IV. The Great War in the Air


Born from the dreams of hobbyists and sportsmen, the airplane came of age under the command of officers and “gentlemen.” As the armies of Europe’s leading states competed for advantage in the “War to end all Wars” (1914-1918), once frail vehicles handcrafted from fabric, wood, and wire were transformed into killing platforms mass-produced by industry. At the same time, new cadres of trained pilots emerged to supersede earlier showmen and adventurers. Their exploits gave rise to enduring images and myths that would define public perception up to the present day. This week’s “Destination” in the History of Flight Culture examines the impact of the First World War in hastening the airplane’s technical development as well as the airplane’s role in transforming the nature and scope of battle. We begin with a discussion of pre-1914 ruminations on “future air wars” (and preemptive efforts to legislate them) before traveling to the deserts of North Africa and, thereafter, the Balkans to witness the first instances of heavier-than-air attacks. Following a long stop-over at Verdun and the Somme, our journey concludes with a discussion of the differing national embodiments of the WWI fighter “ace” — and the day-to-day realities pilots faced fighting the “Great War in the Air.”

Key Terms:
• Herring-Curtiss Company
• Gnôme rotary engine
• The Hague International Conference
• H. G. Wells
• Italo-Turkish War
• Battle of the Marne
• The “Zeppelin Menace”
• Roland Garros
• Fokker E Series
• Verdun
• The “Ace” System
• Max Immelman
• Georges Guynemer
• Albert Ball
• Eddie Rickenbacker
• Manfred von Richthofen

Readings, Browsings, & Viewings: (each opens in a new window)
The Russian Origins of Strategic Air Operations
How a rotary engine works
• Manfred von Richthofen, “My First English Victim”
• Eddie Rickenbacker, “American Ace of Aces”
Udet vs. Guynemer (Video clip. From the television show Dogfights)