WWI gave birth to aerial fighters, dogfights
November 19, 2015
The newly invented airplane was first used in anger during the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, when five regional states formed a coalition to defeat the Ottoman Empire. All sides in the conflict used early French-made airplanes. Although efforts were made to arm the flying machines for aerial combat, they were used exclusively for reconnaissance. A Bulgarian pilot achieved the dubious distinction of becoming aviation’s first combat casualty when he was shot down by rifle fire from the Turkish trenches.
Still, the airplane’s value as an observation platform had been proven, and as soon as World War I started, the warring sides on the Western Front began deploying rickety reconnaissance aircraft to report on enemy movements. This immediately led to efforts to prevent such flights, with aviators in observation planes taking potshots at each other with pistols or rifles. In one case, a British flyer who ran out of ammunition flung his heavy army revolver at the spinning propeller of a German plane in an effort to break it (he missed).
The demands of war pushed the evolution of the flimsy machines to an astonishing pace.
The French were the first to strap a forward-firing machine-gun onto an airplane, but this new weapon proved more dangerous to its users than to the enemy because of the gun’s propensity to shoot off the plane’s propeller in mid-air. The temporary solution was to mount the gun in the nose of an observation plane with a rear-mounted pusher propeller, but pusher models did not perform well in aerial maneuvers.
Then a French pilot, Roland Garros, came up with an ingenious solution, nailing steel deflector plates to the lower sections of the propeller’s blades. Garros, who shot down four German observation planes in his Morane Saulnier plane in April, 1915, became an instant national hero.
But the Germans got hold of his invention when his airplane was forced down behind their lines later that month. They immediately summoned Dutch airplane manufacturer Anthony Fokker, who was working under contract for the Germans, to find a way to mount Garros’ contraption on a German plane. Fokker, however, went one step further. His solution was a machine-gun mounted with a mechanical interrupter that was synchronized to allow fire through the moving propeller.
This gave Fokker’s single-engine plane, the E.I Eindecker -- the world’s first true fighter plane -- a huge advantage over all Allied planes. It led to the so-called Fokker Sourge, when Germany dominated the skies over the battlefields. Fortunately for the Allies, an Eindecker was soon captured, and the French and British immediately developed their own versions of the synchronization gear to equip their fighters.
These developments gave birth to the dogfight -- an aerial battle between fighter aircraft -- air combat tactics and the formation of the first squadrons consisting solely of fighter aircraft. From 1916, the opposing sides used mass formations of new types of fighter aircraft to establish air superiority and thus set the fundamentals of aerial combat, many of which remain in use to this day.
The most famous fighters of the period included the French SPADs and Nieuports, German Fokker Dr.I Dreidecker triplane and D.VII, and British Sopwith Camels and SE. 5s.
Interwar yearsBy the end of WWI, it was generally recognized that the airplane had evolved into a potent weapon. Between the two world wars, from 1918 to 1939, several regional conflicts broke out which highlighted the growing importance of the new machines.
The most important was the civil war in Spain, from 1936-1939, which marked the end of the biplane era and the dominance of the single seat, all -metal monoplane fighters with retractable landing gear – such as the Soviet Polikarpov I-16 and the German Messerschmitt Bf-109, which Adolph Hitler supplied to the fascist side.
One of that war’s top aces was Frank Glasgow Tinker, an American pilot flying in the Spanish government air force, who shot down at least 8, and possibly 19, fascist aircraft.
The lessons learned in the dogfighting in Spain were quickly implemented by many air forces, which quickly retired their obsolete biplanes in favor of more modern designs such as America’s Grumman F4F Wildcat and Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, Britain’s Supermarine Spitfire, and the Soviet MiG-3 – the first of a long line of MiG fighters.