The airplane began its career in World War I as an observation and reconnaissance vehicle. Provided the aircraft could return to base safely, these mobile “eyes in the sky” made it almost impossible to move large armies
without detection and eliminated much of the element of surprise once enjoyed in wartime strategy. Then, too, there were the huge airships or dirigibles which towered over London during the later half of the war.
As rival pilots met in the air, their interactions started out as simple waves and hails, but degenerated to throwing bricks, grenades, rope and other flotsam to hinder or end the rival’s flight. This escalated to the use of
personal firearms and eventually resulted in the installation of machine guns. Consequently, the weight and strain of the weaponry required more powerful aircraft capable of carrying the guns effectively and safely.
In addition, the positioning of the gun and propeller was a major issue since the former could easily destroy the latter if fired through. This problem was solved by the development of a synchronizing device that allowed the bullets
of the gun to pass between the revolving blades of the propeller. This and many other innovations helped to refine the airplane and turn it from a gimmicky novelty into a formidable weapon.
Displayed above are two representative World War I model airplanes. The SPAD S.XIII, a single engine biplane operated by nearly 20 countries, was notable for its speed and strength in a dive but was difficult to maneuver at low speeds.
The Fokker Dr.I triplane became renowned as the plane in which Manfred von Richthofen (known widely as the “Red Baron”) gained his last 19 victories, and in which he was killed on April 21, 1918.