eve of the World War I, no country was prepared for using aircraft or
had even admitted they would make an effective weapon of war. Several
had experimented with dropping bombs from aircraft, firing guns, and
taking off and landing from aircraft carriers, but no country had
designed or built aircraft specifically for war functions. Limited
bombing operations had been carried out before 1914, but most thought
that aircraft use was limited to reconnaissance or scouting missions. An
October 1910 editorial in Scientific American, a respected publication,
denigrated the airplane as a war weapon: "Outside of scouting duties, we
are inclined to think that the field of usefulness of the aeroplane will
be rather limited. Because of its small carrying capacity, and the
necessity for its operating at great altitude, if it is to escape
hostile fire, the amount of damage it will do by dropping explosives
upon cities, forts, hostile camps, or bodies of troops in the field to
say nothing of battleships at sea, will be so limited as to have no
material effects on the issues of a campaign...."
some effort was made to use aircraft for military purposes. Some of the
earliest efforts took place in Italy. In April 1909, the newly formed
Italian aviation club, Club Aviatori, brought Wilbur Wright to Italy to
demonstrate his Military Flyer at the Centocelle military base near
Rome. Before leaving Rome, Wilbur trained the naval officer who would
become Italy’s first pilot, Lieutenant Mario Calderara. In 1910, Italy
set up its first military flying school at Centocelle.
the next few years, Italy’s military use of aviation increased. At the
start of the Turko-Italian War in 1911, Italy mobilized its Italian
Aviation Battalion and aircraft under the command of Captain Carlo
Piazza, a well-known racing pilot, and sent them by steamship to Tripoli
in Libya, then part of the Ottoman Empire. It sent two Blériot XIs,
three Nieuport monoplanes, two Farman biplanes, and two Etrich Taube
monoplanes. On October 23, 1911, Piazza made history’s first
reconnaissance flight near Benghazi in a Blériot XI. On November 1,
Second Lieutenant Giolio Gavotti carried out the first aerial
bombardment mission, dropping four bombs on two Turkish-held oases. In
March 1912, Captain Piazza made the first photo-reconnaissance flight in
same time, other European countries had begun developing military
aviation. The French army bought its first planes in 1910 and trained 60
pilots. It began to install armament in its reconnaissance craft in
1911. In Russia, Igor Sikorsky built the first "air giant," a
four-engine plane that was the forerunner of the multiengine strategic
bombers of World War I. The French military began experimenting with
aerial bombing in 1912, as did the British in 1913. Adolphe Pégoud in
France also experimented with a hook-and-cable system for landing a
plane on a ship at sea—following Eugene Ely in the United States who had
successfully taken off and landed on the deck of a ship.
United States had also experimented on a limited basis with military
operations in aircraft. Glenn Curtiss experimented with the plane as a
means of bombardment in June 1910 with his Golden Flyer. On August 20,
1910, at Sheepshead Bay racetrack near New York City, Lieutenant James
Fickel fired the first shot from an airplane--a rifle at a target from
an altitude of 100 feet (30 meters) with Glenn Curtiss piloting. On
November 14, 1910, Eugene Ely made the first takeoff from a warship, the
cruiser Birmingham, anchored near Hampton Roads, Virginia, in the
Curtiss Hudson Flyer. On January 18, 1911, he made the first carrier
landing onto a 125-foot (38-meter) platform on the warship Pennsylvania,
anchored in San Francisco Bay. In 1912, an Army officer, Captain C.D.
Chandler, fired a 750-round-per-minute, air-cooled recoilless machine
gun successfully from a Wright B flyer over College Park, Maryland, near
Washington, D.C. But, in spite of these achievements, no country had
developed an air attack or bomber by this time.
countries had also formed small "air forces" that were connected to
their other military operations. Great Britain formed the Royal Flying
Corps on April 13, 1912. In June 1914, the Naval Wing of this formation
was removed to form the basis of the Royal Naval Air Service. The United
States also established the Aeronautical Division of the U.S. Army
Signal Corps in 1907 and created the Aviation Section of the Signal
Corps in July 1914.
