from ships into the Gulf of Mexico and taken aloft on mine-spotting missions.
Later, generals put the planes to work in reconnaissance missions over the mainland. Enemy soldiers took pot shots at the lumbering craft, but didn’t manage to bring any of them down. Still, story – hungry newspaper reporters covering the hostilities quickly transformed the bullet holes in the floatplanes skin into the first “shots fired in anger” against an American air force.
Airplanes were flown into action again in March 1916, when General John “Black Jack” Pershing went gunning for Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, who had
invaded New Mexico. Wooden propellers cracked and peeled in the dry desert heat, fuel was frequently contaminated, and the horse-savvy officers in charge of the campaign had no idea how to put the airplanes to work. You might say the airplane had failed its first real military test. Nevertheless, the experiences of the First Aero Squadron gave the military its first taste of airborne war tactics.
World War I: Aviation’s Fiery Trial
By the Book
Shortly after pitots and designers learned how to build and fly airplanes from dry ground, they turned their attention to the water. Clenn Curtiss (see Chapter i, “The 8ishop’s Boys: Wilbur and Orville Wright”) designed a seaplane in 1911 that could take off and land on water; it didn’t require dry land at all. The idea was a natural for Curtiss, who grew up near New York’s Finger Lakes, which became miles-long runways for his daring inventions.
At about the same time Pershing’s men were trying to keep planes in the air in the American Southwest, a more serious confrontation was taking place in Europe. In the eighteen months since the start of World War I in July 1914, air battles between warring European pilots had turned from gentlemanly encounters between enemy scouts—in the first days of the war, enemy reconnaissance pilots often waved greetings at each other as they passed over each others front lines—into battles to the death.
When the first defensive flights took to the air, pilots and backseat observers were armed with only pistols and rifles, but soon pilots were mounting machine guns in front of the cockpit. The machine guns were fixed in place, however, so the pilots had to use the whole airplane to point the machine gun.
At first, pilots thought they could use the wing – and – a – prayer method of machine gunning through the spinning propeller, relying on the odds that most bullets would miss the wooden blades. In the first experiments, the few bullets that did strike the wooden blades were enough to do considerable damage. So engineers attached a strip of metal to the leading edge of each propeller blade in hopes that most of the bullets would be deflected. The idea worked well enough for a time. Then an engineer for the British – and French-led Allies and the German-led Central Powers devised a timing device for machine guns that enabled the machine guns to fire between the blades.