U.S. government generally lagged behind its European counterparts in
these efforts and was much later in supporting aviation than Europe had
been. Back in 1890, the French had ordered an aircraft from the aviator
Clement Ader and had appropriated $100,000 for that purpose, even though
the aircraft he developed never flew in a controlled flight. But the
Wright brothers, who had developed and demonstrated a fully controllable
aircraft in 1903 that could take off, land, bank, turn, climb, and
descend, did so with their own funds. Not until 1909 did the Signal
Corps purchase an aircraft for military purposes. The U.S. Navy
purchased its first plane, a derivative of the Curtiss Golden Flyer, in
March 31, 1911, Congress first appropriated funds for military aviation,
$125,000. The U.S. Signal Corps immediately ordered five new airplanes.
Two of these--a Curtiss Type IV Model D "Military," and a Wright Model
B--were accepted at Fort Sam Houston on April 27, 1911. With these new
planes, flight training of volunteers began. Lieutenant G.E.M. Kelly was
among the first group of twenty-one. On May 10, 1911, during a landing
attempt at Fort Sam Houston using a Curtiss Type IV Model D, Kelly
crashed into the ground. He was first man to lose his life while
piloting an airplane.
Countries that considered themselves more vulnerable to attack tried
harder to develop their military aircraft than more isolated countries
such as the United States. Thus, the countries of Europe had more
pilots, more aircraft, and outspent the United States on military
aviation. In 1910, the United States had only 18 licensed pilots and 193
in 1912. But in much less populous France, there were 339 licensed
pilots in 1910 and 968 in 1912. Both Germany and Great Britain had many
more pilots than the United States. In 1912, the militaries in France,
Germany, Russia, Great Britain, and Italy had more aircraft than the
United States (France had 25 times as many). In 1913, France spent more
than 60 times the aviation budget of the United States, Russia and
Germany 40 times, and Great Britain 24 times as much. But even so, no
country had any aircraft that were specifically designed for combat.
None were equipped to drop bombs or had any type of gun, let alone a
Aircraft and Trained Pilots in 1914
were also many untrained aviators flying by 1914. The total number
did the United States trail so far behind the rest of the industrial
world? One reason was its feeling of invulnerability. A second was the
official military doctrine that was in place in 1914 and which remained
until 1923. Military doctrine defines the roles, missions, and equipment
of an armed service. If the doctrine doesn’t state that aircraft are to
be used for bombing, fighting, and other military purposes, then
aircraft with military capabilities will not be constructed. The U.S.
military doctrine, as expressed in a 1914 Field Service Regulation, did
not mention bombing, strafing, or air-to-air fighting. The only military
aircraft missions mentioned were strategic and tactical reconnaissance.
One other factor that hindered the private development of aviation in
the United States was the often-prohibitive amount of money that had to
be paid to the Wright brothers for use of their patented technology.
general, military leaders, technologists, government officials--even
airplane inventors--displayed a lack of imagination. Military aircraft
development was retarded because civilian and military leaders, by and
large, could not conceive of aircraft as a war machine, not because
airplanes could not perform war missions. Not until World War I actually
began did the countries of Europe begin to seriously increase production
of military aircraft. And not until even later did the United States
join the effort.
Billy Mitchell Sinks the Ships
The battleship Alabama before being hit with bombs.
conducted a demonstration in September 1921, hitting the battleship
Alabama with phosphorus, tear gas, and other bombs.
After World War I ended, military budgets were reduced and armies were
decreased in size by international disarmament treaties. In the United
States, the services rallied to compete for the limited funds
available to keep their individual branches powerful. Aviation, which
was part of the U.S. Army, would have been forgotten if the assistant
chief of the air service, William "Billy" Mitchell, had not made
fighting for the future of aviation in the U.S. military his top
Instead of concentrating on aviation, defence budgets focused on
building super dreadnoughts for the navy. A super dreadnought was an
enormous steam-propelled battleship, considered unbeatable if it was
the biggest one. Mitchell considered the dreadnought his enemy. Based
on the evidence of the war, he felt that no naval fleet could survive
a battle if a land-based air force could reach it. Mitchell spoke out
against this funding often, angering the navy. And the press, sensing
readership in stories of inter-service rivalries, encouraged Mitchell
by printing his speeches and articles.
Finally, in February 1921, the navy could not ignore Mitchell anymore.
Testifying before the House subcommittee on aviation, Mitchell stated
that 1000 bomber aircraft could be built and operated for the cost of
one dreadnought and that his airplanes could sink a battleship. He
volunteered to demonstrate this if the navy would provide him with
some battleships, which were already due to be demolished. The navy
reluctantly agreed to the demonstrations.
A Martin bomber attacks and
sings a battleship during exercises in 1921.
navy did not support the demonstrations because it felt that success
would weaken its position in the upcoming World Naval Disarmament
Conference. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels volunteered to
stand bareheaded on the deck of any ship Mitchell was going to bomb.
Once it was decided the tests would be performed under navy rules, it
set strict guidelines that it felt would ensure failure for Mitchell.
One was that the bombings be conducted slowly, stopping often to
permit inspections of the damage by construction inspectors. This
would allow a scientific appraisal of the capacity of different types
of ships to withstand aerial attack. Also, the number and size of the
bombs were to be limited. The navy also ordered that there be a news
blackout during preparations and that only official reports of the
tests be allowed afterward. They were aware that Mitchell knew how to
manipulate the press and they wanted to ensure that his story was not
the one told to the public.
The Ostfriesland under attack
in 1921 Army-Navy bombing test. Mining effects of hits like this sank
the test was agreed to, Mitchell formed the First Provisional Air
Brigade, drawing 150 airplanes and 1,000 people from air bases around
the country. Because none of the pilots knew how to sink ships,
extensive training was required at Langley Field in Virginia, where
practice missions against mock ships were performed. Among the
officers attending the practices was Alexander de Seversky, who had
served with Russia during the war, dropping bombs on German ships. He
taught the pilots that the best way to sink a ship was to drop the
bomb near, not on, the ship.
tests began in July off the coast of Virginia. The navy had provided
Mitchell with three decommissioned U.S. battleships and three ships
obtained from the Germans in the peace agreement--a destroyer, an
armoured light cruiser, and a dreadnought. All were successfully sunk.
The climax of the demonstrations took place on July 21, when the navy
brought out the German ship Ostfriedland, a great ship that had been
the pride of the German fleet during the war. The vessel was
considered unsinkable, and it probably would have been if Mitchell had
adhered to the rules. But instead, he had personally overseen the
design of a number of 2,000-pound (907-kilogram) bombs, knowing that
smaller bombs would not be successful. Martin twin-engine MB-2 bombers
dropped six of these bombs in rapid succession. Two scored direct hits
and the others landed close enough for the ship’s hull plates to rip
open from the force of the explosion. Twenty-one minutes after the
test began, the Ostfriedland plunged to the bottom of the ocean. The
final plane dropped its bombs into the foam rising from the sinking
navy was horrified and declared the tests void since Mitchell had
violated the guidelines. But it also began to focus more on aviation.
The Bureau of Aeronautics, which had been established in 1921 as a
defence against Mitchell’s actions under the leadership of William
Moffat, increased its development of the aircraft carriers that would
eventually help win the Pacific campaign in World War II.
the Air Corps, the results were different. Mitchell was able to use
the tests for more publicity and to push the agenda of the air force
to the nation. He wanted an air force modelled after the Royal Air
Force in England, which commanded all military aviation--from land to
sea operations. But Mitchell’s public condemnations of the military
eventually led to his court martial and early retirement. Soon after
the tests, Secretary of the Air Corps Major General Charles Menoher
was forced to resign and was replaced by General Mason Patrick.
General Patrick understood the importance of aviation, but he also
understood the politics of the military. He spent the next decade
quietly working to establish a mission and vision for an independent
air force. In 1948, the Air Force was founded. But Mitchell’s tests
had encouraged the navy to become air-minded. By 1948, naval aviation
was an established division of the navy with no desire to become
separate. As a result, the air force does not include naval aviation.